Science

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Jennifer Graylock/AP
Ida, a 47 million-year-old primate fossil.

Hype Over “Missing Link” Fossil Ida Draws Skeptics

May 20, 2009 06:00 PM
by Liz Colville
Ida, a fossil that some are calling a “missing link” between apes and humans, may be overhyped, but organizers say the media frenzy is promoting science.

Ida Unveiled in New York Amid PR Campaign

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Ida, a fossil of a small, female mammal who died in her first year of life, was unveiled at New York’s American Museum of Natural History on May 19 after years in the shadows. The fossil was discovered in 1983 and split in two, according to Science magazine, with one half housed in a museum in Wyoming and the other kept by a private collector, until it was bought by Jorn Hurum of the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum.

Ida is an “unusually intact primate fossil dating to 47 million years ago, a time when most primates looked more like squirrels than people,” according to Nature’s blog The Great Beyond. Ida has been described as both monkey-like and lemur-like, illustrating the mixed views currently circulating about her lineage and significance.

The fossil is not believed to be a “missing link” species between apes and humans, according to several experts, though National Geographic reports that Hurum calls Ida “the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor.”
Hurum is embracing extensive coverage of the fossil’s public debut for science’s sake. As he put it to The New York Times, “Any pop band is doing the same thing. … We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Ida has her own Web site, a film called “The Link” to be shown on the History Channel and the BBC in the U.K, spots on ABC News programs and a book, also called “The Link,” The Times added. Her debut at the American Museum of Natural History was accompanied by a press release and attended by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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Background: Uncovering Ida

National Geographic reports that Ida’s scientific name is Darwinius masillae. She was found in Germany’s so-called Messel Pit, near Darmstadt. The Messel Pit is a UNESCO World Heritage site where many other fossils have been discovered preserved in oil shale, according to Ida’s official Web site The Link.

Lake Messel was formed 47 million years ago and when animals in the rainforest surrounding the area died, their corpses “would slowly sink into the ooze where it would lie undisturbed, decaying very slowly, and compressed by the weight of the water for millions of years,” The Link reports.

Opinion & Analysis: Is Ida significant?

Although most agree that Ida is an important addition to the field of paleontology, experts have sounded off—some harshly—about Ida’s role in understanding human evolution. In Science magazine, paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons of Duke University is quoted as saying, “It's an extraordinarily complete, wonderful specimen, but it's not telling us too much that we didn't know before.”

Science’s Ann Gibbons adds that other paleontologists are skeptical because “Hurum and [colleague Phillip] Gingerich's analysis compared 30 traits in the new fossil with primitive and higher primates when standard practice is to analyze 200 to 400 traits” and include comparisons to “anthropoids from Egypt and the newer fossils of Eosimias from Asia.”

Mark Henderson, the science editor of The Times of London, says in his analysis that there is simply “no such thing as the missing link” because “there is no fossil that can fully explain an evolutionary transition all on its own.”

Science writer Carl Zimmer berated the media coverage of Ida’s public debut. When the story was first gaining momentum in the press, Zimmer said in his Discover magazine blog The Loom that he waited for “experts who were not involved in the discovery and analysis of the fossil” to “corroborate that this was indeed the Holy Grail of paleontology. … I never found one.”

Related Topic: Fossil provides more clues to water-to-land evolution

In June 2008, a fossil known as Ventastega, a creature with a fishlike body, four flippers and a land-adapted head, was discovered in Latvia.

Reference: PLoS ONE journal article on Ida

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