Young Female Had Thumbs, Fingernails, May Have Walked

May 16, 2009 —

Scientists say a 47-million-year-old fossil found in Germany may be a key link to explain the evolution of early primates, and, ultimately, modern human beings.

The fossil, of a young female that probably resembled a modern-day lemur, is described as "the most complete primate fossil ever found." It is small -- with a body about the size of a raccoon -- but it has characteristics found in later primates and in humans.

It has, among other things, opposable thumbs, similar to humans' and unlike those found on other modern mammals. It has fingernails instead of claws. And scientists say they believe there is evidence it was able to walk on its hind legs.

Remains From a German Caldera

The find is being published next week in the online journal Public Library of Science - One (PLoS One for short). The cable channel History, which bought the North American documentary rights to the find, provided exclusive details to ABC News.

"She is a transitional species showing characteristics from both the non-human (prosimians and lemurs) and human (anthropoids, monkeys, apes and man) evolutionary lines," said the producers in a statement reviewed by the authors of the PLoS One paper.

It was discovered by amateur fossil hunters in 1983 in a mile-wide crater called the Messel Shale Pit, not far from Frankfurt. Scientists speculate that at one time the pit was a volcanic caldera, where animals got caught and their remains unusually were well preserved. The amateurs recognized that they had a very good fossil, but they did not recognize its potential importance.

The location, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been the source of many other fossils from the Eocene Period, about 50 million years ago.

The fossil was shown by collectors to Dr. Jorn Hurum of the University of Oslo, who brought in colleagues from Oslo and Norway's Senckenberg Research Institute to authenticate the find. They bought the specimen so that it would not disappear into private hands.

Examination of the fossil went on for two years. They have called the specimen Darwinius masillae. The researchers were able to keep their work secret until word leaked out in the last week.

Fossil May Be Evolution 'Link'

Hurum's team said 98 percent of the fossil's skeleton appears intact. It has a long, curling tail. X-rays show it was young; it had baby teeth and, beneath them, adult teeth forming to replace them. There also was evidence that the animal had once broken its wrist.

Evolution Debate

It is hard to say what the find may do to the modern debate over evolution. The fossil, for one thing, is far older than any of the human ancestors other scientists have reported finding in what is now eastern Africa. "Lucy," probably the best-known African fossil that is generally accepted as pre-human, is somewhat more than three million years old.

This year happens to be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, originator of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Most scientists, following Darwin, believe that humans and modern apes had common ancestors, but the fossil record has had gaps in it.

The fossil is to be unveiled Tuesday, when the paper is released in PLoS One and a news conference takes place in New York. The fossil will be shown on "Good Morning America" to coincide with the announcement. History plans to air its two-hour documentary, titled "The Link," on Monday, May 25.

Via ABC news

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You know.. in the atheist/agnostic and scientific community, it isn't hailed with much glory. It is just something we always expected to find eventually. It's something that even without skeletal remains preserved, we always assumed computer replications would create with the use of advanced DNA and mitochondrial samples.

To the religious community, they now have another argument. It is evolution at work.
"My ancestors were NOT monkeys!"
"My ancestors were NOT lemurs!"

The god of gaps grows ever smaller.

~le sigh~
I can see it now. "First science said that we came from monkeys, now it says we come from these lemur things! Science keeps changing its story!"
That's fairly accurate, doone. A common 'attack' on science is that it changes, while the Bible (or Koran, etc) remains static, never changing. People who make this claim seem to value a static, unchanging 'truth' over all else, even if that truth is inaccurate.
Oddly enough, I just ran across a Youtube video referencing this very topic.
Although it kind of implies it, the article doesn't say the wrist was broken and healed (unless I missed it). So maybe it took a fall and broke its wrist, this prevented it from climbing back out of the crater, and there it died. /shrug/
Anyone see GMA this morning? I was walking out the door when they did the little "coming up" intro. He referred to it as a monkey, which I found slightly annoying; but I was in too much of a hurry to stick around and see how badly they butchered the coverage.
Well I guess even Science is even referring to it as "monkey like."
On Google today:
This video is stating this species is a direct descendant to primates and to humans.

Also nice bit that they comment that it is a "transitional species."

PZ has a nice writeup he posted last night:

This is an important new fossil, a 47 million year old primate nicknamed Ida. She's a female juvenile who was probably caught in a toxic gas cloud from a volcanic lake, and her body settled into the soft sediments of the lake, where she was buried undisturbed.

What's so cool about it? (click here to read the rest)
I love the fact that you can still see the flesh outlines!


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