Darwinius masillae

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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.

darwinius.jpeg

What’s so cool about it?

Age. It’s 47 million years old. That’s interestingly old…it puts us deep into the primate family tree.

Preservation. This is an awesome fossil: it’s almost perfectly complete, with all the bones in place, preserved in its death posture. There is a halo of darkly stained material around it; this is a remnant of the flesh and fur that rotted in place, and allows us to see a rough outline of the body and make estimates of muscle size. Furthermore, the guts and stomach contents are preserved. Ida’s last meal was fruit and leaves, in case you wanted to know.

Life stage. Ida is a young juvenile, estimate to be right on the transition from requiring parental care to independent living. That means she has a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth — she’s a two-fer, giving us information about both.

Phylogeny. A cladistic analysis of the fossil revealed another interesting point. There are two broad groups of primates: the strepsirrhines, which includes the lemurs and lorises, and the haplorhines, which includes monkeys and apes…and us, of course. Ida’s anatomy places her in the haplorhines with us, but at the same time she’s primitive. This is an animal caught shortly after a major branch point in primate evolutionary history.

She’s beautiful and interesting and important, but I do have to take exception to the surprisingly frantic news coverage I’m seeing. She’s being called the “missing link in human evolution”, which is annoying. The whole “missing link” category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge. It’s also inappropriate to tag this discovery to human evolution. She’s 47 million years old; she’s also a missing link in chimp evolution, or rhesus monkey evolution. She’s got wider significance than just her relationship to our narrow line.

People have been using remarkable hyperbole when discussing Darwinius. She’s going to affect paleontology “like an asteroid falling down to earth”; she’s the “Mona Lisa” of fossils; she answers all of Darwin’s questions about transitional fossils; she’s “something that the world has never seen before”; “a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything”. Well, OK. I was impressed enough that I immediately made Ida my desktop wallpaper, so I’m not trying to diminish the importance of the find. But let’s not forget that there are lots of transitional forms found all the time. She’s unique as a representative of a new species, but she isn’t at all unique as a representative of the complex history of life on earth.

When Laelaps says, “I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold,” I think he’s being spectacularly understated. Wilkins also knocks down the whole “missing link” label. The hype is bad news, not because Ida is unimportant, but because it detracts from the larger body of the fossil record — I doubt that the media will be able to muster as much excitement from whatever new fossil gets published in Nature or Science next week, no matter how significant it may be.

Go ahead and be excited by this find, I know I am. Just remember to be excited tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, because this is perfectly normal science, and it will go on.


Laelaps has some serious reservations about the analysis — the authors may not have done as solid a cladistic analysis as they should, and its position in the family tree may not be as clear as it has been made out to be.


Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, Smith BH (2009) Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723.

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Another super-cool day at PLoS (one of those days when I wish I was not telecommuting, but sharing in the excitement with the colleagues at the Mothership) - the publication of a very exciting article describing a rarely well-preserved fossil... Read More

Can’t help but feel that this is getting a little silly. Darwinius masillae is a nice beautifully preserved specimen, it’s an interesting specimen, but it’s not THE missing link. Bora has complete links to the media circus. For more ... Read More

191 Comments

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

So, two new gaps in the fossil record then?

But seriously, I wonder how long before the moron brigade starts touting the “It’s not the Missing Link” line.

NGL said:

So, two new gaps in the fossil record then?

But seriously, I wonder how long before the moron brigade starts touting the “It’s not the Missing Link” line.

They already have, over at UD. And yes, you aped their complaint perfectly with the two new gaps comment. They complain that a haplorhine that has some lemur-like features (my words, not theirs) makes determining ancestry “more complicated,” rather than demonstrating common descent.

. It’s 47 million years old. That’s interestingly old…it puts us deep into the primate family tree

47 million years old–my arse! This thing looks like it was cobbled together with spare ceramic chips from the local Chia Pet factory. If I sculpt some melted plastic into something that looks like an alien fetus, cover it in shellac, and call it a “fossil” can I get a huge grant from the National Science Foundation too?

