A Missing Link Found!

One of the greatest challenges in all of evolutionary science is to figure out which species evolved into which over time. From our perspective, we would love to know how humans came to be, who our ancestors were, and what simpler animals gave rise to us.

Well, we don’t know this right now. We know a good portion of the fossil records, but — like anything that relies on fossils — there are gaps, referred to colloquially as missing links. One of the fun things to track is cranial capacity over time, and we find that Homo Sapiens‘ huge brains are recent developments.

And, as you can also see, there are gaps even in this relatively recent record. Did Homo Erectus evolve directly into Homo Sapiens? (Probably.) Is there a missing link? (Possibly.) But there are many, many gaps the farther back we go. The reason is simple: geology.

Everything that lives dies, but most dead things are recycled, not fossilized. We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that. But how did humans come from that?

If we take a closer look, humans are great apes; we split off from them fairly recently. (And yes, there are missing links there.) Apes are primates, like dry-nosed monkeys and wet-nosed monkeys (like the lemur above) are. Scientists call the wet-nosers strepsirrhini and the dry-nosers haplorrhini. Note the dryness of your nose, and if you can’t, then wipe it for goodness’ sake!

Well, I’d like to introduce you to a long-lost cousin of yours. (And click to enlarge her.)

I probably can’t say ancestor, because she died before reaching adulthood, where she would have been just under 2 pounds. But she is the only complete primate from over 35 million years ago (she’s 43-47 million years old herself), and has a very special feature that is unique to her, but is found in apes and dry-nosed monkeys afterwards (and — again — click to enlarge):

Opposable digits!!! Yes, they’re on her feet instead of her hands, but these graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling.

And she just might be the oldest complete fossil of a species that evolved into us. So enjoy the awesome biology news, even if it is coming from an astrophysicist! And a special thanks to Bora Z, who pointed this research out to me! (And who — I’m sure — has a more detailed writeup of this!)

Comments

  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    May 19, 2009

    Great Stuff, thanks!

  2. #2 BrianR
    May 19, 2009

    Why perpetuate the false notion of missing link?!!? Why title your post like this? It is insanely misleading, sensationalized, and, in my opinion, irresponsible from a blogging scientist. Sorry … my two cents.

  3. #3 BrianR
    May 19, 2009

    p.s. read Laelaps ‘Poor, poor Ida…’ post from today and discussion thread.

  4. #4 ethin
    May 20, 2009

    I agree with BrianR, there is simply not enough evidence to claim that this species is directly related to humans. In fact, that looks like the least likely possibility.

    It is certainly a fascinating specimen and incredible find, but “missing link”? Dubious.

  5. #5 Anurag
    May 20, 2009

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  6. #6 netci
    May 20, 2009

    Darvin teorisindenmi bahsediliyor…

  7. #7 adams
    May 20, 2009

    Yeah it’s interesting, but the article approaches the level of hyper-ventilating.

    However, I’m sure HA resident evolution “experts” will be happy to share with us how this find is a joke, evolution is a hoax, etc, etc. As soon as I saw the article on Drudge I knew it’d be a good traffic day for HA.

  8. #8 SCO
    May 20, 2009

    Why the problem? it says it’s only -A- missing link, not -THE- missing link: certainly, this is evidence for the first animals with opposable thumbs, I think it’s certainly -A- missing link, and I don’t think it’s irresponsible to call it like that.

  9. #9 ethin
    May 20, 2009

    I’m not a creationist or religious at all, I guess I need to preface that as it seems to be how my comments were taken. I am, in fact, an undergraduate student of biology.

    However, I will quote a relevant recent Laelaps article regarding this issue:

    The bottom line is that the hypothesis that Darwinius is closer to anthropoids than tarsiers or omomyids does not have strong support. Even though the authors of the paper constructed a very simple cladogram they did not undertake a full, rigorous cladistic analysis to support their claims. I am baffled as to how they could stress the significance of this fossil without undertaking the requisite research to support their hypothesis.

    He goes on to say:

    The grand claims about it being our ancestor, though, can not be upheld as true. The researchers simply did not do the work to support their case, and even if their language was more reserved in the technical paper they have gone hand-in-hand with the History Channel to create an aura of sensationalism around the fossil.

    Simply put, this species is most likely not a direct ancestor to humanity, more of a “cousin” (at least in the sense that humans and other great apes share a common ancestor with it), but calling it a “missing link” implies that it is.

