The Missing Link — Not

Oct 21, 2009 5:54pm

Remember Ida?  A team of paleontologists now says that unless you're really into evolutionary biology, you can pretty much forget her.

Back in May, you may recall, the History cable channel made a big splash — and got big ratings — with the unveiling of a 47-million-year-old primate fossil from Germany.  The scientific name: Darwinius masillae, though Jorn Hurum of the University of Oslo, who led the team examining it, nicknamed it "Ida" after his six-year-old daughter.

History provocatively called its documentary on Ida "The Link."

But it's not, according to a paper today in the journal Nature.

"A 37-million-year-old fossil primate from Egypt, described today in Nature, moves a controversial German fossil known as Ida out of the human lineage," writes Rex Dalton of Nature's staff:

"Teeth and ankle bones of the new Egyptian specimen show that the 47-million-year-old Ida, formally called Darwinius masillae, is not in the lineage of early apes and monkeys (haplorhines), but instead belongs to ancestors (adapiforms) of today's lemurs and lorises."

In fairness, Hurum and his colleagues had equivocated on Ida's importance back in May. Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany, at the New York news conference unveiling her: "We are not dealing with our grand, grand grandmother, but perhaps with our grand, grand, grand aunt."  (See my previous post from May HERE.)

She's not even that, according to Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University and his colleagues in the new analysis.  Though Ida has features similar to those of more direct human ancestors, they're a biological accident: "the features are likely to have been acquired through convergent evolution."

Hurum, in an e-mail to the British publication The Scientist, took exception: "this does not exclude at least some [lemur-like primates] from being members of the stem group from which all higher primates evolved."

So the debate is not settled among scientists.  But about two million people watched the History channel's show.(Image: "The Link"/Atlantic Productions. Used with permission.)

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