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Dr Kris (Fire) Kovarovic

Associate Professor

BA, MSc, PhD


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Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology  

Biography

My academic background is primarily in anthropology and archaeology. I obtained an honours BA in Anthropology (1997) from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, where I studied both archaeology and social anthropology and completed a minor program in Religious Studies. I subsequently moved to the UK to pursue an MSc in Archaeology at University College London (1998) and returned there for my PhD in Biological Anthropology (2004). After two years of lecturing at UCL in the Department of Anthropology I spent nine months at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, in the Human Origins Program. Prior to moving to Durham I was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, again at UCL.

Broadly speaking my research interest is in the environmental context of the evolution, behaviour and ecology of hominin species throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene. I am specifically engaged in building up a more refined picture of environmental change leading up to the moment when, approximately 2.5 million years ago, the robust australopithecines and members of our own genus, Homo, appeared. I approach this through the analysis of fossil mammals found at sites in East Africa, including Laetoli, Hadar and the Turkana Basin. The nature of the entire mammalian community and the specific skeletal morphologies of particular mammal groups can tell us a great deal about how the animals related to each other and their environment. Investigating bovid ecomorphologies - habitat-specific morphologies - has formed a large part of my research repertoire to date.

My work is multidisciplinary and comparative, necessitating studies in modern African environments where mammal community dynamics and ecological preferences can be observed and subsequently serve as analogs for our interpretation of the past. I continue to conduct fieldwork in both modern environments and at fossil sites and have had the privilege of collecting data on bovids in most major European and American natural history museums, as well as the national museums of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, where fossil material is held. As long as the word is prefixed by “palaeo”, I can be described as an -anthropologist, -ecologist, -biologist, -zoologist or, simply, palaeontologist.

I am deeply committed to university education and to fostering an environment where students and staff work collaboratively, engage in open dialogue and embrace their community. I believe that there is unrealised potential for the university to act as a focal point for social change on the local, regional and even global scale, and that we have a responsibility to realise our roles as agents of this change by challenging old ideas and the collectively creating new ones.

Community Engagement

University Governance

I currently co-chair the Academic Electoral Assembly, a body of over 2500 academic and academic-related staff members (including technicians, departmental managers, and education outreach staff) employed at Grade 7 and above. I am one of 19 elected members of Senate who join ex-officio members in the development and discussion of academic policies and practices that impact on our working lives. As part of my role on Senate I was an original member of the Respect Commission and I continue to serve on various committees including the recent working group for the hiring of the new Vice-Chancellor. 

Please get in touch if you are interested in running for election or if you simply want to know more about university governance and how you can participate. Your voice deserves to be - and can be - heard!

Mothers and Mothers-to-be Support Network (MAMS)

Are you a mother or mother-to-be working in any area of the university, in any role? Are you concerned about work-life balance as a carer in Higher Education? Are you in need of support or willing to give support to a fellow mum at Durham? There is a staff network just for you!

MAMS began in 2014 as a grassroots initiative intended to provide support and advocacy for mothers at Durham. We host lunchtime meet-ups, themed discussions, external guest speakers and formal events for our growing community. We also consult with and for the membership on policy developments and reviews and other university activities which impact on the working lives and wellbeing of parents.

Currently co-chaired by myself, Michelle Dixon, and Sarah Woodroffe, we are also part of a UK-wide network of parents and carers staff networks in Higher Education where we are able to share best practice and advocate for working parents in our sector. 

In 2019 we received UKRI funding to undertake a UK-wide study The impact of Covid-19 on mothers working in UK Higher Education Institutions. I led this study with MAMS members Nicole Westmarland, Kirsten Hall, and Michelle Dixon and we continue our research exploring the intersection of gender and parenting responsibilities in light of the pandemic. I have also recently joined the project group for the Leverhulme funded project How can parents and carers organise in the workplace? A critical community engaged scholarship investigation led by Ana Lopes (Newcastle) and Mark Gatto (Northumbria).

Get in touch if you'd like to join MAMS of if you want to know more about our activities and research. I'm the mum of two rambunctious little redheads and I'd love to hear about your parenting experiences, too!

Postgraduate Supervision

I welcome students who are interested in pursuing postgraduate studies to email me with initial ideas for projects, and I can put you in touch with previous students to get an idea of what it is like to work with me and what it is like to live and study in Durham.

