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May 27th, 2009
In the News: A Fossil Called "Ida"

Darwinium masillae

Our series attempts to locate when and where we transitioned into truly modern human beings — the elusive spark, if you will, that allowed us, here on our own tiny branch on the tree of life, to behave the way we do with all our various abilities and features. Part of this quest involves closely examining our direct ancient lineage, as well as our near and not-so-near cousins. Of course evolutionary history is filled with groups that split into various descendant lines as well as those that hit dead ends and fizzled out. These ancient family trees are pieced together through the fossil record. Looking at the various branches on these trees is one way scientists try to figure out the relationships between various animal ancestors and us.

Recent publications about a fossil called Ida provide the latest example of a creature that seems to have lived at one of those branching points where one group of animals was evolving into a recognizably different one. People in the media have jumped all over this beautifully preserved 47-million-year-old fossil, with some even calling it a “missing link.” Of course, there’s never a single missing link in the huge web of animal evolution, but it does appear that Ida, or Darwinium masillae, was a mammal who shared characteristics with the prosimians (such as lemurs) and also with anthropoids (such as monkeys and apes). Keep in mind, there’s a long, long time — and lots of evolution! — between when Ida lived and when our own species appeared on earth maybe 200,000 years ago.

What do you think of all the media hoopla about Ida and what she means?

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