Scientists Unveil Interesting Fossil Specimen

Fossil remains of Darwinius masillae. (Credit: PLoS ONE/Jrn Hurum, Jens Franzen, Philip Gingerich, Jrg Habersetzer, Wighart von Koenigswald, and B. Holly Smith)

Fossil remains of Darwinius masillae. (Credit: PLoS ONE/Jrn Hurum, Jens Franzen, Philip Gingerich, Jrg Habersetzer, Wighart von Koenigswald, and B. Holly Smith)

Scientists have determined that a 47-million-year-old fossil discovered in Germany may be an extremely early primate that existed close to the emergence of the evolutionary branch that led to monkeys, apes, and humans.

The fossil was originally excavated in 1983 from the Messel Shale Pit located near Darmstadt, Germany. The fossil contains a nearly complete skeleton aside from a missing lower left limb. The fossil is considered to be the most complete skeleton of a fossil primate ever recovered. In addition to the skeleton, the fossil also includes a soft body outline (showing the presence of fur) and preserved stomach contents. Upon its discovery, the fossil was split into two parts and sold to separate private buyers. One section ended up in a Wyoming museum. The second part was recently re-discovered and analyzed by an international group of scientists.

The team, including scientists from Norway, Germany, and the United States, used CT imaging and other advanced technologies to study the fossil remains. The scientists determined that the remains are that of a juvenile female primate, about the size of a small monkey. The scientists’ analysis of the fossil remains resulted in the conclusion that the remains belong to a new genus and species, which they named Darwinius masillae.

Though some media outlets, in describing this new species, have described it as a “missing link,” this is a misnomer. The study authors themselves distance themselves from this conclusion by explicitly stating that though D. masillae could be considered a member of a “stem group” from which higher primates evolved, they do not advocate such a conclusion.

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