• Who Was Ida?
    Ida, an adorable anomaly in the fossil record.

    Little Miss Messy
    Ida was not the fossils first name. The Oslo team first called her Little Miss Messy, after the Messel Pit where she was found, until they discovered Ida was a young primate, about the same age as paleontologist Dr. Jrn Hurums daughter, Ida. They briefly considered naming the fossil Nelson, after the monkey in Ida Hurums favorite Pippi Longstocking books. However, the name Nelson is so common in Sweden that many fossils already carry that name.

    After discussing it with the family, Ida Hurum told her school that she was going to have a dead monkey named after her. That settled itthe fossil was forever nicknamed Ida.

    Teutonic Tropics?
    The Messel Pit, where Ida was discovered, was a volcanic lake in a lush, tropical rain forest during the Eocene epoch. The lake thrived at a latitude about the same as present-day Sicily, the island off the "boot" of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

    Over millions of years, tectonic shifts moved the tropical maar thousands of kilometers north. Today, the Messel Pit is in temperate central Germany. Paleontologists are lucky Ida was preserved as the landmass moved northward!

    Life on Maars
    Maars like the one that formed the Messel Pit can be found in the U.S. states of Texas, Alaska, and New Mexico, and throughout the continents of South America and Africa. Maars in Alaska are up to 8 kilometers (5 miles) wide, among the biggest in the world.

    The most well-known maar is Lake Nyos in Cameroon. On August 21, 1986, Lake Nyos suddenly emitted a large cloud of carbon dioxide that killed 1,700 people and 3,500 livestockthe same phenomenon that probably killed Ida. After that disaster, the community installed a tube that releases small amounts of carbon dioxide safely to the surface of the lake. However, the lake remains dangerous because of weak natural walls and seismic activity in the area.


    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Ida (pronounced EE-duh) is the most perfectly preserved primate fossil in the world. Paleontologists, scientists who study fossils, estimate that Ida died 47 million years ago. Ninety-five percent complete, she is the most complete primate fossil ever found. By comparison, the famous “Lucy” fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, is only 40 percent complete.

    Ida was a small primate, about 9 months old when she died. From end to end she is only 58 centimeters (23 inches) long, about the size of a small house cat. Her body is 24 centimeters (9 inches) long. Ida's legs were longer than her arms, indicating she was a leaper. X-ray scans show she was a female. Ida’s remains also show she had a broken right wrist. She didn’t die of a broken wrist, but it almost certainly contributed to her early death.

    Ida had large eye sockets, which suggests she was nocturnal. Nocturnal animals are active mainly at night. The shape of Ida’s teeth suggests she was a vegetarian. However, scientists didn’t have to guess what she ate. Her last meal—fruit—was still preserved in her gut millions of years after she ate it.

    Ida had long fingers and toes, and opposable thumbs. Her hands show she had rounded fingertips with nails, not claws. Rounded fingertips with nails are classic primate features. 

    The scientific team that introduced Ida to the world was led by Dr. Jørn Hurum, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. Hurum persuaded the museum to purchase Ida.

    A private collector discovered Ida near Messel, Germany, in 1983. Until 2000, Ida's remains were split into two pieces. The main part (“Slab A”) remained with the collector, while the other part ("Slab B") was sold to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming, in the United States. Slab A and B were reunited in 2007. The identity of the person who first dug up Ida remains unknown.

    One of the surprises Hurum and other paleontologists found when they X-rayed Ida was that she had many more teeth than the average primate. When the scientists looked closer, they discovered Ida was in the process of losing her baby teeth.

    Unerupted molars—adult teeth that were pushing out her baby teeth—could still be seen in her jaw. From this, the paleontologists determined Ida was a juvenile primate—not a baby, but not fully adult, either. Developmentally, she was about the same age as Hurum’s daughter, Ida, who was also losing her baby teeth. They decided to name the fossil after her.

    Darwinius masillae

    Ida's scientific name is Darwinius masillae. The genus Darwinius was named in honor of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. The species masillae was to commemorate the Messel Pit in Germany, where Ida was found.

    The Messel Pit is an abandoned quarry about 35 kilometers (22 miles) southeast of Frankfurt, Germany, near the village of Messel. The pit was formed millions of years ago when hot magma bubbling from under the earth came too close to the underground water table. When the magma hit the water table, it instantly turned to steam. Hot air rises, but this air had nowhere to go. The pressure of the steam caused a massive explosion as the hot air tore into the earth. The explosion created a type of volcanic lake known as a maar.

