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The Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil
as the link to uncovering our earliest ancestors

Was Ida / Darwinius masillae one of our earliest ancestors?

Fig. 1A of the PLoS ONE article about the Ida fossil, published under the Creative Commons Attribution License; any reuse should cite the authors and journal.

Full citation details here

After two years of secretive preparation full details of the project that became the Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil study were given at a fanfare launch at the academically prestigious American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, May 19, 2009, arrangements also having been put in place for an associated TV special, entitled " Uncovering our earliest ancestor : The Link ", to be rolled out world-wide.
Also announced were an associated book, entitled "The Link", and a high-powered web site.

It became clear that the Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil had been under expert scientific scrutiny for some two years after having been purchased by the University of Oslo from a private fossil collector. During those two years, although rumours of the discovery of a spectacular primate fossil were circulating amongst specialists in the field, the general public was not informed of these developments.

Against this background of secrecy the Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil study was given an impressively high-power PR launch. A few days prior to the actual launch date press releases about it were issued on behalf of the organisers. All in uppercase some of the press releases read:-


At the launch presentation itself ambitious words were used such as the "Missing Link to our Earliest Ancestors" and the "Rosetta Stone of Human Evolution".
Comparisons of cultural importance were made with the Mona Lisa and to the Moon Landings.

How far is all this hype justified? Will the study of the Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil provide sufficiently far-reaching results in the way of uncovering our earliest ancestors, and their places on the primate family tree, to justify Ida being referred to simply, and in just so many words, as - The Link?

The project apparently had its origins in December, 2006, at a mineral and fossil fair in Hamburg where Dr. Hurum got into conversation with a private fossil dealer named Thomas Perner who was already known to him and who, over fruity vodka drinks, showed him a few photographs of the fossil, which had been found at Messel Shale Pit in 1983 and had subsequently been hanging on the wall in the house of a German collector.
Herr Perner discreetly advised Dr. Hurum that the fossil had already been quietly "on the market" for some six months at an asking price of, wait for it, more than $1,000,000.
It seems that at least two prominent German museums had already been approached, possibly with the same or similar photographs, but had baulked at this asking price for a fossil that they had not found to be of proven merit.
A certain amount of forgery, fakery, and interpretative reconstruction, is known to go on in the fossil-collecting world so participants in the fossil market need to be both knowledgeable and careful.

Dr. Hurum, a fossil expert, was so excited by what he saw in these pictures, ("I knew that the dealer had a world sensation in his hands"), that he reportedly “could not sleep for two nights, just thinking about this specimen.”
Back home in Norway Dr. Hurum reported news of this extra-ordinary fossil and its equally extra-ordinary asking price to his colleagues.
Although Dr. Hurum does not seem to have actually actually expected it funds were found such that he was able to enter into negotiations leading to the purchase of the fossil.

The Darwinius masillae fossil has been described as the “most complete fossil primate ever discovered,” lacks only the lower left limb, and due to the special conditions prevailing at Messel Pit impressions of Ida's fur and of her soft body outline are discernable - the remains of her last meal - comprising fruit and leaves - have been detected in the stomach cavity.
[ida transitional species sketch from fossil evidence ]

This sketched representation of Ida, and her kind, is taken from the report published by the research team on the Public Library of Science web site.
The image is Fig. S6 of the PLoS ONE article, published under the Creative Commons Attribution License; any reuse should cite the authors and journal.
Full citation details here

The researches have concluded that this fossil was that of a lemur-like creature that was "not simply a lemur" and that its discovery "is going to advance our knowledge of evolution".
Darwinius masillae differs from lemurs in two key ways - it does not possess the "toothcomb" set of lower front teeth lemurs use to groom fur or the "toilet claws" on the hind feet the lemur family tend to use for scratching leading the researchers to depict it as having been a "Lemur-Monkey".
A bone in Ida's ankle called the talus is shaped like that members of our own, Anthropoid, branch of the primates. Ida's nail-bearing fingers and toes also confirm her to having been a primate.

It would seem that this extraordinary fossil “is important in being exceptionally well preserved and providing a much more complete understanding of the paleobiology” of a primate from the Eocene period. The Greek derived word, Eocene, actually translates as the "New Dawn", and it is in the Eocene that larger mammals are believed to have made their first appearance.

