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The month of May great for Evolutionary Science

May has been an exciting month for science reporting.

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about the unveiling of a nearly intact fossil of a 47 million year old creature that may help explain the evolutionary roots of monkeys, apes and humans. While it is not a direct ancestor, the fossil shows a species well on its way, living and evolving quite nicely in ancient rainforests that have since morphed into modern day Germany.Fossil plate of Darwinius masillae

The scientific team that studied the fossil at length presented their findings in the online journal PLOS (Public Library Of Science). The teams points out several features in the fossil’s anatomy that show up in later primate species.

Of course, in the true spirit of science, the team’s finding are being questioned and disputed by other scientists. The research team, however, is moving on to the public spotlight, with the diminutive little proto-primate, named Ida (after one of the researcher’s daughter) is the star of her own documentary, The Link, which will premiere Monday (25 May) on the History Channel.

In the 7 May edition of Nature, the saga of the Flores island “Hobbit”* continued, with several articles devoted to the meter high hominid. Found in 2003 in a limestone cave, the little creature nicknamed the “Hobbit,” formally named Homo floresiensis has sparked controversy among paleoanthropologists. Some researches offered that the “Hobbit” is an ancestor of modern man who underwent “island dwarfing.” But skeptics believed it to be a diseased modern human, a microcephalic, or a pygmy.Who you smiling at? H. floresiensis (L) & H. sapiens (R)

But H. floresiensis defies easy categorization. The female “Hobbit” has an unusual wrist and foot structure reminiscent of early hominids. It brain is smaller than other Homo species, more like a primates; but has a very developed frontal cortex like those larger Homo species. There is also evidence of stone toolmaking, and organized hunting (evidenced by the pygmy elephant bones and other animals found in the cave).

The team that made the discovery has spent years chipping away at the skeptic’s arguments. One of the articles in Nature, the main researchers report on the bone structure of the “Hobbit’s” foot. Examining the bones, they found that it is distinctly different from any other Homo species. The foot is larger in proportion to the lower leg bones; the big toe is shorter than the other toes. H. floresiensis may have walked, but it could not run.Foot and Lower leg bones of H. floresiensis

On of the authors of the article, William Junger, is convinced the “Hobbit” is of an earlier lineage than previously thought, arriving on Flores much earlier than the Homo species, H. erectus, and co-existing with humans for a time. Others are not so sure.

On of the great things about the scientific enterprise is that new discoveries can enhance, or even replace, older ideas and theories. The discussion of Darwinius masillae and the Flores “Hobbit” are far from over, as new evidence is unearthed and conventional wisdom is challeged.

This world still has many mysteries to ponder and hold in awe. The story of life on this planet, and our place in it, is an ongoing series with many pages left to pen.

Links to articles discussed:

Analysis Shows German Fossil to Be Early primate New York Times, Tuesday 16 May 2009

Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLOS One

'Hobbit' was a dwarf with large feet Nature, 7 May 2009


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