A team of palaeontologists from New York, writing in the journal Nature, have provoked the first exchange of blows in what may prove an almighty scientific sparring match. The subject thats got them so heated? Ida: a tiny $1 million, 47-million-year-old fossil, who has been trumpeted as the missing link between humans and animals.
Shes the eighth wonder of the world, our Mona Lisa and evolutions Rosetta Stone, according to the researchers who discovered her, or rather purchased her for $1 million from a private dealer in a vodka bar in Hamburg in a scene that sounds like it could have been lifted from a dodgy Hollywood movie. The dealer claimed the fossil had apparently been unearthed from Messel Pit near Hamburg in 1983.
The Link a feature length documentary about Ida was premiered by The History Channel in May in what was reported to be the most expensive deal of its kind the broadcaster had ever struck (a David Attenborough-narrated version was also shown by the BBC). A book about the fossil by a leading science writer was published too, at the tail end of a top-dollar, expertly orchestrated publicity campaign publicly backed by the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. A media whirlwind followed, and Ida became front page news across the world, even showing up in the Google logo. Judging by such hysteria, a Hollywood movie about the pint-sized primate may actually not be out of the question in time.
Heres a trailer for The Link:
That is, assuming that the counter claims made about Darwinius masillae to give Ida her formal name by a team of experts from the Big Apple, led by Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University, dont prove true. They argue that she isnt the missing link at all, but rather the fossil of a lowly lemur or loris. Worse still, just to rub salt into the wound, they claim that Ida has no living relatives, and therefore derives from a dead-end street of evolution that led to extinction.
Our analysis and results have convinced us that Ida was not an ancestor of monkeys, apes, or humans, and if anything has more relevance for our understanding of lemur and loris origins, said Seiffert (as quoted by The Guardian). The evidence, Seiffert claims, is the 37-million-year-old lemur-like fossil of a primate his team unearthed in northern Egypt, analysis of which showed it was a close relative of Ida, crucially with several dental features similar to those commonly seen in apes and humans.
Jrn Hurum, a palaeontologist at Oslo Universitys Natural History Museum and the man who wrote the cheque for Ida, was poised and ready for a fight over his claims about his fossils place in the evolutionary tree, and hit back quick. We expected a challenge like this and its interesting it has taken five months for the first attack to come, he said. What we claim about Ida is really quite controversial.
They are trying to explain all of the traits we see in Darwinius in terms of parallel evolution, he continued.
Seiffert and his team claim Darwinius didnt have much anatomical detail to study because it is so crushed, but none of the authors have ever seen the original specimen. Shes not that crushed; theres a lot of information in the fossil.
There has been widespread discomfort among the scientific community about the way in which Idas significance has been shouted from the rooftops, despite the fact that independent analysis of the fossil which Hurum and his team studied in secret for two years before going public with their findings is yet to take place. The Norwegian is confident that his claims will hold up, and seems ready eager, even to debate them publicly. We really trust and stand by our interpretation, he said.
This will be part of a discussion that will run for weeks and months to come, Hurum concluded.
Ida fossil picture by Ragnar Singass. Some rights reserved.