Neysa Grider-Potter—Another view from the field: “Lemur” tell you about my research

Editor’s note: This posting by Neysa Grider-Potter represents another side of “field” research that does not necessarily take students out to exotic field sites but takes advantage of established U.S. university research sites where students can collaborate with other researchers and institutions.  

My name is Neysa Grider-Potter, and I am a graduate student with the Institute of Human Origins. This summer I conducted my dissertation research at Duke University’s Lemur Center.

neysa 1

The Duke Lemur Center is home to the largest population of lemurs outside of Madagascar. It is truly a one-of-a-kind facility. The lemurs here are living in the lap of luxury with excellent care, spacious enclosures, and countless enrichment activities. During the warmer months, they are even free to range around the 85-acre sanctuary. This a fantastic environment for them but made enticing them inside for my research a little tricky.

Paleoanthropologists use what is called the comparative method to understand the fossil record. By relating the behaviors of living animals to the shapes of their bones, we can infer the behavior of extinct species based on the form preserved in the fossils. This is the underlying theory of my dissertation project. I am focusing on the locomotor or movement behavior of lemurs to understand how the neck functions. Lemurs are the ideal group to investigate the locomotor function of the neck because they practice a wide variety of locomotor modes from vertical clinging and leaping to arboreal quadrupedalism (climbing around in trees on all fours). Plus, they’re all super cute.

In order to relate neck motion to neck bone shape, I need to understand how the bones are moving during locomotion. The easiest way to do this is to draw markers on their skin where you can feel the underlying bones. So the first stop for each of my subjects is the barber’s chair for a little haircut. Once they’ve gotten shaved, I can paint on my markers with non-toxic paint. Though it may look a little goofy, this haircut is currently in vogue at the Lemur Center.

neysa 2

Once they’re shaved and marked, it’s lights, camera, action. I get to film the lemurs walking, jumping, and climbing. With the help of their favorite treats (grapes), most are more than happy to be in front of the camera. Of course, every lemur has its own personality. Some can’t wait to get started while others have a more diva-like approach. It is really quite fun working with them and getting to know each one’s quirks.

neysa 3

Once I’ve finished filming, then comes the analysis stage. I’m assisted by professors Angel Zeininger and Dan Schmitt of Duke University. With the benefit of their expertise and equipment, my experiments have gone smoothly so far. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work with the fantastic staff, faculty, and lemurs here.

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Josh Robinson—Argentina #3: Land’s end

This past week and a half, I had the great opportunity to travel to Puerto Madryn in the Chubut Province (the Patagonia region of Argentina). Puerto Madryn is approximately a 20-hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires. With regular stops every three to five hours and new friends to share empanadas and yerba mate (a South American tea), the trip goes by pretty fast. Originally founded as a Welsh whaling port in 1865, Puerto Madryn has a rich history. Many of the roads in town are named for some of the original Welsh families, and it’s one of the few places in Argentina where rugby is just as important as soccer. Today, most people know about Puerto Madryn as a world-class destination for whale watching: during the annual migration from Antarctica, the gulf provides a protected area for females to give birth. Unfortunately, I was a few weeks early to see whales near the coast, but it was a beautiful view from the lab nonetheless.

The view of Puerto Madryn from the Centro Nacional Patagonico

The view of Puerto Madryn from the Centro Nacional Patagonico

In Puerto Madryn, I got to work at the Centro Nacional Patagonico with Marcelo Tejedor, Marcelo Krause, and Nelson Novo, all collaborators of John Fleagle’s on the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formation paleontology project. Marcelo, Marcelo, and Nelson work on the project on a daily basis and run multiple field trips each year to collect more fossils and geological information from the research area. While much of the material I worked with in Buenos Aires was from fieldwork in the 1980s and early 1990s, here I had the chance to study fossils collected in just the last three years. Unlike some of the fossils collected 20 to 30 years ago, the more recent collections have their geological information and stratigraphic positions much more accurately recorded. From these collections, I sampled 30 teeth, including two of the early New World Monkeys, as part of the pilot project. The environmental and climatic data we get from these samples will help us determine the usefulness of the stable isotope approach to the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formation project and help us develop more focused research questions for future field work and analysis.

New World Monkey tooth

One of the small New World Monkey teeth I sampled. This is a picture from a microscope. The tooth has a total height of about 2 centimeters.

In addition to the sampling, Marcelo, Marcelo, and Nelson filled me in on some of the most recent finds over pizza and Patagonian beer. Marcelo Krause is a geologist who works on paleosols. Paleosols can provide similar environmental and climatic information about an area, but since they form directly in the soil, only provide information for a very small area—like the size of a medium-sized car. His research is corroborating some of John Fleagle’s initial thoughts that the Pinturas Formation represents a wetter period than the Santa Cruz Formation. I was able to adjust some of my sampling plans to see if we could recreate the pattern with the tooth enamel stable isotopes.

