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.”