Drilling into research that rocks

Tafline Arbor digs into the body’s structure, literally, by combining paleontology and anatomy.

Tafline Arbor
At the Makapansgat Fossil Site in South Africa, above, Tafline Arbor uses tools and explosive caps to extract fossils from geological deposits. Anatomy is the “foundation of my research,” she says.

Not many people can claim a paleoanthropological site in South Africa as their second home, but for Tafline C. Arbor,Ph.D., it’s true. Arbor co-directed excavations of a nearly 3 million-year-old fossil site in South Africa for several field seasons and continues to analyze and interpret data she collected on the original fossils of our early human ancestors.

While paleontology and anatomy may seem like an odd combination to some, for Arbor they are a natural fit. “I need to have a solid understanding of the human body to understand fossils,” she says. “I need a good foundation in functional and comparative anatomy.”

Tafline Arbor
Insights in the body abound at the University of Witwatersrand Hominin Fossil Vault in Johannesburg.

Arbor teaches gross anatomy and forensic osteology courses and coordinates the reproductive health choices course at DMU. She is also continuing her human and non-human primate evolutionary research. She and Matt Tornow, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology at St. Cloud State University, are examining the extinction of North American primates by focusing on small mammal communities in Nebraska’s Oglala National Grassland during the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. That transition between epochs, roughly 35 million years ago, was the most dramatic period of climatic and biotic change since the demise of the dinosaurs.

“Everything I do in my research relates to morphology: how biomechanic strains and stresses impact bones, what neurovascular bundles are conveyed through particular foramina, and how muscles are oriented in relation to a joint,” Arbor says. “I love anatomy. It’s the foundation of my research.”

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