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Dan Gebo: Tiny fossils, big impact

March 25, 2013
Dan Gebo

Dan Gebo

In the laboratory of Dan Gebo, you’ll find the tools of his trade on display, including the skeletons of lemurs, chimpanzees, gorillas and humans that help him explain the process of evolution to students.

But it’s the smallest treasures in his collection that most intrigue the NIU anthropology professor. Stored away like precious gems are dozens of tiny primate fossils, including foot bones the size of a grain of rice.

Gebo is an internationally renowned comparative anatomist and paleontologist, specializing in evolution of monkeys, apes, humans and lower primates. His research has shed light on how limbs and bodies adapt over time, with a particular focus on the evolution of foot anatomy and locomotion.

Through his field work and published articles, Gebo also has made a compelling and controversial case that the earliest primates were tiny animals, so small they were the prey of owls.

Not surprising, his research has captured headlines, including in 2000 when he led a team that discovered the fossils of 45-million-year-old, thumb-length primates. The find made the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post and newspapers worldwide. He is currently working in China on a quest to illuminate primate origins dating back 60 million years.

“Professor Gebo is an internationally acclaimed expert on primate locomotion,” says K. Christopher Beard, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He has frequently collaborated with Gebo.

“(Dan) is a member of a small and elite group of scholars who have conducted both extensive field studies of living primates in their natural habitats and detailed studies of the postcranial remains of fossil primates, frequently based on specimens he helped to collect in the field,” Beard says.

In addition to China, Gebo has conducted fieldwork in such places as Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Madagascar and Uganda. He has authored or co-authored nearly 80 publications in top-tier professional journals, including Nature and Science.

Gebo earned his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1986 and joined the NIU faculty a year later. He holds a joint appointment in anthropology and biological sciences and is among the most decorated professors on campus. NIU previously recognized his expertise with the Presidential Teaching Professorship and the Presidential Research Professorship. This is his second Board of Trustees Professorship, having been among the inaugural 2008 recipients of the award.

On campus, Gebo teaches a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate-level courses. He also helped spearhead a program known as USOAR – for Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry and Research. It has provided more than 100 undergraduates from all disciplines with funding for research, including in China, Peru, Ireland and Cuba.

“Dr. Gebo has an uncanny ability of engaging and encouraging students by involving them in his own research,” adds Michael Kolb, Gebo’s colleague in anthropology.

Eric Sargis would undoubtedly agree.

As an undergraduate, Sargis was planning a business career. Then he took an introductory course taught by Gebo. Afterward, he switched majors, took more of Gebo’s classes and eventually published a research paper with his mentor.

“Dan Gebo is the best teacher and undergraduate mentor I have ever known,” Sargis says. “I would not be where I am today if I had never taken Dan’s introductory class.”

Today, Sargis is a professor of anthropology at Yale University.