UPDATE: Monday night I watched a special called “The Link” on the History Channel about this new fossil of the species Darwinius Masillae. Like all History Channel shows it was long and drawn out as much as possible with way too much added drama- but excitement is what TV viewers want. So ignore all the hoopla, here’s the deal. This fossil is thought to be a transitional species between the prosimians (the family of modern lemurs) and the anthropoids, a family that comprises both monkeys and primates. The skeleton could be said to be a missing link between the prosimians and anthropoids in PRIMATE evolution. In my opinion “human” evolution didn’t start until the hominid break off from other anthropoids (like the great apes) around an estimated 6-8 million years ago. (Yes, theoretically it can be stretched to say this fossil is a link in human evolution, but since this little creature is over 47 million years old that is a little too fantastic for me. I see this as an advancement for primate evolutionary studies.)
Darwinius Masillae is the oldest known species to have adapted a talus bone in the ankle (shaped almost identical to modern humans) allowing for the possibility of upright walking. “Ida” may have looked more prosimian, but she had several other similarities to anthropoids, (such as nails opposed to claws and teeth more like monkeys instead of a toothcomb) making her the best discovery of what really could be the transition between the species.
Although, I think the fossil has received a lot of trumped up news reporting, and then a lot of criticism (most of which I think was due to the secretive way it was studied and the its dramatized unveiling) I must say that this is a very important fossil. Many more scientists will need to study the fossil for confirmation of the initial findings and some may possibly have different interpretations. But here’s why this fossil seems to be significant:
1. This is an Eocene fossil. A report from Science Daily did a good job briefly explaining the significance of the fossils age.
Known as “Ida,” the fossil is a transitional species – it shows characteristics from the very primitive non-human evolutionary line (prosimians, such as lemurs), but is more related to the human evolutionary line (anthropoids, such as monkeys, apes and humans). At 95% complete, the fossil provides the most complete understanding of the paleobiology of any Eocene primate so far discovered…..Ida lived 47 million years ago at a critical period in Earth’s history–the Eocene Epoch, a time when the blueprints for modern mammals were being established. Following the extinction of dinosaurs, the early horses, bats, whales and many other creatures including the first primates thrived on a subtropical planet. The Earth was just beginning to take the shape that we know and recognize today – the Himalayas were being formed and modern flora and fauna evolved. Land mammals, including primates, lived amid vast jungle.(from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090519104643.htm)
2. The fossil was not African, but European. It brings a new piece of the puzzle into evolutionary studies. It is interesting that our evolutionary line was made possible by adaptations in multiple regions and climates. This does, afterall, support the theory of evolution itself.