The more things change, the more they stay the same

by Dr. Gregg Gunnell, Director of the Division of Fossil Primates at the Duke Lemur Center

November 28, 2012 — The Division of Fossil Primates (DFP) at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) is changing but you might not notice it because we are also staying the same. Our major focus remains on the fossil record of primates and what that record can tell us about how we humans and our closest relatives (other primates) came to be the way we are today. That commitment to specimen based research will be a constant in our program but the players will change as we shift from a singular focus on anthropoids (humans, apes, monkeys) to a broader approach that will begin examining the fossil history of lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers in more detail.

There are many reasons for the shift in strategy, some of it economic, some of it political, some of it pragmatic, and some of it because of the research interests of the people who set the agenda for the DFP. In the past the DFP has been deeply involved in fieldwork in Egypt and Madagascar – while we will continue some of these efforts, we will shift our main fieldwork from Africa to North America. Many of you may not know this, but between 65 and 45 million years ago, North America was the epicenter of the primate world. During the early and middle Eocene (55 to 45 million years ago) the American West was home to one of the largest and most diverse assemblage of primates known anywhere on the planet. Most of these primates would probably look familiar to you if you were to see them walking around today – in fact a large number of them would look very much like the lemurs you see when you visit the DLC. One of the questions we are very interested in answering is whether or not these North American primates from 55 million years ago actually are ancestors of today’s lemurs or whether they simply look like living species but are much more distantly related.

The DFP will always be at the forefront of primate research thanks to the many faculty, staff and students that actively visit, use and help to grow our collections – while our main focus is changing to North America, we will not forget our roots in the rest of the world as Madagascar, Egypt and SE Asia will continue to play important roles in our overall research plan. We are excited about the future direction of research here at the DFP – wherever it ultimately goes it will be worth the ride!