So long "Ida"? A well-publicized 47-million-year-old primate fossil looks like an ancestor to lemurs, not people, concluded a paleontology team Tuesday.
In the Journal of Human Evolution report, a team led by evolutionary anthropologist Blythe Williams of Duke University in Durham, N.C., take on Darwinius massilae, touted in a May PLoS One study as an evolutionary "haplorhine" precursor to apes and humans. "Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract," concluded the study led by Jens Franzen of Switzerland's Naturhistorisches Museum Basel.
Dubbed "Ida", the fossil's report attracted controversy among scientists after its announcement at a news conference, as well as for the involvement of a History Channel documentary, The Link, which asked whether Ida was, "The most important fossil ever found?"
But in October, a Nature study concluded Ida didn't look all that different from fossil primates related to lemurs, not apes and people. And the new Journal of Human Evolution study responds point-by-point to the original paper's description of Ida's anatomy, to reach the same conclusion: Ida looks like a member of an extinct lemur family, not a pre-human one.
"This is just the correction process in science," says Chris Kirk of the University of Texas in Austin, an author on the new JHE paper. "One group makes extraordinary claims, and other researchers see whether the evidence supports them, or as in this case, where it doesn't."
"Darwinius is an exceptional fossil and there is no question it is haplorhine (human and ape primate family) as we published before," said paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, an author on the the original Ida study. "That this has upset some colleagues so greatly is a measure of its impact in forcing a major new understanding of primate evolution."
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