20 May 2009

Astounding primate fossil excites experts

Agence France Presse
Scientists in New York have unveiled the skeleton of what they said could be a common ancestor to humans, apes and other primates.
Ida

Although bearing a long tail, Ida had several characteristics shared by humans such as an opposable thumb, relatively short arms and legs, and forward facing eyes Credit: The Link

NEW YORK: Scientists in New York have unveiled the skeleton of what they said could be a common ancestor to humans, apes and other primates.

The tiny creature, officially Darwinius masillae, but dubbed Ida, lived 47 million years ago and is 95% complete, missing only part of a leg. Incredibly, the lemur-like fossil also features the complete soft body outline, right down to the fur, as well as the gut contents.

“The link they would have said until now is missing… it is no longer missing,” said David Attenborough, renowned British naturalist and broadcaster. “This little creature is going to show us our connection with all the rest of the mammals.”

“In all the textbooks”

The finding, described Tuesday in the journal PloS One, was also displayed at a press conference at New York City’s Natural History Museum, and is due to be the subject of a documentary on the History Channel, BBC and other broadcasters.

Scientists led by Norwegian fossil hunter Jørn Hurum, of the University of Oslo, worked secretly for two years on a detailed forensic analysis of Ida. She was first dug up in 1983 by private collectors who failed to understand her importance – and split the bones into two lots, which have now been reunited.

“This fossil is so complete. Everything’s there. It’s unheard of in the primate record at all. You have to get to human burial to see something that’s this complete,” said Hurum. “This fossil will probably be pictured in all the textbooks for the next 100 years.”

With similarities to both monkeys and lemurs, which are more primitive primates, the creature was preserved through the ages in Germany’s Messel Pit, which is rich in Eocene Epoch fossils. Features of the bones revealed that the fossil was a female that died at a young age.

Long lost aunt

Although bearing a long tail, she had several characteristics shared by humans such as an opposable thumb, relatively short arms and legs, and forward facing eyes. She also lacked two key elements of modern lemurs: a grooming claw and a row of lower teeth known as the toothcomb.

“It’s really a kind of Rosetta Stone,” commented palaeontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, referring to the mixture of primitive and modern features.

Study co-author Jens Franzen, said we should think of Ida more as a distant aunt to the human family tree rather than a direct distant ancestor.

Ida gives a glimpse into a time when the world was just taking its present shape. Dinosaurs were recently extinct, the Himalayas were forming and a huge range of mammals thrived in vast jungles.

According to the research team, the primate had suffered a badly broken wrist and that this might have been her undoing. Their theory is that while drinking from the Messel lake she was overcome by carbon dioxide fumes and fell in.

Last supper

“Ida slipped into unconsciousness, was washed into the lake, and sunk to the bottom, where the unique conditions preserved her for 47 million years,” they said. Her last meal shows she was a herbivore – the gut contents revealed remains of fruits, seeds and leaves.

The press conference was unusually strongly hyped for a scientific event and the announcement was tied into a media campaign including the release of the documentary.

Chris Beard, a fossil expert at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, U.S., told the BBC news service that he was “awestruck” by the level of publicity that accompanied the announcement.

Other experts were excited by the find, but expressed doubts that the fossil would end up being a direct ancestor to humans.

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