Tuesday, May 19, 2009

47 Million Year Old Fossil Hailed as "Missing-Link" Between Humans and Other Primates Open to Skepticism

A perfectly preserved fossil of a 47 million year old primate has been discovered, and is claimed to be a "missing link" between today's higher primates - monkeys, apes and humans - and more distant relatives. The fossil is in such great condition that it is possible to see traces of fur, and scientists have even identified the remnants of its last meal. Although this is a potentially groundbreaking scientific discovery, independent scientists are skeptical of the significance of the fossil, nicknamed Ida.

Ida was discovered in the 1980s in a fossil treasure-trove called Messel Pit, near Darmstadt in Germany. For much of the time period since then, it has been in a private collection. The investigation of the fossil's significance was led by Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Hurum claims the fossil creature was "the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor" and described the discovery as "a dream come true".

The female animal lived during an epoch in Earth history known as the Eocene, which was crucial for the development of early primates.At first glance, Ida resembles a lemur, yet she lacks very specific features which are characteristic of the lemur - including elongated canine teeth.

The team concluded that she was not simply another lemur, but a new species. They have called her Darwinius masillae, to celebrate her place of origin and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Dr Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel Pit and a member of the team, described Ida as "like the Eighth Wonder of the World", because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton.

It was information "palaeontologists can normally only dream of", he said.

In addition, Ida bears "a close resemblance to ourselves" he said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb - like humans and some other primates. But he said some aspects of the teeth indicate she is not a direct ancestor - more of an "aunt" than a "grandmother".

"She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line."

Independent experts are keen to see the new fossil but somewhat skeptical of any claim that it could be "a missing link".

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