UT Professor Discovers New Fossil Primate Species In West Texas

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“Great discoveries are waiting in our own backyards,” says Chris Kirk.

He should know. Kirk, an associate professor of anthropology at UT, has announced the discovery of a new species of fossil primate, Mescalerolemur horneri.  The small primate inhabited West Texas about 43 million years ago.

In May 2005, Kirk took a group of students to collect fossils at Midwestern State University’s Dalquest Desert Research Site, north of Big Bend National Park. Their work—searching for fossils encased in hard rock nodules—was tedious and labor-intensive.

So Kirk spiced things up with an incentive. “Anyone who finds a primate fossil,” he promised, “gets a free dinner on me at the Austin restaurant of their choice.”

One eagle-eyed undergraduate not only took him up on his offer, but also made her own contribution to anthropological history. Marie Butcher, BA, BS ’05, rushed over to show Kirk a small tooth.

When Kirk realized it was that of a primate, not a common rodent, he congratulated his student.

At first Kirk thought the tooth came from a new species in the genus Mahgarita, and with a sense of humor, he planned to name it Mahgarita epipetros: margarita on the rocks.

Further study, though, revealed that the fossil belonged to an entirely new genus as well. Kirk dubbed it Mescalerolemur after the Mescalero Apache, a Native American tribe that once lived in West Texas, and horneri after Norman Horner, the Midwestern State University biologist who helped establish the Dalquest site.

By the middle Eocene epoch, when the lemur-like primate lived, North America’s climate was shifting from tropical to temperate. As forests gave way to grasslands and temperature and rainfall decreased, many similar primate species went extinct. But West Texas stayed relatively warm, providing a haven for tropical-adapted species like Mescalerolemur.

The species is an adapiform—a member of an extinct primate group with closer evolutionary ties to modern lemurs and lorises than to apes or humans.

Learn more about Mescalerolemur here.

Photos by Chris Kirk



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