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47 million-year-old primate fossil Photo of 47 million-year-old primate fossil "Ida," at her global unveiling at the American Museum of Natural History on May 19, 2009, in New York City. (Andrew H. Walker/image.net)

Major Fossil Find

47-million-year-old primate could be human relative

By Laura Leigh Davidson | null null , null
Fossil "Ida" was found in an area of Germany that is rich with ancient fossils, called the Messel Pit. (Map: Jim McMahon.)<br />
Fossil "Ida" was found in an area of Germany that is rich with ancient fossils, called the Messel Pit. (Map: Jim McMahon.)

Scientists unveiled a 47-million-year-old primate fossil at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in May. Scientists say it is "the most complete primate fossil ever found."

Dr. Jorn Hurum of the University of Oslo in Norway led the team of scientists who studied the small monkeylike female. Hurum nicknamed her "Ida," after his own 6-year-old daughter.

Hurum's team thinks she may be a distant ancestor of monkeys, apes, and humans. That means that studying Ida could tell scientists more about how modern human beings developed.

Ida was found in an area of Germany that is rich with ancient fossils, called the Messel Pit. Scientists have discovered many ancient fossils there over the years.

Ida is so well-preserved that impressions of her fur are still clear. They even found remains of Ida's last meal. It was fruit and leaves.

Hurum's team says Ida had many humanlike characteristics. She had thumbs that work like ours, and fingernails instead of claws. X-rays of the fossil show both baby and adult teeth. She had eyes that faced forward, which allowed her to see in three-dimensions and judge distance.

Scientists believe Ida was about 9 months old when she died.

Ida's debut has sparked a lot of debate among scientists. They have different opinions about how closely linked she is to the prehuman animals that evolved after her.

One thing scientists do agree on is the quality of the fossil primate.

"There's certainly a lot more information about this individual than probably any other fossil primate that's ever been recovered," said primate expert Dr. John Fleagle. (Fleagle is not a part of the research team that has been studying Ida.)

Hurum says there is much more to learn from the 47-million-year-old fossil.

"She tells so many stories," Hurum told reporters. "We have just started the research on this fabulous specimen."

Since her big debut on Tuesday, Ida has returned to her home at the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Norway. But a plaster copy of the fossil has become a part of the "Extreme Mammals" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

You can learn more about Ida online at http://www.history.com/thelink.

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