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Division of Fossil Primates

The Division of Fossil Primates (DFP) is a research collection used to understand our evolutionary journey as primates. Primates are the group of mammals that includes lemurs, monkeys, apes, and humans. For more than forty years, DFP scientists have conducted fieldwork around the world, targeting major branches in the primate family tree for deeper exploration. Our collection includes 55 million year-old, lemur-like primate fossils from Wyoming; 37 to 28 million year-old anthropoid fossils from Egypt; 19 to 7 million year-old ape fossils from Egypt and India; 13 million year-old New World monkeys from Colombia; and 10,000 to 500 year-old lemur fossils from Madagascar.

Because Duke paleontologists are also interested in role the ecosystem played in shaping our primate relatives, many of the 35,000+ specimens at the DFP also represent non-primate lineages, including bats, proboscideans (the relatives of elephants), crocodilians, birds, rodents, carnivorans, sharks, and anthracotheres.

In addition to its fossils and subfossils, the DFP is responsible for a collection of osteological specimens from the Duke Lemur Center. These specimens are from vouchered animals that died of natural causes at the DLC. This unique collection associates the detailed life-history of each animal housed at the DLC with skeletal specimens that can be used to understand how life-history factors affect hard-tissue development.

The DFP also maintains an extensive digital museum at MorphoSource, an online digital specimen repository initiated by Duke Evolutionary Anthropology professor Doug Boyer, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and hosted by Duke Libraries. Researchers and the general public are welcome to explore our MorphoSource collections and to request downloads of DFP specimen scan data.

GENERAL INFORMATION

Why are there fossils at the Duke Lemur Center?

Primates are a specialized group of animals that share many features including relatively large brains, grasping hands, and complex social lives. Here at the DLC we have two large populations of primates: the lemurs that live at the Lemur Center full time, and the humans who study and protect the lemurs. But how are these primates related to each other? What does everything we are learning about lemur diets, diseases, physiology, and social behavior tell us about being a primate or being a human?

In order to explore the biological connections between lemurs and humans, we need to turn to the fossil record to help us understand the evolutionary journey of our primate relatives. Duke researchers and their national and international collaborators target branches along the primate family tree, going out into the field to find evidence of fossil primates and the ancient ecosystems they called home.

How to find us

The Division of Fossil Primates is off-campus, both for the Duke Lemur Center and Duke University. Our current address is:

1013 Broad Street
Durham, NC 27705

We are located just north of Duke's East Campus, directly across the street from the Willow Oak Veterinary Hospital. If you are visiting us with a car, pull into the driveway on the north side of the building and park in the small lot behind the DFP. Parking does not require a parking pass. If the lot is full, there is plenty of street parking on Broad Street. Just ring the doorbell by our front door or knock on our side door.

How to visit us

The Division of Fossil Primates is open from 9:00 a.m. 'til 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Please contact the Curator and the Staff Specialist (see DFP STAFF section below) to arrange a visit, especially if you are a school group, Duke student club, class, or department. These fossils are your history.

We are in the process of organizing more formal visiting hours and tours. Contact the Curator for more information, or check back here as our plans develop.

Volunteer

The DFP has an active volunteer program. Please visit the DLC's volunteer homepage and scroll down to the Division of Fossil Primates section to find out about opportunities to help us conserve and research the fossil collection.

Donate + Wishlist

Donations play a huge part in the curation and preservation of our fossil specimens and in field expeditions of our Department. If you wish to make a donation, please click the button above or feel free to contact our office directly. We would love to hear from you!

The Division of Fossil Primates also maintains a wishlist of items that can be purchased directly via the Duke Lemur Center’s amazon.com wishlist. (Look for items designated for fossil or DFP use.) Select and item from the wishlist, and your gift will be sent directly to the DFP! Be sure to include your name and email address in the notes field so we can send a thank-you.

A special thanks to the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, Trish Kohler, and Ben Freed for their generous support.

Fossil Fridays

Fossil Friday blog posts highlight fossils and subfossils within the DFP's collection. Visit the Fossil Fridays archive HERE.

INFORMATION FOR RESEARCHERS

Overview

We encourage researchers to help us make the DFP an active collection where innovative research is taking place. We are open to Duke researchers and to non-Duke researchers. We especially encourage undergraduate and graduate students to utilize our fossils and osteological specimens as part of their research projects.

Researchers interested in visiting the DFP and examining the collections should contact Catherine Riddle (Staff Specialist, criddle@duke.edu) or Matt Borths (Curator, matthew.borths@duke.edu). Please submit a Research Proposal Form at least two weeks prior to your intended visit.

The DFP is in the process of developing an online catalogue of our fossil databases. Researchers should contact the Curator directly for more extensive specimen lists until the catalogue is available online.

General inquiries and requests can also be sent to duke_fossil_lab@duke.edu. Research visits to the vertebrate paleontology lab at the Division of Fossil Primates should be conducted during regular business hours (Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.).

In an effort to make our collections available to researchers who cannot travel to Durham, we have an extensive digital museum through MorphoSource. If you are interested in downloading scans or models of fossils, simply request a download through MorphoSource. You will then be asked to complete a Download Request Form so we can track how our digital collection is used.

