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Introducing Darwinius masillae

We at PLoS ONE have been kept busy over the past few weeks, as we worked hard to oversee the peer review and publication of an exciting new article by an international team of scientists, led by Dr Jørn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. The other authors were: Jens Franzen, Philip Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer, Wighart von Koenigswald and B. Holly Smith.

This image is Fig. 1A of the PLoS ONE article, published under the Creative Commons Attribution License; any reuses should cite the authors and the journal.

The article, entitled, Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology, documents the discovery of a remarkably complete and well-preserved fossil of an extinct early primate in Messel Pit, Germany, a site of great significance for fossils of the Eocene epoch.

The creature, named Darwinius masillae by the paper’s authors, lived an estimated 47 million years ago and is the first example of a previously unknown genus of primate. The fossil, known as “Ida,” is 95% complete and includes the skeleton, an outline of the creature’s body and the contents of her gut, allowing the researchers to reconstruct her life history and diet. Ida was an agile, young, herbivorous, female, about the size of a small monkey, who feasted on fruit and leaves in the trees of the Messel rain forest and died, aged about nine months, at the edge of a volcanic lake.

Although Darwinius masillae shares some characteristics with prosimians, such as the lemur, X-rays of the fossil crucially reveal the lack of a “toothcomb” and a “grooming claw,” an attribute of lemurs. Meanwhile, the fossil’s opposable big toes and nail-bearing fingers and toes confirm it to be a primate, and a foot bone called the talus bone links Ida directly to humans. Ida thus provides the most complete understanding of the paleobiology of any Eocene primate so far discovered.

“This fossil is so complete,” said Dr Hurum. “Everything’s there. It’s unheard of in the primate record at all. You have to get to human burial to see something that’s this complete.”

We asked Dr Hurum about the factors that influenced his decision to publish the article in PLoS ONE.

“Choosing PLoS ONE as the venue for publication was easy,” he explained. “First of all the journal is Open Access. I am paid by the taxpayers of Norway to do research and outreach from The Natural History Museum in Oslo. Why should a large publishing group then own my research and sell it in pay per view or expensive subscriptions to interested people around the world? I feel this is not moral when they have not supported my research at all but wants to make money on my several years of work without any compensation.”

“Secondly PLoS ONE’s lack of restrictions on the length of manuscripts and the number of figures attracted us; we wanted to publish a full anatomical description with lots of illustrations. In other journals this would have been impossible or the page charges would have been enormous.”

“Thirdly, PLoS ONE is the quickest way to publish a large work in the world!”

We published the paper at 10.30 a.m. Eastern Time today, rather than our usual publishing time of 8 p.m. ET, because at 10.30 this morning, the fossil was unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York to an audience, which included Ellen Futter, the President of the AMNH and Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Mayor.

Life restorations of Darwinius masillae (sketches by Bogdan Bocianowski)
This image is Fig. S6 of the PLoS ONE article, published under the Creative Commons Attribution License; any reuse should cite the authors and journal.

Although much of the coverage describes this fossil as a “missing link”, it is important to bear in mind that this term is, perhaps, a misnomer—evolution proceeds via incremental changes, and the fossil record of each change is inevitably incomplete. However, this fossil clearly provides useful information about the evolution of primates during a time period for which little evidence currently exists and so is of great importance and interest.

The findings have already made and continue to make a significant impact in the media (we will post a summary of the coverage later in the week); you can read the freely available PLoS ONE article, in full, online on our website (we encourage everyone who writes a news story or blog post about the study to link to this URL). A special documentary film, The Link, will be screened on US television on May 25th and in the UK on May 26th and a major book (also called The Link) is published on May 20th. You can also visit this interactive website for more resources and information about the discovery.

And as the article was published in a PLoS journal, each of the millions of people who read about the fossil in the world’s media will be able to read the detailed scientific description of Darwinius masillae for themselves. PLoS ONE has published many other significant paleontology papers—if you are interested in reading them, you will find them in our Paleontology Collection.

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