Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
'U' professors unveil alleged 'missing link'
Ancient fossil offers
alternative view of
By LARA ZADE
Managing News Editor
Two University professors were
part of an anthropological dream
team that recently unveiled a
47-million-year-old primate fossil
that sheds new light on the origins
Philip Gingerich, director of the
University's Museum of Paleontol-
ogy and B. Holly Smith, associate
research scientist of the Univer-
sity's Museum of Anthropology,
contributed to the study of a new
primate species, Darwinius masil-
lae - dubbed Ida for short. Ida
represents an arboreal quadruped
that roamed the forests of Messel,
Germany nearly 50 million years
The fossil is gaining attention
because it's one of the most com-
plete primate fossils ever recovered
and represents an ancient primate
group that researchers now believe
monkeys and apes - and, subse-
quently, humans later on - evolved
"It was a real privilege to study,
because I do have to say, I've never
seen a fossil that has so much
information out of it," Smith said.
Smith added that the fossil was
so well preserved that its stomach
contents were still intact.
Ida, is believed to have been a
weaned, juvenile female who died
before one year of age. She is a
member of the adapoid primates, a
group that was formerly thought to
have contributed solely to modern-
day lemurs and set aside from the
lineage of monkeys and apes.
But, Gingerich, Smith and the
the fossil concluded based on cer-
tain morphological characteristics
more similar to monkeys and apes
than to lemurs that the adapoid
group cannot be dismissed as an
outlier in human evolution.
"This animal has front teeth
incisors like ours, like monkeys
and apes and humans do," Gin-
gerich said. "It doesn't have point-
ed incisors like tarisers and not
combed incisors like lemurs. It
also has toes, and if it's a lemur it
should have a grooming claw, but
According to Gingerich, Ida was
found 20 to 25 years ago when an
amateur fossil hunter in Messel,
Germany, walked through a rock
pile and found a slab of rock and
split it in half. One half exhibited
an intact half of the fossil, while
the other half suffered from
numerous fractures, which its
discoverer tried to hide. ing public relations contribu-
The private collector then sold tions by fellow researcher Jorn H.
the broken half about 10 years Hurum from the Natural History
ago and kept the preserved half Museum at the University of Oslo.
hidden. It wasn't until about two "I have to say Jorn is by far the
years ago that the other half was best organizer I have ever seen,"
sold to the Natural History Muse- Gingerich said. "He organized the
um of the University of Oslo and TV program that (came) out Mon-
research began. day night, and the book that came
The fossil was so remarkably out simultaneously with the press
preserved because it was fossil- conference last Tuesday, and got
ized in an environment that lacked all of the scientists to have their
bacteria to decompose it. writing done, on the same day. Not
Though Ida's remarkable cir- many people can do that."
cumstances and preservation are Smith admittedthat she thought
newsworthy, the attention the fos- History's claim about Ida's discov-
sil has garnered thus far is unusu- ery is a "wild exaggeration," but
al. On May 19, a press conference that its significance will overcome
was held at the American Museum any outrageous generalizations.
of Natural History in New York "Whether or not in the end
City, while on the same day, a book people put (Ida) closer to the stem
was released. In addition, the tele- of human ancestry matters less to
vision channel History premiered me than that she's a good general
a special titled "The Link" last idea of what that ancestor could
night, vowing in its ads that Ida be like," Smith said. "It shows
would "change history forever." you very much what our ances-
Gingerich said he believes the tors would have been like at that
popularity is due to the outstand- time."
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