Vertebrate Morphology

Sharon Emerson, Department of Biology
University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

What themes unify vertebrate morphology?

Biologists in vertebrate morphology focus on the biology of form and structure; their perspectives include evolutionary, functional and developmental aspects. Put another way, there is a theme of understanding the biodiversity of form from various points of view.

How diverse is the field of vertebrate morphology?

Topics range from experimental or developmental biology to the evolution of animal diversity. Studies in vertebrate morphology also span from molecular to community levels of organization. They include biomechanics, the application of mechanical principles to the structure of organization.

How did you and other colleagues become
interested in vertebrate morphology?

Most people start with an interest in animals and animal watching as kids. Later, many become interested in comparative anatomy in college.

Why is your field exciting?

It provides the potential to understand mechanisms that are responsible for much of vertebrate diversity.

How does vertebrate morphology help society? Why should the public care?

Only by understanding these mechanisms can we understand such things as diverse as human disease and the physiological consequences of pollution and environmental change. Also work in biomechanics is valuable for disciplines such as robotics and prosthetics.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day includes observing and working with animals in the lab; setting up experiments; carrying out experimental procedures; writing grant proposals; writing papers and talking to students. Regardless of whether an academic biologist does primarily teaching or research, Ph.D. level positions are very demanding with long hours - well beyond the standard 40-hour work week.

What other jobs are there in vertebrate morphology besides those in academia or research labs?

Vertebrate morphologists sometimes act as consultants for the entertainment industry, especially animators that need to know how animals really move. Some work in zoos; others do conservation work. A few vertebrate morphologists combine their training with engineering to work in industries that range from movie-making to the design and production of prosthetic devices.