“Missing Link” Found? No, But it’s a Cool Fossil

May 20, 2009 4:45pm

Ida, the 47-million-year-old primate fossil found in Germany and unveiled on Tuesday, is a no-question big moment in paleontology.  But we noticed that the lead search term today in Google Trends was "Missing Link found" — and that’s a reasonable way of looking for information, but it doesn’t tell you why Ida matters.  The scientists who worked on it say that if you’re looking for the real "missing link" — a transitional fossil that links human beings with their primate ancestors — this is not it. Ida — Darwinius masillae to biologists — is more than 40 million years too old for that.  Jorn Hurum, the University of Oslo scientist who led the work, told us she is certainly a link between early primates and more recent ones, but even he says we cannot know if she is a direct ancestor of humans. The actual paper on Darwinius masillae, by Hurum and five colleagues, is in the journal PLoS One, and you can find it HERE.  One line from it: "Note that 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." Instead, Hurum says, Ida may be of lasting importance, partly because she is remarkably preserved, and, perhaps more important to the rest of us, because she provides us with this image:

("The Link"/Atlantic Productions. Used with permission.) This is an artist’s rendering of what Ida may have looked in life — more like a modern shrew or a lemur than our classical image of an ape or chimpanzee.  The colors in this version (there are others) are supposition, but they’re a reasonable guess.  Hurum said if this picture appears in the textbooks (or on the websites) of the future, it will change people’s view of their possible roots.

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