Two new gaps in the fossil record

There is joke that has been repeated a couple of times on my favorite podcast (The Skeptics Guide to the Universe) that whenever a new fossil is found it just creates two new gaps in the fossil record.  Think about it; it is funny.  Unfortunately, while it’s fun to poke at creationists, anyone who does not “believe in” evolution is either sadly ignorant of a massive amount of science or is blinded by a particular faith that seeks to take credit for the beauty of natural selection.

Let’s step back for a moment.  The way real science works is that someone puts forth a theory about something and over time if that theory can be tested honestly without failure it gains some credibility.  Moreover, if that theory can correctly make predictions about future discoveries it starts to cross that line between theory and accepted science.  Einstein’s predictions were tested during critical observations of solar ecplipses and these successful tests of his ideas began to turn his theories into accepted science.  Similarly, scientists had predicted the existence of a transitional species that would be somewhere between dinosaurs and birds.  Lo and behold, they found Archaeopteryx, a creature that is the “missing link” between dinosaurs and their only remaining descendants: birds.  For one more example, scientists had theorized about a transitional creature between land mammals and whales (which in fact were land mammals that returned to the oceans); this was proven with Ambulocetus.

Some scientists have announced that they have identified a very early ancestor to both primates and modern day lemurs, a true missing link in the evolution of mammals into primates.

Ida - a missing link

Ida - a missing link

 

A few very important points about the incredibly well preserved 47 million year old fossil, from National Geographic:

Ida, properly known as Darwinius masillae, has a unique anatomy. The lemur-like skeleton features primate-like characteristics, including grasping hands, opposable thumbs, clawless digits with nails, and relatively short limbs.

“This specimen looks like a really early fossil monkey that belongs to the group that includes us,” said Brian Richmond, a biological anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the study.

He goes on to point out what I implied in the title of the above photo (borrowed from the NatGeo story): this is only one of the many missing links:

But there’s a big gap in the fossil record from this time period, Richmond noted. Researchers are unsure when and where the primate group that includes monkeys, apes, and humans split from the other group of primates that includes lemurs.

“[Ida] is one of the important branching points on the evolutionary tree,” Richmond said, “but it’s not the only branching point.”

This fossil was so well preseved that “scientists were able to examine fossil evidence of fur and soft tissue and even picked through the remains of her last meal: fruits, seeds, and leaves.”  Noting that the fossil was found in Germany, the National Geographic story makes one additional closing point that had eluded me:

What’s more, the newly described “missing link” was found in Germany’s Messel Pit. Ida’s European origins are intriguing, Richmond said, because they could suggest—contrary to common assumptions—that the continent was an important area for primate evolution.

This sort of transitional fossil was predicted by evolutionary theory and we will find many many more similar examples as time goes by.  I am sure that the Discovery Institute is workiing on a good spin at this very moment.

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