Devil's Own: The Division of Fossil Primates

November 19, 2013

There’s an eerie elegance to the old bones of the Palaeopropithecus sloth lemur. Perhaps 8,000 years ago, the (then-living) lemur hung upside down in Madagascar. Nowadays, its skeleton rests like a hidden treasure at Duke’s Division of Fossil Primates on Broad Street, among more than 25,000 other fossils of the earliest primates and animals.

Elwyn Simons, the former director of the Primate Center (now the Lemur Center), started the collection by gathering fossils in Fayum in Egypt, essentially going every fall for nearly fifty years, says Gregg Gunnell, the division’s current director. Simons’ work broadened in the early 1980s to include the fossils of lemurs and their relatives in India and Madagascar. He also spent many years collecting fossils in Wyoming. Gunnell is continuing that work—adding other mammal groups and expanding field efforts into southeastern Asian countries.

In the now-extinct sloth lemur, Gunnell sees echoes of the predicament of today’s critically endangered lemurs. “They are fascinating, and to know they were here on Madagascar only a few hundred years ago makes me angry that we humans have wiped them out—they could have been saved, but weren’t.”