Scientists have discovered an exquisitely preserved ancient primate fossil that they believe forms a crucial “missing link” between our own evolutionary branch of life and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The 47 million year old primate – named Ida – has been hailed as the fossil equivalent of a “Rosetta Stone” for understanding the critical early stages of primate evolution.
The top-level international research team, who have studied her in secret for the past two years, believe she is the most complete and best preserved primate fossil ever uncovered. The skeleton is 95% complete and thanks to the unique location where she died, it is possible to see individual hairs covering her body and even the make-up of her final meal – a last vegetarian snack.
“This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all the mammals; with cows and sheep, and elephants and anteaters,” said Sir David Attenborough who is narrating a BBC documentary on the find. “The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo.”
“This will be the one pictured in the textbooks for the next hundred years,” said Dr Jørn Hurum, the palaeontologist from Oslo University’s Natural History Museum who assembled the scientific team to study the fossil. “It tells a part of our evolution that’s been hidden so far. It’s been hidden because the only [other] specimens are so incomplete and so broken there’s nothing almost to study.” The fossil has been formally named Darwinius masillae in honour of Darwin’s 200th birthday year.
It has been shipped across the Atlantic for an unveiling ceremony hosted by the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg today. There is even talk of Ida being the first non-living thing to feature on the front cover of People magazine.
I’ve always wondered; if we evolved from monkeys, why do we still have monkeys?
Evolution does not at all mean that an ancestor species dies out. Usually there is a split and the two lines continue independently. For example, scorpions, and spiders, crayfish, and lobsters, have a common ancestor but all four lines still exist with multiple, even thousands of species in each branch.
Monkeys stayed in the trees and our branch took the biped approach with great success. Some splits (much more recent splits) along our branch were ultimately not successful, like the Neanderthal variation.