Scientists say a 47-million-year-old fossil found in Germany may be a key link to explaining the evolution of early primates and, perhaps, telling them about developments that led to modern human beings.
The fossil, of a young female that probably resembled a modern-day lemur, is described as "the most complete primate fossil ever found." Read about the history of "Ida" herself and the story of her discovery in Colin Tudge's new book, "The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor."
Read an excerpt from the book below and then head to the "GMA" Library for some more good reads.
In the glow of a gibbous moon, a petite being moves through the palm trees surrounding a lake that seems almost impossibly pristine. The small creature living in this lush tropical forest has a light coat of fur, and she's less than two feet (half a meter) tall. With forward-facing eyes, her elongated head is slightly overproportioned to her body, suggesting intelligence. Her legs are a bit longer than her arms, allowing her to climb trees and move between them to avoid dangers on the ground below.
This is Ida, less than a year old and just weaned from her mother. She now has the freedom to roam, climb, and fend for herself. Moving as though she's chasing down the wind, she pushes off one branch with her feet, using her tail like a rudder to guide her, and then grasps the next branch with her long fingers. She secures her position with her toes, all of which are of nearly equal length and used for nothing except movement. Her opposable thumbs enable her to gracefully grab and go.
As she searches for her next meal, Ida ignores the varieties of insects, easy targets all, and settles on a piece of fruit. She wraps her hands around the fruit, pulls it from its branch, and pops it into her oblong mouth. Moving her jaw rhythmically, she chews the fruit with her rounded teeth. For a living being, searching for food in any forest would usually be a rather straightforward process — were it not happening 47 million years ago in this particular forest, by this particular lake.
The rain forest where Ida lives would be recognizable to us but not identical to any we have seen. It is a sight to behold, and though its features are relatively common for its time, it's a place that could only have been made by a special confluence of events. It has a warm and equitable climate that stimulates the growth of its plants and trees, making life comfortable for its inhabitants. Palm trees with large root masses shoot into the air, as do cycads, which have a stout trunk at their base and large, tightly wound bundles of leaves at the top. Pygmy horses prance the verdant land. Opossums and armadillos share space with giant mice and salamanders. Birds with woodpecker- like beaks and short wings fill the air, but there are also powerful flightless ground-dwelling birds six feet (almost 2 meters) tall that are feasting on mammals. Large insects protect themselves by imitating tree leaves. Rat-size "longfingers" with tails twice the length of their bodies rip bark from the trees with their two clawlike fingers in hopes of finding insect larvae. Anteaters seethe as they eye giant ants an inch (2.5 centimeters) long, but these ants often make last-second getaways by spanning their wings a full six inches (15 centimeters) and beating a retreat.