After completing my research in Puerto Madryn I found myself with a few day’s extra time, and I just couldn’t resist traveling to Ushuaia. Known as the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia sits on the Beagle Channel named for the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed on between 1831–1835; there he developed his theory of Natural Selection. Ushuaia was just a pilgrimage I had to make. While not technically the southernmost part of South America (since it is approximately 100 miles from Cape Horn Island) it is nonetheless the southernmost part of the continent that one can feasibly visit without traveling onward to Antarctica. During my stay in Ushuaia, I visited the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which marks the end of the Pan-American Highway—a road that runs more or less continuously from this point for 14,878 kilometers to Alaska. It is also home to some of the most beautiful forested and mountain scenery in the world. The Beagle Channel contains dozens of small islands filled with sea lions and seals, as well as dozens of sea birds and Magallenic penguins. For me though, the most interesting part was learning about the original indigenous inhabitants of the area, the Yamana, their contact with Darwin and the Beagle, and early English missionaries. As an anthropologist and a student of human evolution, it was one of the most educating excursions I’ve ever taken while in the field.

Josh in Ushuaia

Josh at the bottom of the South American continent in Ushuaia



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Ellis Locke—Buluk, Kenya #4: Out of the field and into the lab

Six weeks seem to have flown by, and suddenly I’ve left camp and returned to the lab. If the days in the field felt long, they pale in comparison to the long hours Ellen and I have been putting into the lab here at the Turakana Basin Institute (TBI). All of the fossil material we’ve accumulated over the last six weeks needs more precise identification, accessioning, and sorting for storage in the collections. While all the Buluk material belongs to the National Museum of Kenya, it will be housed at the Turkana Basin Institute here in Ileret, and the collections are literally being built as we go—what was an empty room yesterday is today full of shelves and drawers waiting to be filled with fossils from the Early Miocene.

Buluk, Kenya field camp

Farewell view of John Ekusi, camp manager

The few drawers that are currently empty won’t remain that way for long. While Ellen and I have returned to TBI to spend our last two weeks in Kenya identifying and curating the material that has been collected to date, the Buluk 2016 field season is still in full swing. Dr. Isaiah Nengo and four of his students from De Anza College in San Francisco have arrived to continue surveying and excavating until the beginning of September. If you’re interested in reading their thoughts as they undergo their first fieldwork experience at this remote but incredibly rich locality, they’ll be writing weekly blog posts, which can be found here:

Dr. Ellen Miller and Ellis Locke in the lab

Dr. Ellen Miller and yours truly, hard at work

Lab work is simultaneously thrilling and frustrating. Each new fossil is a puzzle waiting to be solved. Some, like the primates, are familiar to me, and the task of describing and comparing them to existing material is a complete delight. Others can stump me for hours, casting my comparative net wider and wider, before finally revealing themselves as, for example, a hyrax ankle bone.

Hyrax ankle bone

The hyrax bone in question

Slowly, but surely, a picture of the faunal community of Buluk is emerging, with its characteristic mixture of endemic and immigrant African fauna. The early relatives of some of the most iconic African animals, the big carnivores and elephants, existed here alongside the creodonts and anthracotheres, who are without living representatives. And amongst this diverse community of mammals lived early members of the ape and Old World monkey radiations. There are many unanswered questions about the paleobiology and paleoecology of these respective lineages, and the fossils from Buluk will play a critical role in answering them.

Signing off, for now,



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Ellis Locke—Buluk, Kenya #3: Digging in to the past and the passing of time

The field season keeps chugging along, and everyone has fully settled into the routine of work and camp life. Each morning, the whole crew gathers for breakfast at 6:30 am; there’s always plenty of chai to go around. By 7 o’clock, everyone has headed out for work. Right now the crew is split into two main divisions—the first group surveys for fossil material on the surface while the second group works at the excavation site.

Yours truly, surveying for fossils.

Yours truly, surveying for fossils.

One of the primary goals of this field season is to expose and excavate a bone bed that was discovered at the Dead Elephant Valley locality a few years ago. The bone bed lies beneath a large hill, with many bone fragments eroding out of the hillside and sliding down into the valley below. We hope that by digging into the hillside we can expose this layer and excavate these bones intact before they have been weathered. Given the amount of sediment overlaying this layer, this seems like an ambitious undertaking, especially when you consider that the remoteness of the location precludes bringing in any heavy machinery—all the excavation has to be done by hand! Our work has been complicated by the fact that underneath the surface sand on the slope, the bulk of the hillside is made up of solid rock. But we are chipping away at it, literally, bit by bit. The excavation crew is incredibly hard working and has already exposed enough of the bone bed to keep us busy for the rest of the season.

Crew exposing the bone bed layer at Dead Elephant Valley.

