Scientists hail stunning fossil  By Christine McGourty 
 Science correspondent, BBC News 

The beautifully preserved remains of a 47-million-year-old, lemur-like creature 
have been unveiled in the US.  
The preservation is so good, it is possible to see the outline of its fur and 
even traces of its last meal. 
The fossil, nicknamed Ida, is claimed to be a "missing link" between
today's higher primates - monkeys, apes and humans - and more distant
relatives. 
But some independent experts, awaiting an opportunity to see the new fossil, 
are sceptical of the claim. 
And they have been critical of the hype surrounding the presentation of Ida. 
The fossil was launched amid great fanfare at the American Museum of Natural 
History in New York, by the city's mayor. 
Although details of the fossil have only just been published in a
scientific journal - PLoS One - there is already a TV documentary and
book tie-in. 
“ She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings
developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line  ” 
Dr Jens Franzen 
Ida was discovered in the 1980s in a fossil treasure-trove called
Messel Pit, near Darmstadt in Germany. For much of the intervening
period, 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. 
He said 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 - and at first glance, Ida resembles a lemur. 
But the creature lacks primitive features such as a
so-called "toothcomb", a specialised feature in which the lower incisor
and canine teeth are elongated, crowded together and projecting
forward. She also lacks a special claw used for grooming. 
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 sceptical of 
any claim that it could be "a missing link". 
Dr Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term
itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to
evaluate its significance. 
"It's extremely nice to have a new find and it will be
well-studied," he said. But he added that it was not likely to be in
the same league as major discoveries such as "Flores man" or feathered
dinosaurs. 
Dr Chris Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and
author of The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey, said he was "awestruck" by the
publicity machine surrounding the new fossil. 
He argued that it could damage the popularisation of science if the creature 
was not all that it was hyped up to be. 
Dr Beard has not yet seen scientific details of the find but said that
it would be very nice to have a beautiful new fossil from the Eocene
and that Ida would be "a welcome new addition" to the world of early
primates. 
But he added: "I would be absolutely dumbfounded if it turns out to be a 
potential ancestor to humans." 
In the PLoS paper itself, the scientists do not actually claim the
specimen represents a direct ancestor to us. But Dr Hurum believes that
is exactly what Ida is. 
He told BBC News that the key to proving this lay in
the detail of the foot. The shape of a bone in the foot called the
talus looks "almost anthropoid". 
He said the team was now planning a 3D reconstruction of the foot which would 
prove this. 
"We're not finished with this specimen yet," said Dr Hurum. "There will be 
plenty more papers coming out." 
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/8057465.stm

Published: 2009/05/19 14:35:39 GMT

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