Image above © Duke Photography.

Collections Use Policies

In an effort to assist in the digitization of the DFP collection, researchers will be asked to share digital images and scans of DFP fossils generated during a research visit. Any DFP fossil scans or 3D surface models will be added to the DFP MorphoSource page. These models can be made public when the fossils are published.

After a manuscript is accepted for publication, researchers should contact the DFP for an internal publication number that should be added to the acknowledgment section (for example, “This is Duke Lemur Center publication #1332”). This helps us track studies that use DFP specimens and it helps us secure funding to conserve the specimens.

DFP material on loan should not be transferred to others or molded/cast without prior discussion and permission. A copy of any casts made should be returned to the Division.

In order to avoid conflicts of research interest, research proposals will be reviewed and, where appropriate, approved by the DFP research committee.

Why our specimens have the institutional abbreviation “DPC”

We are currently the Division of Fossil Primates (DFP), but our accession prefix is DPC, an abbreviation of “Duke Primate Center,” the former name of the Duke Lemur Center (DLC). Despite the change in name and slight change in mission, we continue to use DPC for all specimens curated by the Division.

Specimen numbers should be rendered as “DPC_####”; that is, DPC(space)specimen number.

Osteological specimens at the DPC are given the specimen prefix “OST.” Those specimens should be recorded as “DPC_OST_###”

We also integrated Miocene fossils from Colombia into the DFP collection. These specimens were collected under research permits issued to Dr. Rich Kay and rehoused at the DFP with an NSF grant (NSF DBI 1458192). The original institutional abbreviation for the La Venta material was expressed as “IGN_####.” Now that the material is part of the DFP, the specimen numbers should be rendered as “DPC_IGN_####

The DFP maintains an extensive cast collection for comparative research and instruction. These casts (abbreviated C) are rendered as “DPC_C_Original_Specimen_prefix_and_number” in our catalogue to make it clear where the original specimen is housed.

DFP STAFF

Matt Borths, Ph.D.

Dr. Borths is Curator of the Division of Fossil Primates. He earned his bachelor's degrees from The Ohio State University (Geological Sciences and Anthropology) and his Ph.D. from Stony Brook University (Anatomical Sciences).

Matt is a paleontologist who studies the evolution of animals in Africa, particularly the evolution of carnivorous mammals -- including some of the oldest meat-eaters to chase down our primate ancestors. He has been part of field projects in Egypt, Madagascar, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Matt is the co-creator of Past Time, a project that uses a podcast, blog, social media, and virtual classroom visits to teach non-specialists about the paleontology and the scientific process.

Matt's CV can be viewed HERE.

Email: matthew.borths@duke.edu

Steven Heritage

Steven Heritage is the DFP's Tomography Specialist and Digital Preparator. He works to digitize the fossil and osteology collections with microCT scanning and to make these data available to researchers over the web via the DFP's MorphoSource project.

Steven's enthusiasm for mammal evolution – particularly the comparative anatomy and phylogenetic biology of mammals from the Paleogene (66-23 Ma) of Africa – is befitting given the DFP's extensive fossil and subfossil collections from the Fayum and Madagascar. He joined the DFP staff in 2017 and moved to Durham from Brooklyn, NY. Visit Steven’s research website HERE.

Email: steven.heritage@duke.edu.

Catherine Riddle

Catherine is the Staff Specialist at the DFP, which means she wears a lot of hats! She is the assistant to the curator and is the DFP collections manager. Catherine is also in charge of keeping the DFP on track financially as well as helping with grants. If you’re visiting the collection, Catherine will help coordinate your visit, and if you need a loan from the museum she will help get the specimens to and from your lab. She also helps schedule work-study students and volunteers.

Catherine is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), where she coordinates with other collections managers to ensure the longevity of the DFP. Her favorite part of working at the DFP is seeing people, especially kids, get excited about fossils.

Email: criddle@duke.edu

Vicki Yarborough

Originally from North Texas, Vicki is now the Fossil Preparator at the DFP. A fossil preparator is a type of paleontologist who works on the conservation of fossil specimens. Many fossils need preparation to remove rock surrounding the bones before they can be studied. Most fossils are delicate and require archival housing so they are protected during storage and study. Vicki makes molds and casts of specimens so researchers can have an exact copy for research and teaching. Bones are affected by their environment especially inside a building, so constant monitoring is needed to adjust their housing or repair damage that occurs. Vicki is thrilled to work at the DFP. Each fossil is a puzzle to solve so it is available for years to come.

Email: vicki.yarborough@duke.edu

Jackson

Jackson, a neogene carnivoran, joined the DFP lab in 2017. His duties include monitoring staff meals, doorbell enhancement, and engaging in daily torpor.

DFP Research Affiliates + Collaborators

Kathleen Muldoon, Ph.D.
Doug Boyer, Ph.D.
Erik Seiffert, Ph.D.
Hesham Sallam, Ph.D.
Richard Kay, Ph.D.

