UT professor to lecture on primitive Texas primates

Paul Iskra

Tens of millions of years ago, tropical rainforests, inhabited by various primates, dominated the landscape of West Texas. 

This Friday, anthropology professor Christopher Kirk will give a lecture guiding attendees through this ancient tropical terrain, describing the plants and animals that inhabited West Texas over 34 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. The talk will be held at 7 p.m. in the SAC Auditorium. 

Part of the talk will focus on the inhabitants of this tropical ecosystem — prehistoric primates. 

“In a lot of tropical rainforests today, you find primates,” Kirk said. “That was true for these Eocene forests in West Texas.”

After more than a decade of research, Kirk has unearthed at least three species of fossil primates that are unique to West Texas.

Kirk conducted most of his research in the Big Bend region, in an area of canyon in the Dalquest Research Site. This area is called the “Devil’s Graveyard” because of stories of cattle getting lost in the terrain and ranchers finding their remains. 

“It’s about as far off of a paved road as you can be while still being in the state of Texas,” Kirk said. 

Kirk said his lecture will also cover different aspects of Earth’s climate millions of years ago and their effects on the environment of Texas in the Eocene. 

“Part of the story is what the environment was like, which was basically rainforest,” Kirk said. 

According to Kirk, archaeologists studying ancient climates refer to the Eocene as a “hothouse” when compared with the “ice house” of recent temperatures. This variation in temperature has been seen and recorded over millions of years, highlighting a basic cycle of hot and cold temperatures throughout the Earth’s history. 

Kirk said one contributing factor to this warmer climate was the position on the continents — in the Eocene, the continents were closer together as they moved away from the supercontinent Pangea.

“[The arrangement of the continents] was different enough that it affected oceanic circulation and that changed the way heat was distributed around the globe,” Kirk said.

According to Kirk, this contributed to the tropical environment of Eocene Texas, and these cycles of warming and cooling are part of a trend that can be seen in the climate today. 

“If you follow the climate models, we’re basically headed back in the direction of the way global temperatures were in the Eocene,” Kirk said. 

This warming has been accelerated by the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, Kirk said. While there is a natural temperature cycle, the process has been expedited by unnatural means. 

As the United States’ latest election cycle draws to a close, discussions of climate change as a part of new public policy are important, Kirk said. He said studying past climates with different temperatures in an effort to understand the natural history of the state is interesting. 

According to Kirk the talk will contrast the semi-arid desert that constitutes West Texas today with the tropical climate of millions of years ago. 

“This is an important part of the natural history of Texas that people don’t know about,” said Kirk.