From Wednesday 27 May 2009, visitors to the Natural History Museum in London can see Ida – the fossil that captured the headlines and public imagination last week – when a cast of the recently unveiled Darwinius masillae fossil goes on display in the Museum in the same gallery as the recently opened TREE.
The 47-million-year-old fossil caused a sensation last week when researchers from the University of Oslo suggested Darwinius masillae could be our earliest ancestor. This species was thought to be at the root of anthropoid evolution, when primates were first developing the features that would evolve into our own.
Of the 70 millions items in the Natural History Museum’s collection, nine million are fossils. These fossils are used by scientific researchers from all round the world to understand how life has evolved. By studying the fossil record we can make comparisons with animals that are alive today, often seeing similarities that help identify the relationships between them.
Discovered in Messel Pit, Germany, Ida is 95 per cent complete. Jerry Hooker, mammalian palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, explains ‘The key significance of this new fossil is that it is so complete. Fossil primates are notorious for being incomplete and the source of much discussion and debate because they often consist only of isolated teeth or bones whose association is uncertain. Darwinius masillae also has fur impressions and the remains of its last meal in its gut, letting scientists reconstruct its lifestyle as well as learn much more about a very early stage in primate evolution.
Given that D. masillae was at an early stage in haplorhine evolution – the primate group that we are part of – with a mix of primitive and only a few advanced characters, in life it probably looked generally more like a lemur than a monkey, but with a shorter snout and shorter hind limbs.’
Sharon Ament, Director of Public Engagement at the Natural History Museum, comments, ‘We are delighted we can give the public the chance to explore for themselves the significance of this new fossil discovery. Fossils are evidence of evolution and visitors to the Museum can find lots of this evidence in our galleries, from the earliest fossil fish to modern humans. We hope that the cast of the Darwinius masillae continues to capture the imagination of our visitors, and we will endeavour to keep our visitors updated on new scientific research relating to it.’
The cast was donated to the Natural History Museum in London by the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. The original fossil will return to Oslo this week.
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