On the 6th of March 2016, the accomplished palaeoprimatologist Elwyn Simons passed away in his sleep at the age of 85. It is difficult to overstate this man’s contribution to our understanding of the evolution of Primates. He directed over 90 palaeontological expeditions between 1961 and 2012 which produced over 300 books and peer-reviewed journal articles. As Gregg Gunnell of the Duke Lemur Center noted “I don’t know of anyone in the last half century who has influenced the field as much as he has”.
Elwyn LaVerne Simons was born on the 14th of July 1930 in Lawrence City, Kansas. From William Marsh Rice University, Houstan, Texas, he earned his bachelors degree before moving onto Princeton and Oxford for his doctoral degrees. Prior to joining Duke University in North Carolina, he spent 17 years at Yale University as a professor.
You cannot talk about Elwyn Simons and not mention his work in Egypt. For more than 40 years, Simons and co-director Prithijit Charath organised expeditions to a low basin of desert, south west of Cairo – The Fayum Depression. In Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists, Simons had this to say:
“It’s fun to find fossils because you never know what your’re going to find and there’s always a chance that you’ll find something quite unusual, and that kind of excitement makes it sort of like a treasure hunt”
Friderun Ankel-Simons of the Duke Primate Center, recalled the many years of working with her husband. The expeditions were very challenging with all obstacles put in their way from vehicles getting stuck in the sand or mud and running out of diesel on many different occassions. These were sharply contrasted with the good times out in the field, camping beneath the stars in the desert, hearing the desert fox calling or arguing lemurs nearby. He was a very active man, depriving himself of sleep countless times. Daniel Gebo of the Northern Illinois University remembers one time he was conversing with Elywn and out of the blue he said “I have to take a nap NOW” and would simply fall asleep, leaving Daniel wondering what to do about what they were talking about.
Elwyn had the power to captivate an audience, recalled John Fleagle of Stony Brook University. He was an expert storyteller, a model for people who specialise in scientific communication.
Famously, Simons discovered the fossilised remains of an ancient genus of primate – Aegyptopithecus – this primate lived in Egypt between 35 to 33 million years ago. It was probably about the same size as South America’s Howler Monkey and remains one of the best known extinct primates from that time. One afternoon, while at an anthropology conference, Simons asked if he could use an empty chair beside a group of anthropologists. “Actually, a friend of ours is just getting a drink”, responded one member of the group. Simons proceed to lift up the chair and say “Yes? Well I discovered Aegyptopithecus“
After joining Duke University in 1977, Simons first task was to take an ailing Primate Center and make it an essential breeding programme for wild Lemurs. With populations dwindling on Madagascar, the Malagasy government permitted Simons to capture wild lemurs, relocating them to North Carolina, where he could diversify the gene pool of species. This in his own word created “a second line of defense against extinction”. His passion for the work he was doing, was plain to see in the cradling and hand-feeding of premature newborn lemurs. Thanks to Simons, Duke Primate Center now has the most diverse collection of captive lemurs ouside of Madagascar with hundred of individuals representing over 20 species. The breeding programme allowed Simons to reintroduce lemurs to the wild.
Elywn Simons will forever be remembered for shedding light on primate evolution in the Oligocene of Egypt and helping prevent the extinction of Madagascar’s Lemurs. Simons is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Friderun Ankel-Simons; a brother, Herbert Simons; three children, D. Brenton Simons, Cornelia Seiffert and Verne Simons; and two grandchildren, Eleanor and William Simons.
Right: Elwyn Simons cares for an Aye-Aye. Left: An Aye-Aye scoping out its next meal.
Do check out the “Adopt A Lemur” Project, which helps support the great work done at the Duke Primate Center.