Explains what Fossil Ida is, how it was discovered, and how it contributes to our understanding of Human Evolution. Finally, it answers the question whether Fossil Ida is the eagerly sought after "Missing Link" in Human Evolution.
Fossil Ida: The Missing Link?
By Cleveland Glass
Ida is a , recently discovered, 47 million year old primate fossil,
who was originally thought to be a Lemur-like creature, but
upon closer examination was found to have features that are
strikingly similar to our own. She is, therefore, believed to be
a transitional species between Prosimians (Lemurs and their
kin) and Simians ( Monkey, Apes, and Human Beings).
Ida has been proclaimed as our evolutionary link to the rest of
the animal kingdom. Sir David Attenborough said, “This little
creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of the
mammals.”…”The link they would have said up to now is
missing – well it’s no longer missing.”
Fossil Ida was discovered by an amateur fossil hunter,
in the summer of 1983, at Messel pit, near Frankfurt,
Germany, where she had been preserved in the
oil shale. Interestingly, being unaware of the fossils
significance, the original owner kept it a secret for 20
Messel Pit may
have looked like
this during the
(47 million years
At the time Ida lived, 47 million years ago,
Messel pit was a volcanic lake surrounded by
sub-tropical forest. Because of its unique
environment, Messel has yielded a good variety
of artifacts, including fossils of insects, bats,
crocodiles and pygmy horses.
Dr Jørn Hurum
Dr Jørn Hurum, Vertebrate Palaeontologist, was the first to
recognize the significance of the fossil. In 2006, Hurum was
approached by a private dealer, Thomas Perner, who offered
him the fossil for $1 million at an annual Fossil and Mineral
Fair in Germany. Hurum then sought to find a natural history
museum able to pay for the specimen. Eventually, Hurum
convinced the Natural History Museum of Oslo to secure it.
The specimen was named after Dr Hurum’s daughter, Ida
Dr Jens Franzen
Professor Philip Gingerich
Following its acquisition, Dr Hurum put together a Dream
Team of Internationally renowned scientists that studied Ida for
for a period of two years to determine its significance.
The team included Professor Philip Gingerich and Dr Holly
Smith of the University of Michigan, along with Dr. Jens
Franzen and Dr. Jörg Habersetzer of the Senckenberg Research
The team chose to publish their finding in PLoS ONE, the open
access journal of the Public Library of Science, rather than in the
most prestigious scientific journals. Dr Hurum explained that
he wanted to make the information available to as many people
as possible, without having to charge them.
Because of her extraordinary
preservation, Ida is the most
complete fossil primate ever
discovered, being 95%
complete, with only its left rear
leg missing. Prior to Ida’s
discovery, Lucy was the most
famous primate in the world,
and she was only 40%
X-rays performed on fossil Ida reveal that she had a fractured
left wrist, which may have contributed to her death. “Scientists
speculate she was overcome by carbon dioxide fumes while
drinking from the Messel lake. Hampered by her broken wrist,
she slipped into unconsciousness, was washed into the lake and
sank to the bottom, where unique fossilization conditions
preserved her for 47 million years.” (Wikipedia)
Based on radiometric dating of
Messel’s volcanic rock,
scientists have determined
that Ida lived 47 million years
ago during the Eocene period.
“During that period, the first
whales, horses, bats and
monkeys emerged, and the early
primates branched into two
groups”.. Alex Watts, Sky
The scientific name for Ida’s species is Darwinius Masillae.
The genus Darwinius was named in celebration of Charles
Darwin on his bicentenary. The species was named masillae
in commemoration of Messel, the place where the specimen
Ida was a small Lemur-like monkey, about 3ft long, from head
to tail. The lack of a bacculum (penis bone) indicates that she
was a female. Scientists believe that she was only 9 months
old when she died (Equivalent to a 6 year old child).
Ida had jagged molars that allowed her to slice food and an
analysis of her gut contents showed that her last meal
consisted leaves and seeds.
Ida is missing two key anatomical features that are found in
1) Grooming Claw on the foot.
2) Toothcomb in the lower row of
teeth. (Used for grooming fur)
So what are Ida’s human-like features that have
convinced scientists that she is a transitional
1) A short face rather than the long face that is typical
2) Forward focusing eyes which probably gave her
3-D, binocular vision.
3) Human-like nails rather than claws.
4) Five fingers with human-like opposable thumbs.
This gave her precision grip for climbing and
5) Flexible arms and short limbs.
6) A distinctive ankle “talus” bone. (Which humans
So, Is Ida (Darwinius masillae ) the so
called “Missing Link” in Human
Scientists say NO – for the following
1) There is no evidence to suggest that
Ida’s species is a direct ancestor of
2) She is only one of many links in the
long chain of Human Evolution.
However,“Ida is a remarkably complete specimen that promises
to teach us a great deal about the biology of some of the earliest
and least human-like of all known primates, the Eocene
adapiforms. For this, we can all celebrate her discovery as a real
advance for science. “ Chris Beard (New Science Magazine)