Crew exposing the bone bed layer at Dead Elephant Valley.

While the excavation crew is working on the hill, the survey crew heads out to a new location each day to collect fossils. The majority of the fossils here are exposed on the surface. Since the deposits are formed by river channels that carried the bones, the fossils are mixed in with pebble and sand. It takes a lot of crawling with one’s nose inches from the ground to spot tiny monkey teeth amongst all the pebbles.

There are larger bones on the surface as well. Funny enough, “Buluk” actually means “dinosaur” in the Dassanech language. Our ultimate goal may be to collect primates, but it’s been the enormous fossil bones of extinct elephants and rhinos that have caught the attention of the local population. Some of our crew members who grew up in this region have said that when they were children, their parents told them stories about Buluk and the bones of dinosaurs that lived there. They were only off by about 50 million years!

excavating the complete cranium of a small rhino.

Apollo and Ellen excavating the complete cranium of a small rhino.

Our work lasts until 5 pm, at which point it’s time for more tea and a shower before dinner. This is also the time to look over any standout fossils from the day’s collection.

Five o'clock tea

Five o’clock tea

Having been here for more than a month, everyone has found ways to make camp homier. While this will only be my home until July 17 (when I return to the Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret to identify fossils in the lab), the rest of the crew will remain until the beginning of September. To live for three months in a place as remote as Buluk, without any distracting cell service, you have to find ways to stay busy. Whether it’s identifying fossil mammals, becoming a champion checkers player, or perfecting a recipe for charred goat’s head soup, everyone fills the evenings with their own productivity.




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Josh Robinson—Argentina #2: Isotope Analysis with a Side of Café con Leche

I arrived in Buenos Aires last Friday morning (June 24) with little trouble and had the whole weekend to explore this exciting city and country. Buenos Aires is truly a major metropolis, with broad avenues, countless curb-side cafes, and many options for evening entertainment in the form of theaters and cinemas.

As soon as I arrived, I went out to Estancia La Cinacina where I was treated to a gaucho show and a true Argentine parilla (similar to a bbq or a South African braai). From my first taste of morcilla (blood sausage), I was hooked. I think I’ve acclimated quite nicely to the gastronomic aspects of Argentine culture—mid-morning coffee with medialunas (basically a glazed croissant) to late night meat-filled dinners washed down with delicious (and cheap!) Argentine wines.

Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent to the U.S. White House

Josh in front of Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent to the U.S. White House

But, of course, I am here to do research, and that is what you want to hear about. In the world of paleontology, Argentina is well known for their dinosaurs, including some of the largest yet discovered. Mammalian paleontology in Argentina is a decidedly smaller, although not less important, aspect of collection and research. Over the past week, I’ve been working at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales and have reviewed the dental remains of a few hundred astrapotheres (rhinoceros-like South American mammals), litopternas (horse-like South American mammals), primates, rodents, marsupials, and notoungulates (catch-all for most of the rest of the extinct large hoofed mammals of South America) from the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formations. Astrapotheres, litopternas, and notoungulates do not have any direct living descendants, but some fun reconstructions have been developed. Modern examples of South American primates include spider and howler monkeys, while modern marsupials are almost exclusively opossums.

Dinosaur casts and fossils on display at the Museo Argentina de Ciencias Naturales

Dinosaur casts and fossils on display at the Museo Argentina de Ciencias Naturales

As I wrap up my week of research at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, I have developed a large database of tooth specimens that can be sampled for stable isotope analysis in the future. Searching through old collections, taking pictures and measurements, and familiarizing yourself with the fossil material available from a site are all important aspects of a pilot study for stable isotope work. I will be traveling this weekend to spend next week at the Centro Nacional Patagonico in Puerto Madryn, where I will be doing a similar review of another paleontology collection assembled by John Fleagle. In Puerto Madryn, some of the teeth have been approved and set aside for me to sample for stable isotope analysis. Together with my database of dental remains, the stable isotope results from a few dozen samples will go a long way towards the further development of this project.

Now it’s time to break for café con leche and medialunas again!

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Ellis Locke–Buluk, Kenya #2: The Old Monkeys, but Not the New

Now I can officially submit my first true “notes from the field!” It’s been a long process, but Ellen Miller and I have finally made it to our camp at Buluk and have settled into after our first few full weeks of work.

Getting here was no minor feat—after several days of problem-solving and hurdle-jumping in Nairobi (lost luggage, broken computer, etc.)—we flew to the Turkana Basin Institute’s gorgeous location at Ileret, on the east side of Lake Turkana. While all fossils collected from Buluk belong to the National Museums of Kenya, the majority of specimens are housed at TBI. After a few days of packing supplies for camp and going through collections from previous years, it was time to embark.

Sunset at Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret.

Sunset at Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret.

