47-mln-yr-old fossil “missing link” between humans and lemurs

May 20th, 2009 - 11:44 am ICT by ANI  

National Geographic Washington, May 20 (ANI): The analysis of a 47-million-year-old fossil, dubbed “Ida”, has led paleontologists to suggest that it is a critical “missing link” species in primate evolution, which connects humans and lemurs.

According to a report in National Geographic News, in a new book, documentary, and promotional Web site, paleontologist Jorn Hurum, who led the team that analyzed the 47-million-year-old fossil, suggests that the fossil bridges the evolutionary split between higher primates such as monkeys, apes, and humans and their more distant relatives such as lemurs.

“This is the first link to all humans,” said Hurum, of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. “Ida represents the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor,” he added.

Ida, properly known as Darwinius masillae, has a unique anatomy.

The lemur-like skeleton features primate-like characteristics, including grasping hands, opposable thumbs, clawless digits with nails, and relatively short limbs.

“This specimen looks like a really early fossil monkey that belongs to the group that includes us,” said Brian Richmond, a biological anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Richmond noted that there’s a big gap in the fossil record from this time period.

Researchers are unsure when and where the primate group that includes monkeys, apes, and humans split from the other group of primates that includes lemurs.

“Ida is one of the important branching points on the evolutionary tree, but it’s not the only branching point,” Richmond said.

At least one aspect of Ida is unquestionably unique: her incredible preservation, unheard of in specimens from the Eocene era, when early primates underwent a period of rapid evolution.

“From this time period there are very few fossils, and they tend to be an isolated tooth here or maybe a tailbone there,” Richmond explained.

“So you can’t say a whole lot of what that (type of fossil) represents in terms of evolutionary history or biology,” he added.

In Ida’s case, scientists were able to examine fossil evidence of fur and soft tissue and even picked through the remains of her last meal: fruits, seeds, and leaves.

What’s more, the newly described fossil was unearthed in Germany’s Messel Pit.

According to Richmond, Ida’s European origins are intriguing, because they could suggest-contrary to common assumptions-that the continent was an important area for primate evolution. (ANI)

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