There is scope to develop PhD and Masters by Research projects connected to my fieldwork-based research in eastern Africa, as well as topics related to hominin and non-hominin mammal morphology, palaeoecology, and mammal community analysis. I am happy to co-supervise projects in other departments such as Biosciences or Archaeology, or to join supervision committees at other institutions.

Durham offers a limited number of highly competitive PhD studentships each year (see here) and I am also happy to explore applications for these. Get in touch as soon as possible to discuss this, as the deadlines for September entry are usually in January of the same year and it can take a few months to develop a competitive application.

Field Project: Bones of Ol Pejeta: Neotaphonomic and Ecological Survey (BONES)

Co-directors: Dr. Fire Kovarovic (Durham University) and Dr. Briana Pobiner (Smithsonian Institution)

In association with Ol Pejeta Conservancy (OPC), Kenya, this project constitutes a longitudinal study of the taphonomic and ecomorphic characterizations of bone communities in the conservancy's mosaic of several well-defined habitat types. We are tracing changes in mammal habitat affiliations and predator-prey pressure across time and space - information that will be used to interpret past ecologies and mammal community dynamics in the Plio-Pleistocene fossil record. The project began in 2007, building on pilot study data collected in 2003 and 2005, and continues today.

Collaborators include Dr. Ogeto Mwembi (National Museums of Kenya, Zoology Department, Head of Osteology) and Dr. Kari Lintulaakso (Finnish Museum of Natural History LOUMUS, University of Helsinki). We are assisted in the field by Ol Pejeta staff Benard Gituku (Ecological Monitoring Unit) and Samuel Mutisya (Head of Conservation). We are ever grateful for the guidance of OPC's armed guards, particularly Issack Kipkoech. 

This project has received grant support from the Smithsonian Endowment Fund and the Wenner Gren Association for Anthropological Research. 

To find out more, see here.

Research Collaborations

In addition to onging field research, Dr. Kari Lintulaakso and I have studied patterns of niche exploitation in tropical mammal communities across and between continents for many years and we are currently involved in a study mapping these patterns to climate factors. A recently concluded ecomorphological analysis of the Pleistocene alcelaphine bovid, Rusingoryx atopocranion, conducted with Dr. Tyler Faith (University of Utah, USA) and colleagues has also led to a more in-depth geometric morphometric analysis of the ecomorphology of bovid humeri. This has been undertaken by Sophia Anderson (Masters by Research 2022) under my supervision and in collaboration with Dr. W. Andrew Barr (The George Washington University, USA). I continue to work with past PhD student Dr. Ben Gruwier (PhD 2020) on cervid ecomorphology and ecology, and I look forward to welcoming my new postgraduates as research partners in the year to come.

Research interests

  • Faunal community ecology
  • Parenting, gender and workplace culture in Higher Education
  • Hominin environments
  • Methods of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
  • Ecomorphology and functional morphology (mammals)
  • African Plio-Pleistocene palaeoecology

Research groups

Research Projects

  • Bones of Ol Pejeta: Neotaphonomic and Ecological Survey (BONES)
  • Hominin Palaeoecology: Comparing Fossil Evidence

Esteem Indicators

  • 2018: Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy:
  • 2012: Durham University Excellence in Learning and Teaching Award:

Media Contacts

Available for media contact about:

  • Evolution: Teaching evolution
  • Evolution: Human evolution
  • The Earth: Animals: Mammal adaptations and environment
  • Employee relations/Unions: Staff networks
  • Science: Education, industry & the community: Women in science (palaeosciences and fieldwork)

Publications

Book review

  • Kovarovic, K. (2007). Book Review: Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction. Journal of Human Evolution 52: 467.
  • Kovarovic, K. (2009). Book Review: Mammalian Evolutionary Morphology: A Tribute to Frederick S. Szalay. PaleoAnthropology 2009: 166-168.
  • Kovarovic, K. & De Groote, I. (2009). Book Review: Acts of the XIVth UISPP Congress, University of Liège, Belgium, 2-8 September 2001. Section 3: Paleoecology. General Sessions and Posters. PaleoAnthropology 2009: 44-45.

Chapter in book

Journal Article

Newspaper/Magazine Article

  • Pobiner, B. & Kovarovic, K. (2011). The Bones of Ol Pejeta: Clues to the past. Popular Archaeology 4.