Our first stop after leaving TBI was the police post at Buluk, where 60 Kenyan police are currently serving. A rotating crew of four officers will stay with our camp to provide security for the duration of the field season. With our security detail in tow, our motorcade continued on to scout a camp site near the deposits. But no road trip is without its obstacles, and in the course of our drive, the lorry suddenly sunk into a soft, thick mud from an old well. It took a full day’s work to unload all our supplies and water to lighten the lorry enough to drag it out. By the time we set up our tents and called it a night, everyone had put in a full day’s work just traveling from TBI to Buluk—a distance of only 48 km (30 miles) as the crow flies.

Slight delays on the way to Buluk.

Slight delays on the way to Buluk.

Now that camp is fully set up, we’ve all been putting in full days of surveying and collecting. The deposits at Buluk are colorful with black basalt overlaying white ash, which rests on top of a bright red clay. It makes for a picturesque workplace, when we don’t have our eyes on the ground. I’m beginning to familiarize myself with the animals found at Buluk, several of which have no living relatives, like the hippo-like anthracotheres. We’ve had good luck so far, finding plenty of primate fossils representing some of the earliest Old World monkeys. Nearly two more months of the field season lay ahead of me—plenty of time to add even more to the collection!

Deposits at Buluk. A locality known as "Dead Elephant Valley."

Deposits at Buluk. A locality known as “Dead Elephant Valley.”


Til next time!


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Josh Robinson—Argentina #1: The Old Monkeys and the New

Editor’s Note: Josh Robinson is a postdoctoral researcher working with IHO on the John Templeton Foundation grant projects.  We are excited to hear about his research in Argentina!

When we think of field or museum work, most paleoanthropologists immediately imagine a trip to Africa or perhaps Southeast Asia. Argentina, in contrast, is probably one of the last places one would guess. So why is a paleoenvironmental scientist who has done all of his research up to this point in Africa going to South America?

Well, South America is home to a thriving community of New World monkeys (or platyrrhines) with a long evolutionary history on the continent of about 25 million years. During this time, New World monkeys were isolated from Old World monkeys (found in Africa and Asia). The highly successful and diverse evolutionary radiation of New World monkeys offers a model for studying parallel evolution in anatomy and behavior with Old World monkeys in Africa. More data on the environmental and ecological contexts of the evolutionary history of New World monkeys allows for a fine-tuning of these comparative evolutionary models. This is where I come in.

Josh Robinson

Hi! That’s me working with my drill in the National Museum in Ethiopia in 2015.

While gathering my dissertation data, I had the great pleasure to work with Dr. John Fleagle of Stony Brook University on the environments in the Kibish Formation of Ethiopia. After completing a paper on the Kibish Formation earlier this year, Dr. Fleagle asked if I would be interested in doing similar work in Argentina. As you may imagine, the evolutionary history of New World monkeys was nowhere near being on my radar, but I figured I’d hear him out. I mean, I’ve always heard Argentina has great steak and wine, and what’s a better way to escape the summer heat in Arizona than to head down to a southern hemisphere winter. Dr. Fleagle has been working the Pinturas and Santa Cruz geological formations in Argentina’s Patagonia region for nearly three decades. These formations date to the Early and Middle Miocene (17 to 10 million years old) and have produced a record of a diverse mammalian community. One of the big differences between these two regions is in the number of fossil New World monkey species found in each. The Santa Cruz Formation, which is closer to the coast, has only yielded one fossil monkey species, but five or six fossil monkey species have been found in the Pinturas Formation.

My job will be to work with the fossil teeth of all of the mammals collected by Dr. Fleagle and his team over the years to sample some of the tooth enamel for isotope analysis. What is isotope analysis? When animals eat and drink, the carbon and oxygen isotope signatures get incorporated into their developing tooth enamel. This signal is preserved because tooth enamel does not fossilize like bone. We are able to analyze these values to determine what type of food the animal was feeding on and whether it was a wet or dry environment. If we were to sample your teeth I bet we would get a very strong signal indicating heavy corn consumption! Dr. Fleagle thinks the Pinturas Formation may have been a much wetter environment than the Santa Cruz Formation because of the larger number of fossil monkey species.

South America map

Locations of Buenos Aires and Puerto Madyrn. Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the continent.

I will be traveling to Argentina on June 23 for three weeks. Most of the time I will be in the capital, Buenos Aires, working at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Some of the collection, however, is stored at a regional museum in Puerto Madryn, so I will be taking an overnight bus ride there during my trip. We hope that the data we get from this pilot project will help us understand better the diversity of the environments of the early evolutionary history of New World monkeys. It may also provide some insight to differences between South America and Africa/Asia, which could be critical to understanding the different evolutionary trajectories of monkeys on those continents.

I look forward to the adventure to this place to which many of my colleagues and I have not ventured and to sharing my new experiences with you along the way!


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