    The explosion that formed Messel Lake happened about 50 million years ago, during the early Middle Eocene epoch. Because the maar had no rivers running into or out of it, the water at the bottom of the lake received very little oxygen. Anything that fell into the lake was remarkably well-preserved. They didn’t go through the same decomposition process that other living things do when they die.

    Another characteristic of maars is that they sometimes spit out toxic gas. Maars have volcanoes under them, and from time to time they emit carbon dioxide gas. The pure CO2 travels up from the lake and can kill any living creature that breathes in the gas.

    Scientists speculate this is what killed Ida. Her broken wrist meant she couldn’t leap and cling to high tree branches. Lower to the ground, she encountered the toxic gas in Messel Lake, lost consciousness, and drowned.

    In 2001, a hole was drilled into the center of the Messel Pit. Scientists extracted volcanic rocks that formed the ancient lake. Dating the rocks in the Messel Pit showed that Ida was about 47 million years old.

    The Nose Knows

    Ida lived her short life during the Eocene. The Eocene lasted from 55 million to about 34 million years ago. The Eocene is an important period in human evolution, because it was during this time that the first primates were evolving. About 40 million years ago, there were two distinct primate groups: prosimians and anthropoids.

    One way taxonomists separate prosimians and anthropoids is by their noses. Prosimians, or strepsirrhini, have dog-like, wet noses. Extant, or living, representatives of strepsirrhini include lemurs, lorises, and bush babies. Anthropoids, or haplorhini, have dry noses. Extant representatives of haplorhini include monkeys and apes. Humans are also dry-nosed primates. At some point during the Eocene, primates evolved into these two different branches.

    So was Ida a wet-nosed or a dry-nosed primate? She contains qualities of both, making her a truly remarkable specimen.

    The team from the Natural History Museum in Oslo believes her physical size and diet were similar to the eastern woolly lemur, a wet-nosed primate native to Madagascar. However, Ida doesn’t possess two key lemur traits: a toothcomb or a grooming claw. A toothcomb is a set of fused, forward-angled teeth in the lower jaw that lemurs use to groom their fur. A grooming claw is a long claw on the second toe that lemurs use to groom fur they can't reach with their toothcomb. Ida also has a tarsus bone in her ankle that is shaped like a dry-nosed primate ancestor’s.

    The Oslo team believes Ida comes from a time when primates were still evolving into these two distinct groups. Because Ida has characteristics of both, they consider her a transitional species—a link between prosimian and arthropoid primates.

    Other scientists who have read the published paper disagree with its conclusions. They say Ida is an ancestor of lemurs and lorises, not a “missing link.”

    Girly Fossil

    Hurum frequently speaks about Ida and other fossils to school groups. He says Ida attracts more questions from girls than boys. Girls are interested in how Ida lived—what she looked like, what she ate, how she moved, how she coped with her broken wrist.

    "Most dinosaur outreach focuses on the big and dangerous ones, big teeth and fights,” Hurum said. “This is in my opinion, after giving lectures to several thousand school children over the years, mostly enjoyed by boys. They ask questions and contribute more to the dialogue.

    “With Ida it is opposite. I get more questions from girls—the fossil is small and cute and the story is dramatic, but not bloody."

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abandon Verb

    to desert or leave entirely.

    ancestor Noun

    organism from whom one is descended.

    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    anthropoid noun, adjective

    grouping of "higher primates," including monkeys, apes, and human beings.

    ape Noun

    large, intelligent primate with no tail.

    Australopithecus afarensis Noun

    extinct species of primate (hominid) that lived about 3-4 million years ago.

    baby teeth Plural Noun

    first set of teeth in mammals, which eventually fall out as permanent teeth replace them. Also called primary teeth and deciduous teeth.

    bush baby Noun

    small mammal (primate) native to Central African forests.

    carbon dioxide Noun

    greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

    Charles Darwin Noun

    (1809-1882) British naturalist.

    claw Noun

    sharp, curved nail on the foot of some animals, used for protection, predation, climbing, or grooming.

    commemorate Verb

    to honor an event on a specific date.

    conscious Adjective

    aware of.

    cope Verb

    to handle or deal with problems.

