Palaeoprimatologist Elwyn Simons Has Died

Human Evolution

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 ScientistsSimons 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”

Fayum Depression

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

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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.

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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.

The Rise of the Terrible Beasts – Deinotheria

Continental Drift, Palaeoanthropology, Palaeozoology, Paleoanthropology, Volcanology, Zoology

Deinotherium. The Terrible Beast. A Proboscidean. The video below was one of my first introductions to the world of palaeoanthropology and 3D reconstructions of prehistoric life. It inspired me to learn more about the remote prehistory. This creature, a relative of the famed African Elephant, would have been between 4.5 to 5 metres in height at the shoulder, with a set of short downward-facing tusks and would have had a similar behavioural characteristics to modern day elephants. Nobody knows how long the trunk was, though the muscle attachments regions on the front of the skull can give some clues, its length remains conjectural. The set of downward-facing tusks have been the subject of much debate, ranging from sexual display to digging for roots and tubers to tree bark scraping. Again explanations vary. The Deinotheres has, thus far, been broken up into three species – D. giganteum, D. bozasi and D. indicum. The earliest examples of this group have been dated to about 23 million years ago (Early Miocene), while their extinction took place some time in the Middle Pleistocene, about 700,000 years ago. This was probably caused by the knock-on effects of climate change on the habitats in which they lived. The Deinotheres have a history that extends back into the Oligocene Epoch and this will be the subject of this discussion. As a side note, it is really sad that documentaries on human evolution and prehistoric beasts, do not explain the following. This is documentary material, in my opinion.

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Deinotherium: A Reconstruction of the “Terrible Beast”

As Gondwana began to rupture apart 184 million years ago in the Early Jurassic. Africa was the first isolated baby continent of Gonwana. It remained as such, quite literally up until about 25 million years ago, 159 million years of isolaton for evolution to work its magic on a limited diversity of placental mammals that called Africa, home. But given that elephant-like creatures existed in Late Oligocene (34 – 28 Million Year ago) Pakistan, land bridges must have developed between Africa and Arabia / Eurasia as the continent made the relentless push north. With such unimaginable tectonic forces at work, it is inevitable that volcanism increases in activity. The tectonic dynamics were such in eastern Africa million of years ago that a unique type of volcanic eruption occurred. Everybody is familiar with the power of water, in the form of slow development floods and the devastating flash-flood. Lava is equally capable of flooding the landscape, not as we all know it today, but on a scale that we cannot comprehend. Everybody is familiar with the Cretaceous – Paleogene Extinction Event, but few are aware of the most devastating mass extinction event in the prehistory of the planet – The Permian – Triassic Extinction Event. It was brought on by a truly massive flood basalt eruption. This is what quite literally created Siberia, that’s right Siberia. Today, 252 million years on, the remains of that basalt eruption covers an area of over 2 million sq km² and may, back then, have covered over 7 million sq km². Eleven flood basalt eruption events have taken place within the last 250 million years. The Eritrean Intertrappean Beds is a much smaller events and featured episodes of volcanic activity followed by laying down of fluvial sediment, hence the “Inter-Trappean”. These beds can be up to 100 metres in depth and cover many square kilometres. This intermittent event has been dated from 29 to 23.6 million years of age.

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Our Planet: The Oligocene Epoch (34 to 23 Million Year Ago)

Mendefera, is the town capital of the Debub Region of Eritrea and it sits atop the Eritrean Intertrappean Beds. It was at a number of outcrops of fluvial mudstones and siltstones that fossils of the early ancestors of Deinotherium were uncovered recently, called Prodeinotherium. Numerous other sites have revealed early Proboscideans such as Gomphotherium, which is likely to be the earliest representative of this intriguing family. During the Oligocene, Arabia and north-eastern Africa flirted with the Tethys Ocean promiscuously. So the sight you might have seen from the Eritean highlands, back then was swamp, river and lake populated landscapes, perfect for tropical wet forests, especially when the basaltic volcanism of the area was on hiatus. As Africa edged closer to Arabia and Eurasia, the lack of diverse fauna, may have allowed a large influx of Eurasian fauna to call Africa, home for the first time. There are an estimated six Trans-Tethyan Paleogene mammalian dispersals all of which were limited by the availability of land bridges. So large herbivores could not cross into or out of Africa without substantial land bridge crossing points. By the beginning of the Miocene, there was a massive faunal turnover in the form of African endemic species dying out and the movement of Eurasia fauna south into the continent. This dynamic change in faunal movements also included the northward movement of Prodeinotherium into Eurasia, evolving into the Deinotherium we all know and love.

Mendefera: Site of the ancestral Deinotherium Fossils
Mendefera: Site of the ancestral Deinotherium Fossils

Prehistoric beasts under attack