  10. #10 Douglas Zeman
    May 20, 2009

    you know just like every other “missing links” the scientist discover this one will turn out to be another fraud just like all the other “missing links”, and also you ignorant scientists think that you have proven evolution by finding another specimen that was wiped out from Noahs flood 4000 years ago. Just because you find the remains of an animal doesn’t prove evolution, the only way to prove evolution is to eye witness it first hand, which is impossible to even to do that because evolution has been proven wrong so many times it’s not even funny anymore. For example, lets take horse evolution, you scientists have known this for over 200 years that it was proven wrong, but still yet you are still putting this proven-wrong things into the youths minds, scientists know the theory of evolution,(as if they treat it as if it were not a theory anymore) has been proven wrong, but they still put it in the text books these days, what scientists aren’t telling you is that they have evidence(proof) that evolution is false, but still they continue to be ignorant and place it in peoples gulable little minds.

  11. #11 The Grayheck
    May 20, 2009

    Well, you think that is a story? How about this…Mr Christian himself, answering to a greater father has had a little twist-about on that issue. Are you kidding me? Bush was elected TWICE because of the Christian right. He totally snubbed Al Gore on the global warming, in essence snubbing science itself. Now he has moved the Bible from his desk to his bookshelf next to the Dan Brown books? Quite a backslider:

    http://www.socoolaz.com/article/World_News/World_News/Scientific_Missing_Link_Found_Bush_Family_Celebrate_in_Texas/30261

  12. #12 DataJack
    May 29, 2009

    Douglas Zeman – Seriously? Poe, I hope…with all the bad grammar and spelling, it’s hard to tell…
    (“peoples gulable little minds” – LOL)

    Ethan, as usual, great post.

  13. #13 date
    June 27, 2010

    Everything that lives dies, but most dead things are recycled, not fossilized. We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that. But how did humans come from that?Library App

  14. #14 Mark
    July 20, 2010

    The opposable digits are on her feet instead of her hands. They look kind of strange, too long in my opinion, but these graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling. This looks like a good candidate for ancestry. Online Job Search

  15. #15 poker calculator
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    I agree with BrianR, there is simply not enough evidence to claim that this species is directly related to humans. In fact, that looks like the least likely possibility.

  16. #16 george R
    August 10, 2010

    I agree with BrianR, there is simply not enough evidence to claim that this species is directly related to humans. In fact, that looks like the least likely possibility.

  17. #17 Netbook Case
    October 30, 2010

    They look kind of strange, too long in my opinion, but these graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling.Regards, Thanks….!!!!

  18. #18 Netbook Cases
    October 30, 2010

    ’m sure HA resident evolution “experts” will be happy to share with us how this find is a joke, evolution is a hoax, etc, etc. As soon as I saw the article on Drudge. Regards, ThANKS………….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. #19 buy microsoft points
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    Why the problem? it says it’s only -A- missing link, not -THE- missing link: certainly, this is evidence for the first animals with opposable thumbs, I think it’s certainly -A- missing link, and I don’t think it’s irresponsible to call it like that.
    regards

  20. #20 sentinel's fate
    November 1, 2010

    Everything that lives dies, but most dead things are recycled, not fossilized. We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that.Thanks…………!!!!!!!!!!!

  21. #21 1 month xbox live
    November 1, 2010

    more of a “cousin” (at least in the sense that humans and other great apes share a common ancestor with it), but calling it a “missing link” implies that it is.

    regards

  22. #22 video games
    November 1, 2010

    The grand claims about it being our ancestor, though, can not be upheld as true. The researchers simply did not do the work to support their case, and even if their language was more reserved in the technical paper they have gone hand-in-hand with the History Channel to create an aura of sensationalism around the fossil.

