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Scientists hail stunning fossil

Posted in News by Skepdude on May 19, 2009

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “BBC NEWS”

The beautifully preserved remains of a 47-million-year-old, lemur-like creature have been unveiled in the US.

The preservation is so good, it is possible to see the outline of its fur and even traces of its last meal.

The fossil, nicknamed Ida, is claimed to be a “missing link” between today’s higher primates – monkeys, apes and humans – and more distant relatives.

But some independent experts, awaiting an opportunity to see the new fossil, are sceptical of the claim.

And they have been critical of the hype surrounding the presentation of Ida.

The fossil was launched amid great fanfare at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, by the city’s mayor.

Although details of the fossil have only just been published in a scientific journal – PLoS One – there is already a TV documentary and book tie-in.

Ida was discovered in the 1980s in a fossil treasure-trove called Messel Pit, near Darmstadt in Germany. For much of the intervening period, it has been in a private collection.

The investigation of the fossil’s significance was led by Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway.

He said the fossil creature was “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor” and described the discovery as “a dream come true”.

The female animal lived during an epoch in Earth history known as the Eocene, which was crucial for the development of early primates – and at first glance, Ida resembles a lemur.

But the creature lacks primitive features such as a so-called “toothcomb”, a specialised feature in which the lower incisor and canine teeth are elongated, crowded together and projecting forward. She also lacks a special claw used for grooming.

The team concluded that she was not simply another lemur, but a new species. They have called her Darwinius masillae, to celebrate her place of origin and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Dr Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel Pit and a member of the team, described Ida as “like the Eighth Wonder of the World”, because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton.

It was information “palaeontologists can normally only dream of”, he said.

In addition, Ida bears “a close resemblance to ourselves” he said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb – like humans and some other primates. But he said some aspects of the teeth indicate she is not a direct ancestor – more of an “aunt” than a “grandmother”.


READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “BBC NEWS”

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