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New research article highlights importance of primary sources

Science teaches people that you should look at everything with some skepticism. 

When Greg Gunnell found that a fossil had been misidentified, the discoveries he and his team made changed natural history. Scientists concluded that fossil was a bat from 50 years before the late paleontologist and Duke University professor realized it was actually a primate. That led to a recently published research article titled “Fossil lemurs from Egypt and Kenya suggest an African origin for Madagascar’s aye-aye.” 

The fossil, Propotto leakeyi, was originally described by George Gaylord Simpson in 1967.

“I first became interested in Propotto several years ago as I was studying small mammals in the collections at the National Museums of Kenya. I sent photographs of the taxon to Gregg Gunnell, a mentor of mine who was a world authority on fossil bats, and we discussed the enigmatic morphology of Propotto,” Nancy Stevens, an Ohio University functional morphology and vertebrate paleontology professor, and one of the paper’s co-authors, said. 

Gunnell, who passed away last year, gathered a group to work on the research. The article is now published in the online journal Nature Communications. 

“Greg was the absolute dearest colleague on the planet,” Ellen Miller, a professor of physical anthropology at Wake Forest College, said. “The world of paleontology would literally be smaller had it not been for Greg Gunnell.”

Because the project stalled when Gunnell passed, the paper was completed in about two years. It suggests that Africa had a key role in habituating mammals during a time of ecological restructuring.

“That we’ve found these fossil aye-ayes on Africa, it presents an intriguing alternative scenario that not only did they originate on Africa and evolve on Africa for a long time, but that they didn’t make it to Madagascar until about 20 million years ago,” Miller said. 

The fossils studied show multiple migrations are possible due to the evolutionary progress the species made during the mid-Cenozoic era, which spans from 66 million years ago to today. 

“It may seem like an arcane point, did lemurs get over there once or twice, but it really fills in (evolutionary history),” Anthony Friscia, associate professor of biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. “This is what science and paleontology, more specifically, is about. It’s about filling in these little holes and it makes for a fuller picture of the history of life on earth.” 

Prior to the study it was believed that lemurs, an endangered mammal only found in Madagascar, migrated from Africa once but now there is evidence that lemurs have two different lineages.

“Lemurs are one of the most threatened primate groups in the world in terms of losing habitat, so we only have a little bit of time to find out about them so the more we can fill in their history, that’s important so it kind of relates to their current threat and status,” Friscia said. 

During the study, the team of 10 ran analysis and compared the morphology of fossils to the modern-day aye-aye to show that the lemurs are related.

“The origin of lemurs has long been a topic of fascination in the scientific community,” Stevens said in an email. “Connecting enigmatic fossils from Egypt and Kenya with the modern aye-aye helps to reveal greater complexity in the arrival of Madagascar’s fauna than previously appreciated. Remarkable discoveries await in the deepest forests, the most remote deserts and in corners of museum cabinets the world around.”


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