  23. #23 cheap xbox live codes
    November 2, 2010

    He totally snubbed Al Gore on the global warming, in essence snubbing science itself. Now he has moved the Bible from his desk to his bookshelf next to the Dan Brown books? Quite a backslider:
    regards

  24. #24 technology news
    November 2, 2010

    Why the problem? it says it’s only -A- missing link, not -THE- missing link: certainly, this is evidence for the first animals with opposable thumbs, I think it’s certainly -A- missing link, and I don’t think it’s irresponsible to call it like that.Thanks

  25. #25 cheeky bingo
    November 3, 2010

    Simply put, this species is most likely not a direct ancestor to humanity, more of a “cousin” (at least in the sense that humans and other great apes share a common ancestor with it), but calling it a “missing link” implies that it is.Thanks

  26. #26 Jim
    November 3, 2010

    There are a lot of missing links to a lot of junk science these days. I can see how we may have evolved from something else but proving it has been a hard sell for me so far.
    do follow

  27. #27 lord of the rings slot
    November 3, 2010

    but most dead things are recycled, not fossilized. We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that.regards, thankx.!

  28. #28 burning crusade
    November 4, 2010

    Why perpetuate the false notion of missing link?!!? Why title your post like this? It is insanely misleading, sensationalized, and, in my opinion, irresponsible from a blogging scientist. Sorry … my two cents.
    regards

  29. #29 Phlebotomy Certification
    November 4, 2010

    Why the problem? it says it’s only -A- missing link, not -THE- missing link: certainly, this is evidence for the first animals with opposable thumbs, I think it’s certainly -A- missing link, and I don’t think it’s irresponsible to call it like that.Thanks

  30. #30 lord of rings slot
    November 4, 2010

    Simply put, this species is most likely not a direct ancestor to humanity, more of a “cousin” (at least in the sense that humans and other great apes share a common ancestor with it), but calling it a “missing link” implies that it is.Thanks…!!!

  31. #31 Addictive Behavior
    November 5, 2010

    ago, and that mammals rose after that.regards, thankx.!
    regards

  32. #32 Dog training
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    We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that.regards, thankx.!

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    November 6, 2010

    We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that.Thanks..!!

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    November 9, 2010

    I like the photo of Brendan Frasier. Missing Link was a funny movie from his early career, before he went big time with the “Mummy” franchise. Good stuff.

  36. #36 Universities
    November 9, 2010

    We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that.regards

  37. #37 University Information
    November 11, 2010

    We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock,

  38. #38 An33k
    November 11, 2010

    They look kind of strange, too long in my opinion, but these graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling.Cheers
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  39. #39 Glock 19
    November 11, 2010

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  42. #42 Folgers Coffee
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  44. #44 College Information
    November 16, 2010

    hese graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling.Cheers. Thanks

  45. And we get stopped about 600 million years ago (give or take) by the lifetime of sedimentary rock, which turns into metamorphic rock (and loses its fossils) on timescales longer than that. We know that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and that mammals rose after that
    regards

  46. #46 משפטים יפים
    November 22, 2010

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    Everything that lives dies, but most dead things are recycled, not fossilized. We have to get lucky to find fossils, and we have to get luckier the farther back we go.

  47. #47 funny facebook status
    November 22, 2010

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    One of the greatest challenges in all of evolutionary science is to figure out which species evolved into which over time.

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  49. #49 Photo Mugs
    November 24, 2010

    Why perpetuate the false notion of missing link?!!? Why title your post like this? It is insanely misleading, sensationalized, and, in my opinion, irresponsible from a blogging scientist. Sorry … my two cents. regards

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  51. They look kind of strange, too long in my opinion, but these graspers are different than, say, cat claws. They are much more like modern opposable thumbs found on extant dry-nosed primates. She also had fingernails, ape-like teeth, and a body built for tree-dwelling.Cheers regards

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  55. #55 Nelly
    November 29, 2010

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  67. Yeah it’s interesting, but the article approaches the level of hyper-ventilating.

    However, I’m sure HA resident evolution “experts” will be happy to share with us how this find is a joke, evolution is a hoax, etc, etc. As soon as I saw the article on Drudge I knew it’d be a good traffic day for HA.

  68. #68 NEWS
    December 24, 2010

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    thank you and :)*
    Nicole

  70. #70 Thrush on Babies
    January 13, 2011

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  71. #71 acai berry
    January 22, 2011

    If we take a closer look, humans are great apes; we split off from them fairly recently. (And yes, there are missing links there.) Apes are primates, like dry-nosed monkeys and wet-nosed monkeys thanks

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  84. #84 presbycusis
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    However, I’m sure HA resident evolution “experts” will be happy to share with us how this find is a joke, evolution is a hoax, etc, etc. As soon as I saw the article on Drudge I knew it’d be a good traffic day for HA.

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