@ Toidel: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

@PZ: I disagree about how excited we should be. I have never seen a fossil in the primate lineage that is as beautiful, as dramatic, as heartbreaking as this. It simultaneously is an important piece of a broad story, *and* a stunning reveal of one individual’s extraordinary story. But it is a bit creepy to use a picture of a dead girl as your computer desktop…

I am also troubled by a lot of the extravagant claims about this fossil that I have read in the media. Especially annoying are claims such as “Darwinian evolution finally proved,” as if the theory of evolution had no proof until today. It’s amazing to me how many times the theory has “finally been proved” in the last 150 years.

The whole idea of a “missing link” bothers me too. One fossil can never be a missing link. It’s simply a single snapshot of a single instance of a species as it existed in one moment of time. Technically, there will always be “missing links” because we do not have, and never will have, access to the fossilized remains of every single animal that has ever existed.

“The whole “missing link” category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge.”

How do you know “there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge”? The fossil record is one of sudden fully formed appearance and Stasis is it not?

NGL said:

So, two new gaps in the fossil record then?

But seriously, I wonder how long before the moron brigade starts touting the “It’s not the Missing Link” line.

I’m waiting for the more insidious tactics of 1) claiming that the stomach contents prove that it can’t be that old and/or 2) quote mining the bit about parts of the study plate (Plate B) being “faked” to give it the impression of more completeness.

Troy said:

How do you know “there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge”? The fossil record is one of sudden fully formed appearance and Stasis is it not?

And we’re off on another round of “distract attention from the Fact that evolution occurs by quibbling about examples that show different rates of evolution”

KP said: I’m waiting for the more insidious tactics of 1) claiming that the stomach contents prove that it can’t be that old

How else do you explain the CHEEZ-ITs found in Ida’s stomach?

Phatty said:

I am also troubled by a lot of the extravagant claims about this fossil that I have read in the media.

The problem is, they are more in the business of selling something than in reporting accurately. “Missing Link Found!” will get more pairs of eyes looking at the newspaper/magazine/website that will also see the advertisers’ ads and keep money coming in. Ultimately this will lead to self-preservation because money coming in means the journalist keeps his/her job. It’s actually positive natural selection at work…

The scientists who go along with the sensationalist actions of the media believe that they are benefitting science by appealing to a broad public audience, so they are willing to sacrifice accuracy for “the greater good.”

However, I think this approach ultimately harms the scientific community. Lay people eventually will become desensitized to these discoveries, or worse, develop a distrust for scientists in general. When most people think of the term “missing link” they are pre-conditioned to believe it refers to some hypothetical creature that has a mix of human and ape features. So, when they see a giant headline on a news site about the discovery of “the missing link” they click on the story and see a picture that isn’t anything like what they expected. “That’s no ape-man, that’s just a skeleton of a spider monkey! F’n scientists are full of sh–.”

Phatty said:

KP said: I’m waiting for the more insidious tactics of 1) claiming that the stomach contents prove that it can’t be that old

How else do you explain the CHEEZ-ITs found in Ida’s stomach?

Yeah, good question, fruits and leaves after 47 million years–that stuff won’t last a week in the refrigerator! I wonder if they are trying to “preserve” the so-called last meal? Why does it only start to decay once people start looking at it?

Toidel, I hope for your sake that you’re a particularly bad troll, because I find it hard to believe that just one person can be that monumentally stupid.

Speaking of stupidity, anyone happen to hop over to UD and read O’Leary’s latest ramblings about Ida? The logic she uses to disprove evolutionary theory is especially amusing.

Phatty said:

KP said: I’m waiting for the more insidious tactics of 1) claiming that the stomach contents prove that it can’t be that old

How else do you explain the CHEEZ-ITs found in Ida’s stomach?

Are you sure you weren’t thinking of Cheetoh’s? Especially Jesus Cheetohs?

Dave

I find the media slash over the monkey pretty interesting. It sounds like we are at the start of it too – looking like it may be a two year media blitz showing that after all these years, Darwin’s theory is finally been demonstrated as true.

You ever look into who owns the National Geographic Channel? That would be Rupert Murdoch, the same guy who owns Fox News and published topless girls in his newspaper in England daily. He is also the same guy that made big news recently in publishing his little Darwinian themed comic with the cops shooting a monkey dead wherein everyone is to equate the monkey with the less fit Negro, the president of the United States. The cartoon when around on the kids cell phones and you know most of them got it right away – monkey, nigger ha ha ha.

