Past Features

February 27, 2006 (Vol. 3, No. 3)

Expert on 'Monkey Business' to Present Lecture March 8

Eric Delson
Eric Delson
To say that Professor Eric Delson (Anthropology) knows a thing or two about monkeys is a vast understatement. For nearly 40 years, he and his colleagues have researched the evolutionary history of monkeys from Africa, Asia and Europe, a topic he fondly refers to as "monkey business."

On Wednesday, March 8, he will deliver a free interdisciplinary presentation, from 2 to 3 p.m., in Davis Hall, Room 335. Entitled "Adventures in the Monkey Business," the talk will focus on his past and current research.

Here's a brief preview of his talk:

"Old World monkeys include such familiar varieties as the baboons and mandrills of Africa and the macaques of Asia (cercopithecines) and the African colobus and Asian proboscis and hanuman monkeys (colobines). These two main groups differ in features such as their diet and locomotion: cercopithecines tend to spend more time in the group and eat a wide variety of foods with their less-specialized teeth; colobines are usually more arboreal, with sharper teeth and specialized stomachs to digest the large numbers of leaves they ingest.

"Today, there are dozens of species across most of Africa and in Asia, from India to the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. During the past ten million years, monkeys also inhabited much of Europe, and the range of species was far greater in Africa."

Based on a previous study, Professor Delson was able to show that some African baboons may have weighed as much as 200 pounds, three times more than their largest living forms.

Professor Delson, who received Lehman's 2005 Excellence in Research Award in Science, is currently working on three major projects, based at both Lehman and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where he is associated with the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. One of his projects is in Senèze in central France.

"Since 1929, fossils of Paradolichopithecus have been recovered from France, Spain, Romania, Greece and Tajikistan, dated between 4 and 2 million years. This large (up to 80 pounds) cercopithecine monkey is known by skulls, teeth and many partial limb elements. Descriptive analysis shows that its closest relative is probably the macaque monkeys of Asia and North Africa, rather than the baboons of the sub-Saharan region.

"The first fossil of this animal was found in the 1920s at a fossil locality in Senèze. This site has yielded thousands of other mammalian fossils, mostly to local farmers who sold them to museums in France and Switzerland. Because it was so productive, Senèze has been designated a reference standard for the European faunas around two million years old, but no work had been undertaken there since 1945, except for brief visits in the 1950s."

In 2000, Professor Delson and French colleagues from the University of Lyon began a campaign of new work at the site. Each year since then, they have opened new excavations and recovered interesting fossils (but no monkeys), with the aid of French and American student workers, including several Lehman students.

Much of Professor Delson's recent efforts have been directed at three-dimensional paleontology and comparative morphology. Through the use of digitizers and laser surface scanners, 3D coordinates of landmark points on skulls and limb bones can be collected and subjected to advanced statistical analyses in order to study evolutionary relationships and changes in shape.

A new project, funded for three years by the National Science Foundation, is moving ahead in collaboration with Professor Katherine St. John (Mathematics and Computer Science) and other colleagues from Brooklyn College, AMNH, SUNY at Stony Brook and the University of California at Davis. The team will combine data from molecular genetic studies (yielding an evolutionary tree with dated branching points), 3D landmarks, statistics and computer visualization techniques to attempt to reconstruct the shape of ancestral monkey skulls. They will work backward from modern forms and compare the hypothetical intermediates to known fossils.