Kathleen Kovalevski Smith

Professor Emerita of Biology

130 Science Drive, Room 122 Duke Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708
Campus Box: 
Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708-0338
(919) 684-3402
My current work is a focus on the relation between evolution and development in the mammalian skull. My model system involves comparisons of development in placental and marsupial mammals. These mammals are characterized by different developmental trajectories, extending back to some of the earliest events of differentiation, largely as a result of their different life history adaptations. My work focuses on a number of different questions. First, what are the differences in the development of the craniofacial region in marsupial and placental mammals? The head is particularly important in the comparison between marupials and placentals, as many cranial systems must be functional at birth in marsupials, despite the fact that morphogenesis has just started. Second, how do the differences in the developmental pattern reflect the necessities of the marsupial reproductive strategy? What is the adaptive significance of the developmental differences and what constraints might be operating? Here I am looking at development not as merely a means to produce an adult, but as a feature that has an evolutionary significance of its own. Third, what can this comparative approach tell us about mammalian head development in general? There are many differences in the way the head develops in marsupials and placentals. It is reasonable to assume that those elements that develop independently (e.g., appear in different temporal or spatial sequences in the two taxa) are elements that are not mechanistically linked or integrated, whereas those that are consistently associated in the two taxa, despite changes in other structures, may be linked by developmental mechanisms. I am using this comparative approach to examine developmental integration and plasticity. Fourth, what are the developmental mechanisms underlying these evolutionary changes? The most significant differences in development in the two taxa reflect differences in the relative timing of the development of the central nervous system and somatic structures. Hypotheses on many levels have been proposed on the possible mechanistic relations between the development of the CNS and the cranial skeleton. To what extent can these hypotheses on mechanistic relation be tested by comparing events in organisms in which the elements are shifted dramatically in time or space? The comparison is, in essence, a natural experiment. Finally, have the specific developmental patterns of marsupial and placental mammals had an impact on the evolutionary diversity and success of these organisms?

My current project focuses on the earliest patterning events. These projects include a study of heterochronies in the earliest morphological and genetic events in the head of marsupial and placental mammals, a study of neural crest in marupial mammals, and a study of patterns of Hox gene expression along the developing body axis, relations between the brain and cranial skeleton.


  • Ph.D., Harvard University 1980

  • B.A., University of California - Santa Cruz 1973

Smith, K. K. “Placental Evolution in Therian Mammals.” In Great Transformations in Vertebrate Evolution, edited by K. P. Dial, N. Shubin, and E. L. Brainerd, 205–25. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Smith, Kathleen K. “J. P. Hill and Katherine Watson's studies of the neural crest in marsupials.Journal of Morphology 281, no. 12 (December 2020): 1567–87. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmor.21270. Full Text

Li, Peishu, and Kathleen K. Smith. “Comparative skeletal anatomy of neonatal ursids and the extreme altriciality of the giant panda.Journal of Anatomy 236, no. 4 (April 2020): 724–36. https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13127. Full Text

Smith, Kathleen K., and Anna L. Keyte. “Adaptations of the Marsupial Newborn: Birth as an Extreme Environment.Anatomical Record (Hoboken, N.J. : 2007) 303, no. 2 (February 2020): 235–49. https://doi.org/10.1002/ar.24049. Full Text

Adamski, Kelly Nicole, Andre Matthew Loyd, Albert Samost, Barry Myers, Roger Nightingale, Kathleen Smith, and Cameron R. “Dale” Bass. “Pediatric Coronal Suture Fiber Alignment and the Effect of Interdigitation on Coronal Suture Mechanical Properties.Annals of Biomedical Engineering 43, no. 9 (September 2015): 2101–11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10439-015-1275-x. Full Text

Keyte, Anna L., and Kathleen K. Smith. “Heterochrony and developmental timing mechanisms: changing ontogenies in evolution.Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology 34 (October 2014): 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semcdb.2014.06.015. Full Text

Price, Samantha A., Samantha S. B. Hopkins, Kathleen K. Smith, and V Louise Roth. “Tempo of trophic evolution and its impact on mammalian diversification.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 18 (May 2012): 7008–12. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1117133109. Full Text

Keyte, Anna, and Kathleen K. Smith. “Heterochrony in somitogenesis rate in a model marsupial, Monodelphis domestica.Evolution & Development 14, no. 1 (January 2012): 93–103. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1525-142x.2011.00524.x. Full Text

Alonzo, M., K. K. Smith, and M. L. Kirby. “Epigenetic interactions of the cardiac neural crest,” April 11, 2011, 181–94.

Moustakas, Jacqueline E., Kathleen K. Smith, and Leslea J. Hlusko. “Evolution and development of the mammalian dentition: insights from the marsupial Monodelphis domestica.Developmental Dynamics : An Official Publication of the American Association of Anatomists 240, no. 1 (January 2011): 232–39. https://doi.org/10.1002/dvdy.22502. Full Text

Keyte, Anna L., and Kathleen K. Smith. “Developmental origins of precocial forelimbs in marsupial neonates.Development (Cambridge, England) 137, no. 24 (December 2010): 4283–94. https://doi.org/10.1242/dev.049445. Full Text Open Access Copy


Li, P., and K. K. Smith. “Comparative Skeletal Anatomy of Neonatal Ursids and the Altricial-Precocial Spectrum of Therian Mammals.” In Journal of Morphology, 280:S165–S165. WILEY, 2019.

Keyte, Anna L., Tanbeena Imam, Martha Alonzo, Taylor Halbert, and Kathleen K. Smith. “Building a marsupial neonate: Evolution of the limb development program in opossum.” In Developmental Biology, 319:498–498. Elsevier BV, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ydbio.2008.05.112. Full Text

Keyte, Anna L., Tanbeena Imam, and Kathleen K. Smith. “Limb heterochrony in a marsupial, M. domestica.” In Developmental Biology, 295:415–415. Elsevier BV, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ydbio.2006.04.275. Full Text

Smith, K. K. “Craniofacial patterning and the evolution of mammals.” In Faseb Journal, 19:A1335–A1335. FEDERATION AMER SOC EXP BIOL, 2005.

Selected Grants

A Digital Repository for Preservation and Sharing of Data Underlying Published Works in Evolutionary Biology awarded by National Science Foundation (Co-Principal Investigator). 2008 to 2013

The Evolution of Cranial Neural Crest in Mammals awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2003 to 2007

The evolution of cranial neural crest in mammals: The genetic origins of heterochronic change awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2003 to 2006

An environmental scanning electron microscope for DU awarded by National Science Foundation (Co-Principal Investigator). 2001 to 2003

Cranial Development in Mammals: The Origins of Heterochrony awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1999 to 2003

Dissertation Research: Evolution and Functional Morphology in Incisors in Wood-Cutting Castorids awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2000 to 2001

Dissertation Research: Developmental Maintenance Of ... awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1997 to 1998

Craniofacial Development In Eutherian And Metathenan Mamma awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1994 to 1997

Role Of Extracellular Matrix Proteins In Craniofacial Deve awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1993 to 1994

Reu Supplement - Role Of Extracellular Matrix Proteins In awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 1994