Now Murdoch is going to give lots of coverage to the idea that Darwin was correct via the National Geographic channel, you know, to help science eduction in his own way I suppose. Didn’t he help support the book “the Bell Curve” which elevates the idea that racism is a real biological thing – the black folk being closer to having monkey brains and all – a book funded by a political group who wanted to justify blaming the welfare mom for everything. One would almost think that there could be a political reason for elevating Darwin’s theory and Murdoch is running with it – I think maybe he wants to get the baboon out of office – gee, I wonder if they will show some old images of drawing relating the black man to being closer to the monkey while they do this media blitz – I bet yes.

Troy said:

I find the media slash over the monkey pretty interesting. It sounds like we are at the start of it too – looking like it may be a two year media blitz showing that after all these years, Darwin’s theory is finally been demonstrated as true.

You ever look into who owns the National Geographic Channel? That would be Rupert Murdoch, the same guy who owns Fox News and published topless girls in his newspaper in England daily. He is also the same guy that made big news recently in publishing his little Darwinian themed comic with the cops shooting a monkey dead wherein everyone is to equate the monkey with the less fit Negro, the president of the United States. The cartoon when around on the kids cell phones and you know most of them got it right away – monkey, nigger ha ha ha.

Now Murdoch is going to give lots of coverage to the idea that Darwin was correct via the National Geographic channel, you know, to help science eduction in his own way I suppose. Didn’t he help support the book “the Bell Curve” which elevates the idea that racism is a real biological thing – the black folk being closer to having monkey brains and all – a book funded by a political group who wanted to justify blaming the welfare mom for everything. One would almost think that there could be a political reason for elevating Darwin’s theory and Murdoch is running with it – I think maybe he wants to get the baboon out of office – gee, I wonder if they will show some old images of drawing relating the black man to being closer to the monkey while they do this media blitz – I bet yes.

So you’re saying that this fossil is getting over-hyped because…Rupert Murdoch hates black people? Do you even listen to yourself?

Troy said:

I find the media slash over the monkey pretty interesting. It sounds like we are at the start of it too – looking like it may be a two year media blitz showing that after all these years, Darwin’s theory is finally been demonstrated as true.

You ever look into who owns the National Geographic Channel? That would be Rupert Murdoch, the same guy who owns Fox News and published topless girls in his newspaper in England daily. He is also the same guy that made big news recently in publishing his little Darwinian themed comic with the cops shooting a monkey dead wherein everyone is to equate the monkey with the less fit Negro, the president of the United States. The cartoon when around on the kids cell phones and you know most of them got it right away – monkey, nigger ha ha ha.

Now Murdoch is going to give lots of coverage to the idea that Darwin was correct via the National Geographic channel, you know, to help science eduction in his own way I suppose. Didn’t he help support the book “the Bell Curve” which elevates the idea that racism is a real biological thing – the black folk being closer to having monkey brains and all – a book funded by a political group who wanted to justify blaming the welfare mom for everything. One would almost think that there could be a political reason for elevating Darwin’s theory and Murdoch is running with it – I think maybe he wants to get the baboon out of office – gee, I wonder if they will show some old images of drawing relating the black man to being closer to the monkey while they do this media blitz – I bet yes.

Your reasoning is retarded for several reasons, chief of them being that anyone who thinks Rupert Murdoch would support the theory of evolution is highly deluded.

We’re talking about the same Rupert Murdoch, right? The very same one that owns Fox News? The channel that is openly anti-progress, anti-science, and anti-evolution? The channel where people like Pawn Hannity and Bill O’RLY constantly make sarcastic remarks about the evils of evolution, and about how atheists are destroying the world?

THAT Rupert Murdoch?

Dave C said:

So you’re saying that this fossil is getting over-hyped because…Rupert Murdoch hates black people? Do you even listen to yourself?

And yet, the admins don’t feel it’s necessary to ban this moronic, racist-conspiracy theory idiot.

But, getting back on topic: given as how Ida was a haplorhine, would she have looked more like a marmoset, a howler monkey or a spider monkey when she was alive?

Troy just wrote the most racist, most disgusting post I have seen yet on PT. But I find his candor refreshing. That is what religious fundamentalism is all about, bigotry and ignorance. Troy has wonderfully summed up what Creationism is all about.

