The news sites and blogs have reports of a new fossil found in Germany, a 47 million year old primate, named Darwinius masillae.  The quality of preservation of this fossil is extraordinary, and even reveals what its last meal was.  PZ Myers gives the lowdown at Pharyngula (Darwinius masillae).

Of course, there’s a major PR job going on about this – check out Ed Yong’s blog (Not Just Rocket Science – Darwinius changes everything) for a refreshing view.  John Wilkins (Evolving Thoughts -No, it’s not an ancestor either (probably)) questions statements that it’s the ancestor of all primates (he cites Science Daily).

The blogosphere’s pretty full of writing about Darwinius – some buys into the hype, others question it.  one thing’s for sure, it’s a damn fine fossil.  On the downside is the confusion the news coverage may engender in the public, with buzz-words/phrases like “missing link” and “oldest ancestor of humans” flying around.

I think the BBC News website (Scientists hail stunning fossil) strikes the correct balance with comments such as:

Dr Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to evaluate its significance.

The publication is accompanied by a David Attenborough fronted BBC TV programme!  (Makes my YouTube press release via the BBSRC look really rather puny!). If you’d like to read the paper, it is publishe din the open access journal PLoS One:

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 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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  1. GrumpyBob’s avatar

    Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution is True" blog has a couple of interesting posts on the subject:
    Has the name Darwinius masillae been published? And if so, by who?
    Paleontology and the media

    Reply

  2. GrumpyBob’s avatar

    PZ Myers (Pharyngula) weighs in with an overview of creationist responses:
    Creationists freak out over Darwinius
    I'm not sure how he can stomach looking at those sites.

    Reply

  3. GrumpyBob’s avatar

    More coverage at "why Evolution is True", with a number of onward links:
    Darwinius: what’s at issue?

    Reply

  4. barriejohn’s avatar

    The David Attenborough programme is on BBC1 on Tues, 26th May at 9.00 pm – "Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link".

    Reply

  5. GrumpyBob’s avatar

    Yep, the trailer makes me shudder a bit. Good articles in New Humanist and New Scientist, particularly the latter Why Ida fossil is not the missing link – check out the phylogenetic tree diagram.

    Reply

    1. barriejohn’s avatar

      If I understand them correctly, they are saying that it IS an ancestor of the anthropoids, due to the structure of the pelvis and talus. That was the impression I got anyway!

      Reply

      1. GrumpyBob’s avatar

        My take is as follows:
        - The authors looked at 30 characters when assembling the tree. Generally 200-300 characters would be looked at.
        - The authors' suggestion that it lies as an ancestor of the anthropoids seems to be driven by desire to emphasise the importance of this particular fossil: other workers in the field acknowledge that it's an excellent specimen, but that it lies more in the lemur/loris branch
        - The whole hyped story has I think detracted from a sober analysis of the data. I expect more detailed analyses not to support the "changes everything" puffery.

        But then, I'm not a paleontologist, just a geneticist, so hardly an expert. I've not got around to watching the BBC programme about it yet.

        Meanwhile have you looked at The New Creationism – he says something sensible about Darwinius. Pity the rest of his stuff is so abysmal. I did ask where all the Noachian flood water came from and went to, but got a poor answer!

        Reply

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