Paleontologist Tim White and David Micklos discuss Ida (Darwinius masillae), the 47 million year-old primate fossil. Ida, who most closely resembles the modern lemur, may be important to understanding evolution and human origins. However, media publicity by Jorn Hurum and Philip Gingerich, which touted Ida as a missing link, may have gone too far in promoting Ida as an early human ancestor.
Dave Micklos: Last week, a fantastically preserved fossil known 'Ida' was introduced to the world with a fanfare rarely seen in the scientific community. Unveiling the small skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described it as "an astonishing breakthrough". A press release boasted that it was the scientific find that would change everything about how we understand human origins. Ida was a squirrel-sized mammal that roamed central Europe about 47 million years ago. She's clearly a primate, the group of mammals that include humans, apes and monkeys, as well as more primitive lemurs. She had fingernails, hands optimized for grasping and forward-facing eyes. To most people, Ida looks like a lemur; more like the primitive side of the primate family tree. Now research by Jørn Hurum and Philip Gingerich claims that the fossil should be grouped with us and with other higher primates. Today I talked with Tim White, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkley, and I asked him what he thinks about Ida.
Tim White: It’s a great, great fossil and it tells us a lot about that grade of evolution, and as people study it and study the gut contents and the teeth and the development, we’re going to learn a lot about primates in the Eocene. So it’s roughly the kind of creature that we would have evolved from, but you can’t put your finger on it and say the missing link has now been found, turn off the lights; it’s 47 million years old, and there are many, many other places in the fossil record where we need more information. We’re just happy when we get information that’s as complete as this.
Dave Micklos: Right, so it was more the way that it was pitched. And you're known to be a very cautious person who waits until all the evidence is in, so why is it that paleontology has these controversies and these over-sells from time to time?
Tim White: I don’t understand any of the finances of this or the book deals or the TV deals or anything else, but having mayor Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, there to announce the fossil, I’m not sure whether that got Bloomberg more votes or fewer votes at the end of the day, but it certainly was hyped to a degree that I have not seen with any other fossil discovery; hominid, primate, dinosaur. You name it; this went well over the top.
Dave Micklos: Most of the scientific community seems to share Dr. White's reservations, and places Ida on the lemur side of the primate tree. Science magazine pointed out that the analysis by Hurum and Gingrich examined only 30 traits, where standard practice is to compare several hundreds. Richard Kay, a paleontologist at Duke University, even said that they had cherry-picked the data so to suit their analysis. Many scientists have rolled their eyes at this sensationalized announcement, which included a prime-time television documentary. Dr. Hurum added fuel to the fire when he claimed that any pop band is doing the same thing. Ultimately, Ida is an exquisite fossil that contains important clues about primate evolution, but will it change everything? Probably not.
Ida, Darwinius masillae, primate fossil, missing link, evolution, human origins, Paleontologist, Jorn Hurum, Philip Gingerich, Tim White, David Micklos
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