What is Darwinius?

Franzen et al. 2009
reported on a well-preserved small primate from 50mya named Darwinius.

From the Franzen et al. 2009 conclusion:
“Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype. Of particular importance to phylogenetic studies, the absence of a toilet claw and a toothcomb demonstrates that Darwinius masillae is not simply a fossil lemur, but part of a larger group of primates, Adapoidea, representative of the early haplorhine diversification.”

In a published comment Beard 2009 wrote:
“Unbridled hoopla attended the unveiling of a 47-million-year-old fossil primate skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on 19 May. Found by private collectors in 1983 in Messel, Germany, the press immediately hailed the specimen as a “missing link” and even the “eighth wonder of the world.”

“Overall proportions and anatomy resemble that of a lemur, and the same is true for other adapiform primates. A new genus and species of adapiform primate, Darwinius masillae (Franzen et al., 2009; Eocene, 50 mya ). The adapids are a branch of the primate tree that leads to modern lemurs. Ida would have to have anthropoid-like features that evolved after anthropoids split away from lemurs and other early primates. Here, alas, Ida fails miserably.” The reasons for that “fail” were not listed in the Beard note.

Taxon exclusion?
The large reptile tree, (LRT, 896 taxa), currently tests only a few primates. At this stage, Darwinius does indeed nest at the base of higher primates (simians), alongside Tarsius, the extant tarsier, but there are many dozen primate taxa that have not been included in the LRT.

Figure 1. Darwinius overall plus an X-ray showing the transition from milk teeth to adult teeth in this juvenile specimen.

Figure 1. Darwinius overall plus an X-ray showing the transition from milk teeth to adult teeth in this juvenile specimen.

In the LRT,
nesting only a few primates at present, the adapid prosimian, Notharctus, is basal to higher primates including humans (genus Homo). Tarsius, the tarsier, nests between Notharctus and Proconsul, a basal anthropoid (ape). Darwinius nests with Tarsius, but lacks the many specialized autapomorphies that characterize extant tarsiers like:

  1. oversized eyes
  2. distally fused tibiafibula
  3. elongated pedal digits 4 and 5.
  4. hyperelongated astragalus and calcaneum
  5. cervicals insert further beneath the skull
Figure 2. Tarsius, the extant tarsier. Note the several autapomorphies displayed here vs. the many plesiamorphies in Darwinius.

Figure 2. Tarsius, the extant tarsier. Note the several autapomorphies displayed here vs. the many plesiamorphies in Darwinius.

Wikipedia reports
“Most experts hold that the higher primates (simians) evolved from Tarsiidae, branching off the Strepsirrhini before the appearance of the Adapiformes.” If true, Darwinius is close to the lineage of humans. “A smaller group agrees with Franzen et al. that the higher primates descend from Adapiformes (Adapoidea). The view of paleontologist Tim White is that Darwinius is unlikely to end the argument.” 

NBC news reports,
here that “Ida is as far removed from the monkey-ape-human ancestry as a primate could be, says Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University in New York. The new analysis says Darwinius does not belong in the same primate category as monkeys, apes and humans. Instead, the analysis concluded, it falls into the other major grouping, which includes lemurs.”

Nature reports on the “media frenzy”
here in a paper entitled: A hyped-up fossil find highlights the potential dangers of publicity machines.  To be fair, the authors’ claims at the press conference were appropriately measured. Nonetheless, the researchers were fully involved in the documentaries and the media campaign, which associate them with a drastic misrepresentation of their research.”

“Another damaging aspect of the events was the unavailability of the paper ahead of the press conference and initial media coverage. This prevented scientists other than those in the team from assessing the work and thereby ensuring that journalists could give a balanced account of the research.

“There is no reason to think that PLoS ONE’s editors and reviewers did less than their duty to the paper. Nonetheless, the clock was ticking at the time of submission.”

“In principle, there is no reason why science should not be accompanied by highly proactive publicity machines. But in practice, such arrangements introduce conflicting incentives that can all too easily undermine the process of the assessment and communication of science.”

The primate experts can hash this out.
At present, with so few primates tested, Darwinius is still a candidate to be at the transition from prosimian to simian in the LRT, as it presently nests… until additional taxa knock it out.

Added within minutes of posting
I ran across this reference:
Gingerich PD et al. 2010. Darwinius masillae is a Haplorhine — Reply to  Williams et al. (2010). Journal of Human Evolution. 59(5)574-576 where they report, “Williams et al. (2010) imply that ‘total evidence’ means study of hundreds of characters in a great many taxa. However, total evidence is about combining data before analysis and not about the size of the resulting matrix. “We agree with Seiffert et al., 2009 and Williams et al., 2010, and others that there is a strepsirrhine–haplorhine dichotomy in primate evolution. We employ the same cladistic methods. We accept that total evidence drawn from many sources is advantageous. Why then do we reach such a different conclusion about the systematic position of Darwinius? Given that our methods are the same, then our contrasting results can only be explained by differences in the number and balance of taxa chosen for study, the character matrix used to analyze higher-level primate phylogeny, the outgroup chosen to root a phylogenetic network, or some combination of these.”
More details on their arguments are found here.

Beard C 2009. Why Ida is fossil is not the missing link. Comment, NewScientist.
Online here.
Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, Von Koenigswald W and Smith BH 2009. Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology PLoS ONE. 4 (5): e5723.


nature.com article that touches on Darwinius



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