DETAILS OF THE COLLECTIONS

Fayum Depression, Egypt (late Eocene to early Oligocene)

DFP fieldwork has taken place in Egypt for over 30 years, and we hope to continue this work by collaborating with Egyptian paleontologists and geologists. The near-shore marine and continental sediments in the Fayum area span the middle Eocene through early Oligocene. At the time the fossils were deposited, Afro-Arabia was tectonically isolated from Eurasia. The Fayum contains a large diversity of primates, including over 20 species of early anthropoids as well as some of the earliest records of strepsirhines (living lemurs and lorises) in Africa.

Besides primates, the Fayum mammal collections at DFP include marsupials, bats (at least 11 species), hyaenodonts (20+ species), hyraxes (20+ species), elephant shrews, rodents (10+ species), proboscideans, sirenians and whales, and a number of enigmatic groups found nowhere else in the world. Including non-mammalian species, the DFP Fayum collection consists of nearly 20,000 specimens.

Wadi Moghra, Egypt (early Miocene)

Wadi Moghra is an important 19 million year old locality near El Alamein in northern Egypt. The DFP Wadi Moghra collections are the only sample of this fauna outside of Cairo. When the Wadi Moghra fossils were deposited, Eurasia and Africa tectonically contacted each other. The vertebrates from Wadi Moghra are among the first records for a new wave of immigrants from Eurasia (perissodactyls, artiodactyls, carnivorans) that entered Africa at the beginning of the Miocene. This is also the interval when Old World monkeys (i.e. baboons, colobus monkeys) and apes split from each other. Systematic, functional, biostratigraphic, paleoclimatic and biogeographic studies of these large collections are on-going.

Madagascar

During the early Cenozoic, the ancient ancestor of lemurs dispersed from mainland Africa across the Mozambique Strait to Madagascar. Once in Madagascar, lemurs diversified into dozens of species. Today, lemurs are among the most endangered mammals in the world as human population growth and agriculture push the primates into smaller habitats on the island.

The fossil record of Madagascar reveals that until relatively recently, lemurs were even more diverse than they are today. The DFP subfossil lemur collection is one window into the ancient diversity of lemurs that included the gorilla-sized giant lemur Megaladapis, the sloth-like lemur Paleopropithecus, and the terrestrial, monkey-like lemur Archaeolemur.

The DFP Madagascar project has been ongoing since the late 1980s. Subfossil (500 to 10,000 year-old) specimens of primates and other vertebrates are collected from caves in limestone karst regions and from swamp deposits at a variety of sites across the island. Work carried out so far has led to recovery of some of the most complete skeletons known for many of the giant extinct lemurs. More than 2,000 specimens from Madagascar are housed at the DFP.

Research is focused on the extinction of subfossil mega- and micro-fauna, documentation of evolving habitats across space and time, functional studies of extinct giant lemurs, and ancient DNA and isotopic analyses of extinct as well as subfossil representative of extant species. With this information, DFP researchers and collaborators hope to understand the dynamic changes that have occurred across Madagascar since the arrival of humans. With this information we work with community conservation researchers through the DLC-SAVA Conservation project and other organizations to use past extinctions to understand the current biodiversity crisis in Madagascar.

Wyoming, USA (late Paleocene and early Eocene)

The geologically oldest collection at the DFP from the latest Paleocene and earliest Eocene of North America (~55 through 48 million years ago). During this interval, average global temperatures were very high, creating tropical ecosystems at high latitudes. Fossils collected from sediments in Wyoming reveal the lineage that includes lemurs (strepsirrhines) and the lineage that includes humans (haplorhines) had split and were diversifying as primates assumed the ecological roles they continue to occupy today.

The early Cenozoic collections at the DFP are used by researchers to probe the early anatomical adaptations that allowed primates to become such a widespread lineage. Wyoming specimens also help to document the arrival of other groups of mammals (perissodactyls, artiodactyls, rodents, carnivores) in North America. The collection is used to document how different animal lineages changed through the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), an interval of rapid climate change that serves as a model for interpreting how modern ecosystems respond to changing global climates.

DFP fieldwork in Wyoming has been ongoing since the 1980s and continues to be carried out each summer in conjunction with the Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology Departments at Duke.

La Venta, Colombia (Miocene)

During the Oligocene, one lineage of anthropoids dispersed from Africa to South America where they diversified into the platyrrhines (New World monkeys). Then, South America was an island continent and it was populated by unique mammal lineages like notoungulates and American metatherians. The record of this faunal diversification is preserved in the La Venta collection from the Miocene of Colombia. Through years of fieldwork, Dr. Richard Kay, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, discovered and studied the fossils that were recently accessioned in the DFP collections.

Modern Osteology Collection + Cast Collection

The DFP maintains an extensive collection of osteological specimens and a large cast collection that documents the morphological and taxonomic diversity of primates through the Cenozoic and into modern landscapes. One of the most remarkable aspects of the osteological collection is that many of the specimens were once part of the living collection at the DLC. Detailed records of the life history of each animal are maintained by the DLC including the animal’s weight, diet, and social status. Further, many of these animals were part of non-invasive locomotion and cognitive studies at the DLC. This collection directly connects each of these biological variables to the bones of individuals. Scans and measurements from these specimens can be utilized by researchers to interpret the behavior and ecology of extinct primates.

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