Ida is the world’s oldest complete primate skeleton, and the most valuable object exhibited at The Natural History Museum of Oslo. She was bought by the museum in 2007, and presented to the world in 2009.
Ida fascinates us in several ways.
How old was Ida when she died?
The teeth of fossils can tell us a lot. They can tell us which species the fossilized animal was, whether it was an herbivore or a carnivore, and they can often tell us a good deal about the animal’s age.
Mammals have milk teeth – i.e., teeth which fall out (exfoliate) when young animals grow up. The milk teeth are replaced by teeth which should last for life.
Since these permanent teeth are present inside the jaw from birth, we can see them in X-ray images. Below we see what the teeth of a seven-year old human child look like, compared with an X-ray of Ida’s teeth. In both, we see some teeth which have other teeth below and behind them. These are milk teeth which will be pushed out. We can also see that both Ida and the child have molars which have not emerged yet.
By comparing Ida with other primates, we can determine that she had reached the age when tooth exfoliation had started.
Where did Ida live?
Ida was found in 1983 in the Messel Pit, a disused oil-shale quarry near the German city of Frankfurt. At the time, the pit was about to become a garbage dump. It was widely known that it contained a great number of unique fossils, and both professionals and amateurs were involved in an intense fossil hunt, endeavouring to unearth the goodies before opportunity was lost.
In 1995 the plans for a garbage dump were finally abandoned, and The Messel Pit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the German authorities now faced a new problem: What were they to do about all the fossils which had wound up in private hands?
Privately owned fossils are not available for research. In order to draw conclusions and allow other researchers to validate them, the fossils must be available in public museums for researchers to study. With all these fossils in private hands, there was a risk that valuable knowledge would be lost because the owners feared prosecution for illegal fossil hunting.
German authorities therefore decided to declare a general amnesty for fossils unearthed before 1995. Thus the owner of Ida could now legally sell her, if she or he wished to.
What did the world look like when Ida lived?
50 million years ago, the continents had begun to find their present shape. But we can see that Europe was not one continuous land mass, the way it is today. It was rather a cluster of islands, not unlike today’s Indonesia.
The ninth primate fossil – Ida
Adapted excerpts from an article by professor Jens L. Franzen, The Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, in Natur und museum # 1 2010. See also: Who were Ida’s relatives?
We were hugely surprised when a complete primate fossil turned up at the mineral and fossil fair in Hamburg in December 2006. The fossil was even surrounded by fossilized soft tissue, preserved all the way to the tips of its hair! Only the fur of the tail was incomplete. Comparisons with the sixth primate find from Messel revealed that these two finds were each other’s counterparts.
“Personally, I was made aware of the find through an e-mail from Jørn Hurum, a colleague from The Natural History Museum of The University of Oslo. I received the news about the fossil and got the opportunity to see the pictures on my 70th birthday, and I could not have wished for a better present. It was simply incredible!”
The only complete fossil primate
To begin with, Ida, Darwinius masillae, is the only complete fossil primate of any age that has ever been discovered.
Until now, scientists studying early primate evolution in the Middle Eocene Period have only had fragments of fossils to study.
They are trying to understand how early primates split into the prosimian and anthropoid groups.
Now they have a fossil that is not only extraordinarily old, but also preserved in astonishing detail. For a creature of any age, she is in a miraculous condition. Ida is the oldest complete primate skeleton in the world.
Her skeleton is almost 100% complete. Around the skeleton is a shadow of the fur, and among the bones, where the intestines would have been, are the fossilized remains of her last meal.
Studying all these features allows us to reconstruct her life history, the way she moved and her diet. There is no primate fossil from the Eocene from which we can learn so much – in fact, there is no primate so well preserved before human burials.
Evidence for evolution
Charles Darwin first proposed and gathered evidence for the theory of evolution by natural selection.
He proposed the idea that species change over time, gradually evolving into new species. But when he published his groundbreaking theory in On the Origin of Species in 1859, there were major gaps in the fossil record.
Just two years later, in 1861, the famous transitional fossil Archaeopteryx was discovered. This beautifully illustrated an intermediate form between dinosaurs and birds, supporting Darwin’s ideas.
significance of Ida and where she fits into the story of early primate evolution.
Until January 4 2015, the real Ida has been lent out to the Munch Museum in Oslo for an exhibition called Through Nature.
The Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo is Norway’s most comprehensive natural history collection. For almost 200 years, preserved plant specimens, animal specimens, rocks, minerals and fossils have been collected, studied and preserved here.
A selection of specimens are on display for the general public, in the Geological Museum and the Zoological Museum. Both are to be found in the beautiful Botanical Garden. Located at Tøyen in the east of Oslo city centre, the garden is not only popular for recreation, but is a scientific collection in itself.