Stanton: Do you think the admins spends every moment of their time monitoring comments? I’m going to guess they just haven’t seen that one yet and it will likely take a trip to the bathroom wall soon.

I for one think comparing Ida to the Mona Lisa is quite appropriate in that both are beautiful treasures. The number of fossils of any kind with such preservation is tiny.

All the other hyperbole and “missing link” nonsense is so unbelievably frustrating. This fossil is so amazing to begin with you don’t need to make things up!

Did some quick fact checking, turns out Rupert Murdoch does have a stake in the Nat Geo Channel.

The National Geographic Society, NBC, and Fox Entertainment Group (Fox) announced today plans to expand globally the National Geographic Channel. Fox today becomes a 50 percent owner of the Channel’s operations worldwide except for territories covered by National Geographic U.K., in which British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) is a partner. NBC and National Geographic Television (NGT) will each retain 25 percent interest and the three partners intend to expand the Channel worldwide from its current base of 54 countries and nearly 40 million households. NGT, NBC, and Fox intend to grow the existing territories and to expand into new ones, including the U.S.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/t[…]/990505.html

Of course that fact is pretty meaningless considering that National Geographic has supported science related to evolution since before Rupert Murdoch was even born.

Toidel Mahoney said:

47 million years old–my arse!

You have a remarkably well-preserved arse.

Lost in all this noise is just how interesting this find is, in terms of how much we learn that’s really new, that we didn’t know before. I’m reading a lot more surprise at the quality of the fossil than I am at its features. It’s not like we didn’t already know that these branches split sometime back, and pretty much when it happened (within a few million years, given that branchings of slower-breeding organisms probably happen more slowly).

So what’s new? What’s exciting? What’s unexpected?

Flint said:I’m reading a lot more surprise at the quality of the fossil than I am at its features.

Well, high-quality fossils with a compelling back-story are just so damn cool. Personally I think the context of this creature’s life in the Messel fossil site community is a far more interesting story than the mass-consumption “missing link” blather.

Messel just keeps belching forth amazingness:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/g[…]re=347579452

Well damn, I guess I ought to go ahead and link the Ida pictures from that site, too, since in addition to being super-awesome, they also have some Messel context photos in the collection:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/g[…]re=347579933

jfx said:

Well damn, I guess I ought to go ahead and link the Ida pictures from that site, too, since in addition to being super-awesome, they also have some Messel context photos in the collection:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/g[…]re=347579933

The Messel fossils have to be specially treated in resin, after carefully removing the water without damaging the shale through drying. Otherwise, once removed from the boggy region that is the Messel pit, the shale dries out and crumbles apart.

Can we please ignore the wankers this time around? That would be nice. I will try.

Romartus - saw some of the show - what I focused on was the continual repetition of 47 m. years with no attempt to explain why they chose this figure.

God save the queens.

Novparl said:

Romartus - saw some of the show - what I focused on was the continual repetition of 47 m. years with no attempt to explain why they chose this figure.

I keep telling you. A = A(0)*eEXP(-lambda*t).

It keeps your house from burning down around your ears, provides our country with 25% of its electricity, lets Cassini and Huygens explore Saturn, AND dates rocks.

Nonpareil Novparl wanked:

I see that your bleeding-heart LA Times is about to go bust. Ah well, it’s survival of the fittest, I spose. Or in the case of most of you, I suspect, the fattest.

So what has this have to do with the fact that you have been proven wrong about everything you’ve lied about Darwin or Evolutionary Biology? How come you’ve never addressed the fact that none of the books on Intelligent Design don’t address the concept of love? I mean, according to your moronic logic, that means that the concept of love does not exist in Intelligent Design. And this appears to be very true, given your own gross lack of empathy or compassion or decency.

That, and you never did explain whether or not you’d trust your life to an “evolutionist” doctor.

Well, unfortunately I have other interests, unlike you monomaniacs,

You mean like bragging to your drinking buddies how you’re being mistreated, or fantasizing how atheists and “darwinists” engage in nonsensical magic Nazi rituals that affirm hate and bestiality?

so I must leave you to your mutual wanking society. I’ll prob be back tmorrer.

