New fossil: Darwinius masillae

A magnificent new fossil of an early primate has been found. The fossil includes a carbon film that shows hair surrounding the animal. The only way to preserve these is to slide them onto a flat slab and, basically, varnish it. It has been named Darwinius masillae.

Darwinius masillae

It got a lot of publicity. It’s not every fossil that gets introduced with its own magazine article, TV special show, and nickname (“Ida”). It also cost a lot of money. The authors noted

The specimen has an unusual history: it was privately collected and sold in two parts, with only the lesser part previously known. The second part, which has just come to light, shows the skeleton to be the most complete primate known in the fossil record.

However, it’s not the missing link in human evolution. As PZ Myers points out, it’s far too early. He has a good discussion about what’s important about it–and what it’s not:

  • This is the most complete primate fossil ever discovered, down to body outline, fur and stomach contents.
  • It’s old–47 million years, right after the split between the strepsirrhines (lemurs and lorises) and the haplorhines (monkeys and apes).
  • It has both adult and juvenile teeth, giving us information about both life stages.

The same article is on Panda’s Thumb–with lively commentary. PZ notes

When [Brian Switek at] Laelaps says, “I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold,” I think he’s being spectacularly understated. [At Evolving Thoughts, John] Wilkins also knocks down the whole “missing link” label…. Laelaps has some serious reservations about the analysis — the authors may not have done as solid a cladistic analysis as they should, and its position in the family tree may not be as clear as it has been made out to be.

Check out the paper: Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, Smith BH (2009) Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723.

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