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Gregg Gunnell, Fossil Hunter, Dies at 63

Gunnell published more than 120 scholarly papers on early primates, bats and other animals

Dr. Gregg F. Gunnell, Director, Division of Fossil Primates, Duke Lemur Center. Photo taken in 2011 by Duke University Photography.
Dr. Gregg F. Gunnell, Director, Division of Fossil Primates, Duke Lemur Center. Photo taken in 2011 by Duke University Photography.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Gregg Gunnell, 63, a Duke University paleontologist who oversaw a collection of more than 30,000 fossils from around the world, died Wednesday, September 20 at Duke University Hospital in Durham.

Gunnell died while undergoing treatment for lymphoma, which he was diagnosed with less than a month before his death.

Gunnell spent more than 40 years studying fossils hidden in layers of rock for clues to what kinds of animals lived there, what they looked like and how they changed over time.

He first fell in love with fossils as a teenager, when his uncle took him to a quarry to look for trilobites.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology in 1976 and 1979, and completed a doctorate in anthropology and geology in 1986, all at the University of Michigan. After finishing his Ph.D., he worked for more than two decades alongside his graduate advisor Philip Gingerich as coordinator of the vertebrate fossil collections in Michigan's Museum of Paleontology.

While an undergraduate at Michigan, he went on his first expedition to Bighorn Basin in northwest Wyoming to dig for mammal bones in the approximately 50-million-year-old rocks.

Over the next four decades he would spend several months a year looking for fossils in far-flung places including Wyoming, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sumatra and other locales.

Armed with screens and chisels and often crawling on all fours, he was able to recognize the knobby shape or textured surface of a single worn tooth or bit of jawbone in seemingly barren rock.

At night, Gunnell and his colleagues would sit in the camp cook tent identifying and cataloging the day’s fossil discoveries.

“Gregg was astonishing in this respect,” said paleontologist Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History, who got his start collecting fossils in Wyoming with Gunnell in the early 1990s. “He could identify mammal species based on partial teeth with only one or two cusps remaining.”

It was grubby, trying work. Those who accompanied him in the field recall waiting in international hotels for days for collecting permits, enduring long, bumpy drives through the backcountry and watching dust storms obliterate their makeshift camps.

Known for his warmth and dry sense of humor, “Gregg could lighten the mood on the hottest, dustiest, most awful fossil-less days in the field,” said Northeastern Illinois University professor Lesa Davis, who worked alongside Gunnell for eight summers in Wyoming in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was often the breakfast cook, “a particularly thankless job of getting up before everyone else in the morning to cook for 12 or so cranky people,” Davis said.

“When he wasn’t in the field he was globe-trotting to museums in Europe or Africa, discovering fossils in drawers passed over again and again by others who hadn’t recognized their significance,” said Gunnell’s former student Doug Boyer, now a faculty member at Duke.

His frequent travels to museums and dig sites took him to every state but Rhode Island and more than 30 countries.

Much of Gunnell's early career was focused on primates, but his work took a turn in 2000, when he traveled to Tanzania as part of an international team of scientists invited to excavate an ancient lake bed.

There they found the fossil skeleton of a tiny thumb-sized animal that turned out to be a bat, dubbed Tanzanycteris. Thus began Gunnell’s research on the origin of bats, delicate-boned animals he was attracted to, he said, because their rarely preserved fossils "interest nobody.”

He became accustomed to dispelling myths about these misunderstood creatures. “Bats are not blind,” Gunnell told an audience at Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum in 2016. “And the last place they would ever want to be is in your hair. Trust me.”

Gunnell joined Duke in 2011 to take the helm of the Duke Lemur Center’s Division of Fossil Primates, a collection that today contains roughly 32,000 fossil specimens from Egypt, Madagascar, Colombia and Wyoming, ranging from 55 million to 500 years old.

Some specimens are represented by a single tooth, a bit of jaw or a partial skull, others by complete skeletons.

Housed in an unassuming brick building at 1013 Broad St., two miles from the heart of campus, the collection is widely considered one of America’s most important resources for the study of primate evolution.

Colleagues describe Gunnell as pivotal to enabling more students and scholars to use the collection, the life’s work of the late paleontologist Elwyn Simons.

Under Gunnell's leadership, use of the collection increased more than five-fold. He would even invite researchers to stay at his house to save money on lodging while visiting the fossils from abroad.

He also won multiple grants, including one from the National Science Foundation to make 3-D scans of the fossils and put them online, thus making them available free of charge to anyone with internet access, without having to travel to Durham.

Gunnell edited three books and published more than 120 scholarly papers, not only on bats and early primates but also on ungulates, pangolins, carnivores, snakes, lizards, fish, and geology and stratigraphy.

“Gregg had no care about awards, personal gain or fame,” said University of Michigan paleontologist Bill Sanders, Gunnell’s friend and collaborator for over 30 years. “He did science for the right reasons -- for the thrill of discovery and the desire to find things out, to learn about the natural world.”

Along the way he supported and encouraged a generation of students. His colleague Erik Seiffert of the University of Southern California noted, “the field of vertebrate paleontology would literally be smaller if it had not been for Gregg taking so many students under his wing and giving them the opportunities and encouragement that they needed to move forward and be successful.”

“Gregg took a bunch of us into some of the toughest collecting anywhere and taught us how to find fossils where they were few and far between,” said Gunnell’s longtime friend John-Paul Zonneveld, now a paleontologist at the University of Alberta. “I’m honoured to have been part of that group.”