If we’re the insane monomaniacs, then why are you the one who comes back to repeat the exact same lies and insults and same gleeful wanking about how you’re mistreated by the evil atheists and “darwinists” time and time again?

Sincerely, in the name of Jebus Price - Heil Darwin.

And how is this supposed explain why only creationist and intelligent design organizations have statements of faith that dictate what evidence they can and can not accept? How is this supposed to be evidence that Darwin, and not Hitler, committed the atrocities in Nazi Europe?

Romartus - saw some of the show - what I focused on was the continual repetition of 47 m. years with no attempt to explain why they chose this figure.

That’s because they used radiometric dating arrive at the age of 47 million years.

eric said:

Novparl said:

Romartus - saw some of the show - what I focused on was the continual repetition of 47 m. years with no attempt to explain why they chose this figure.

I keep telling you. A = A(0)*eEXP(-lambda*t).

It keeps your house from burning down around your ears, provides our country with 25% of its electricity, lets Cassini and Huygens explore Saturn, AND dates rocks.

You have to remember that we’re dealing with a person who is so arrogantly stupid that he has to congratulate himself everytime he demonstrates that he is too maliciously stupid to understand basic facts.

The earth is flat and you have the right to say so. Freedom of speech. Never mind the truth. If Darwinius masillae is not a missing link, then prove it. Because we don’t have to prove to you that you’re wrong. You have to prove to us that you’re right. The earth is round and there’re thousands of pictures from outer space to prove it. But you may still cling to the flat-earth-theory. It’s your right. Never mind the truth.

The earth is indeed round, my dear Ptolemaeus.

But you have to prove that this little fossil-feller is the missing link. Like it had to be proved that the earth is round, that radio waves exist (Marconi), etc.

That is the scientific method. And it includes challenges to receive ideas.

Heil Darwin!

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Bill said:

As for the age, 47 million years, they have absolutely no idea of what the real age is, nor do I. It is nothing more than wishful thinking, unsubstantiated guess work, and the usual desperation by a pseudo-science who’s religion gets hammered every day due to it’s total lack of “real” data. ….. I love astronomy, physics, quantum physic, sub-atomic research because of their enlightenment of the wonders of our universe, so this is not an attack on science but on pseudo-science posing as a credible scientific endeavor.

Bill, It is the quantum physics that determines the age of Ida. Study up on radioactive nuclide decay, particularly potassium-argon, while you are ‘loving’ quantum physics

novparl said: But you have to prove that this little fossil-feller is the missing link. Like it had to be proved that the earth is round, that radio waves exist (Marconi), etc.

That is the scientific method. And it includes challenges to receive ideas.

No, that’s a false hurdle added by the media, which is stuck in a 1930’s understanding of evolution. Read the comments in this thread novparl and you’ll see that many many people have made the point that there is no singular, unique “missing link” and that the media mischaracterizes Ida when it calls it that.

For mainstream evolutionary science it is simply enough to observe that this this is a fossil with traits shared between two separate branches and an age close to that where those branches were expected to separate. Exactly as evolution would predict. Such a find is completely inconsistent with separate creation (which does not explain the shared traits) or a young earth (which does not explain the age, or why such fossils occur in only one strata and not in more modern strata with lemurs etc…).

novparl wrote:

“…saw some of the show - what I focused on was the continual repetition of 47 m. years with no attempt to explain why they chose this figure.”

If you had bothered to read the paper linked above you would know how they arrived at the date. The reference is provided in the article. Do you have a better estimate for the date?

As for proving that this is a “missing link” the only requirement is that it be shown to possess characteristics intermediate between the two major primate lineages. How do you explain this particular combination of characteristics appearing in one individual?

Novpari proves once again that “I don’t want to believe it” is not an argument.

Bill wrote:

“As for the age, 47 million years, they have absolutely no idea of what the real age is, nor do I. It is nothing more than wishful thinking, unsubstantiated guess work, and the usual desperation by a pseudo-science who’s religion gets hammered every day due to it’s total lack of “real” data. …..”

Actually Bill, if you had bothered to read the article you would have discovered that the desposits were dated four years before the specimen was described using standard dating techniques, nothing “unsubstantiated” or “desperate” about it.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on May 19, 2009 3:04 PM.

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