    Darwinius masillae Noun

    extinct species of primate which lived in the Eocene, about 47 million years ago.

    decompose Verb

    to decay or break down.

    dialogue Noun

    conversation between two people or organizations.

    diet Noun

    process of choosing food and drink in order to lose weight.

    dinosaur Noun

    very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.

    earth Noun

    soil or dirt.

    eastern woolly lemur Noun

    primate native to eastern Madagascar. Also called eastern Avahi laniger or Gmelin's woolly lemur.

    emit Verb

    to give off or send out.

    encounter Verb

    to meet, especially unexpectedly.

    Eocene adjective, noun

    (55-34 million years ago) epoch of the Tertiary Period in the Cenozoic Era.

    evolution Noun

    process of how present types of organisms developed from earlier forms of life.

    explosion Noun

    violent outburst; rejection, usually of gases or fuel

    extant Adjective

    living or in existence; prominent or standing out.

    extract Verb

    to pull out.

    eye socket Noun

    hole in the skull where the eyeball and its associated tissues are secured. Also called the orbit and eye socket orbital cavity.

    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    frequent Adjective


    fruit Noun

    edible part of a plant that grows from a flower.

    fuse Verb

    to combine or meld together.

    gas Noun

    state of matter with no fixed shape that will fill any container uniformly. Gas molecules are in constant, random motion.

    groom Verb

    to tend or carefully clean, brushm and make tidy.

    grooming claw Noun

    specialized claw on the toe of some primates used for grooming their fur. Also called a toilet claw.

    gut Noun

    part of the abdominal cavity including the digestive tract, stomach, and intestines.

    Haplorhini Noun

    suborder of primates, ("dry-nosed primates") including monkeys, apes, and human beings.

    Ida Noun

    nickname of the nearly complete skeleton of the primate species Darwinius masillae, approximately 47 million years old, discovered in Germany in 1983.

    jaw Noun

    set of bones or exoskeleton that form the framework of the mouth.

    juvenile Noun

    animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.

    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    lemur Noun

    type of small mammal (primate).

    loris Noun

    small primate native to Southeast Asia.

    Lucy Noun

    nickname of an incomplete skeleton of the species Australopithecus afarensis, approximately 3.2 million years old, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.

    maar Noun

    depression formed as magma reacts with groundwater.

    magma Noun

    molten, or partially melted, rock beneath the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: magma
    massive Adjective

    very large or heavy.

    missing link Noun

    species that has characteristics of two different clades, or species and all its descendents. Usually refers to species sharing characteristics of apes and humans.

    molar Noun

    large, flat tooth used for chewing and grinding.

    monkey Noun

    mammal considered to be highly intelligent, with four limbs and, usually, a tail.

    nocturnal Adjective

    active at night.

    opposable thumb Noun

    thumb that can be placed opposite the fingers of the same hand.

    oxygen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

    paleontologist Noun

    person who studies fossils and life from early geologic periods.

    possess Verb

    to have or own.

    preserve Verb

    to maintain and keep safe from damage.

    primate Noun

    type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

    prosimian adjective, noun

    grouping of primates, including lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers.

    quarry Noun

    site where stone is mined.

    Encyclopedic Entry: quarry
    remarkable Adjective

    unusual and dramatic.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    species Noun

    group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

    specimen Noun

    individual organism that is a typical example of its classification.

    speculate Verb

    to consider or guess.

    steam Noun

    water vapor.

    Strepsirrhini Plural Noun

    one of the two suborders of primates ("wet-nosed primates"), including lemurs and lorises.

    tarsus Noun

    group of bones, including the ankle, between the leg and the foot.

    taxonomist Noun

    scientist who studies the description, identification, naming, and classification of organisms.

    toothcomb Noun

    long, flat, fused, forward-facing teeth on the lower jaw that some primates, such as lemurs and lorises, use for grooming their fur. Also called a dentalcomb.

    toxic Adjective


    trait Noun

    characteristic or aspect.

    transitional species Noun

    species that has characteristics of two different clades, or species and all its descendents. Sometimes called a transitional fossil or missing link.

    unerupted Adjective

    tooth that remains below the surface of the gum. Also called impacted or embedded teeth.

    vegetarian Noun

    person who does not eat meat.

    village Noun

    small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.

    Encyclopedic Entry: village
    volcanic Adjective

    having to do with volcanoes.

    volcano Noun

    an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

    Encyclopedic Entry: volcano
    water table Noun

    underground area where the Earth's surface is saturated with water. Also called water level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: water table
    X-ray Noun

    radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum with a very short wavelength and very high energy.