Uncovering our earliest ancestors
and the primate family tree

Darwinius masillae has the Missing Link been found ?

It may be that the Ida - Darwinius masillae fossil will readily become accepted as being a transitional fossil of an early lemur-monkey from the time, 47 million years ago, when lemurs and monkeys were diverging as species.
A particularly important clue to her eventual placing in terms of the primate evolutionary tree may arise from the very completeness of this fossil if researchers are ultimately able to discern whether or not this fossil was of a creature that had a "wet" nose.
Modern primates are divided into two suborders: the strepsirrhines, or “wet-nosed” primates, include lemurs, bushbabies and lorises, while the haplorrhines or “dry-nosed” primates include monkeys, apes and humans.

In preparing their report the research team referred to an number of already accepted strepsirrhine and haplorrhine characteristics and, on that basis, have actually gone so far as to place Ida as clearly tending towards being a haplorrhine rather than a strepsirrhine.

The researchers believe Ida may be on our own evolutionary line dating from just after the split with the lemurs and that this fossil is from "a transitional species showing characteristics from both the non-human (prosimians and lemurs) and human (anthropoids, monkeys, apes and man) evolutionary lines".

To quote the research teams report, “Darwinius masillae, and adapoids contemporary with early tarsioids, could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids".

Dr. Philip Gingerich, a leading American primate specialist based at the University of Michigan, president of the American Paleontological Society and co-author of the Darwinius masillae study, went so far as to state that:-
“This discovery brings a forgotten group into focus as a possible ancestor of higher primates.”
The Darwinius masillae / Ida fossil has been dated as being from an early primate that lived all of 47 million years ago.

That is rather a long time back in the past.

Using "mya" as shorthand for "million years ago" the scientist tell us that the primate family tree enduringly "branched" on several occasions:-

The first primates lived some 55mya from which time the Haplorrhines and the Strepsirrhines were diverging.

Whilst the Strepsirrhine branch ultimately produced today's Lemurs, bushbabys, and Lorises the the Haplorrhine branch itself re-branched many times.
Resulting from these re-branchings monkeys are dated to 40mya, gibbons to 20mya, gorillas to 8mya, chimpanzees to 5.4mya and early hominds to 4mya, the famous "Lucy" fossil to 3.2mya, and modern Homo sapiens to .2mya.

In the context of such a long-lived and deep-rooted primate family tree it is perhaps justified to suspect that there could be future uncoverings of other, even more relevant, fossils.

A close colleague of, and indeed, collaborator and co-author with, Drs. Gingerich and Hurum on the two-year study of the Ida fossil, Jens Franzen, of the Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Frankfurt, Germany, which has an overseeing role for the Messel Shale Pit World Heritage Site, was also at the launch ceremony and hailed the Darwinius masillae / Ida discovery as "the eighth wonder of the world" but also stated that "we're not dealing with our grand, grand, grandmother, but perhaps with our grand, grand, grand aunt" and that "she belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line."

Moreover, the closing sentences of the body of the academic study available online are perhaps somewhat restrained in the claims they seem make about this possible Missing Link fossil discovery.
Morphological characteristics preserved in Darwinius masillae enable a rigorous comparison with the two principal subdivisions of living primates: Strepsirrhini and Haplorhini. Defining characters of Darwinius ally it with early haplorhines rather than strepsirrhines. We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.

Darwinius masillae is important in being exceptionally well preserved and providing a much more complete understanding of the paleobiology of an Eocene primate than was available in the past.

Full citation details here

Since May 2009 two other serious studies have actually placed Darwinius Masillae on the strepsirrhine rather than haplorhine evolutionary branch.
For further details please see:-

Other Studies Conclusions

missing link fossil discovery

Charles Darwin biography
Alfred Russel Wallace biography
Thomas Malthus
Essay on Population
Darwin quotes
his beliefs about God
Thomas Henry Huxley
Darwin's Bulldog
Citation details:-

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 2009
Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology.
PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

This Public Library of Science hosted research article was, and may well still be, available on the PloS ONE web site at:-  


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