Fossil 'Ida' stirs even more debate

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The fossil called “Ida,” said to be “the missing link” in human evolution, is attracting even more attention than when she first arrived in Oslo earlier this year. Another blast of criticism over the missing link angle comes just as the researcher behind Ida’s fame has launched a new book on the fossil, won an award and helped combat commercial challenges.

Scientific debate over the unusually intact fossil took a new turn after heavy criticism from an American academic and the discovery of a 37 million-year-old jaw in Egypt.

Erik Seiffert of the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York claims Ida is merely an early lemur and not the forebear of higher apes. Seiffert published his claims in the New Scientist magazine recently. Jørn Hurum, the Norwegian paleontologist who’s considered Ida’s “father” in Norway, has said he’s surprised “by the strength of Seiffert’s attack,” telling the BBC, for example, that Seiffert “only had access to photographs and casts.”

The discovery of another fossil in Egypt, covered in a new edition of Nature magazine, also casts doubt on the importance of Ida, claiming it shoves Ida out of the human development line.

Hurum told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that he and his colleagues “have never claimed that Ida is a sort of mother of us all. We have said she belonged to the stock that later developed into apes and even later, humans. And we still believe that.”Lots of interest

Oslo’s Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has seen record numbers of visitors this year, as Norwegians and tourists have lined up to see the much publicized fossil. More than 30,000 people streamed into the museum, tied to the University of Oslo, in July alone, up from 14,014 visitors in the same month last year.

Remarkably well-preserved, Ida lived about 47 million years ago and is now the star of the museum collection.

Presented to the world through a scientific publication and at a New York press conference in May, Ida was originally found in Germany. Hurum bought the fossil on behalf of the Oslo Museum in 2007, a story involving late-night meetings in bars, clandestine negotiations and much haggling over the price. “Indiana Jones would have been proud,” wrote the British magazine The Economist at the time.

After securing Ida, Hurum studied the fossil for two years and published, along with co-workers, claims that Ida represents a missing link in the evolution from half-ape to ape. Hurum has given hundreds of interviews to both the Norwegian and foreign press, claiming that Ida fundamentally changes scientists’ perception of evolution.Both Hurum and the museum have since come under fire from others in the field, who claim that Ida and her scientific importance are being grossly oversold. Despite such complaints, Ida and her discoverer are both doing well: Ida has her own web site, stuffed Idas are being sold at record rates in the museum shop and museum staff are overjoyed that their new celebrity attracts so many visitors, double as many as last year.

Hurum, for his part, has been the darling of Norwegian newspapers, sometimes pictured with a stuffed Ida perched jauntily on his shoulder. He recently received a prize from the Norwegian Research Council (Norsk forskningsråd) for his ability to communicate his team’s scientific findings to the general public.

Articles in Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten have argued that the publicity stunts and PR campaigns surrounding Ida are as impressive as the fossil itself. A book launch this week will further acquaint the Norwegian public with the story of Ida and her place in evolution.

The commercialization of scientific findings has encountered unexpected problems. In addition to facing the ire of fellow scientists, Hurum and the museum are now embroiled in a legal struggle over rights to use Ida as a logo.Unexpectedly, a firm in Farsund with no connection to the museum or Ida’s research group seized the opportunity to jump on the Ida bandwagon and claims the right to use an Ida logo on anything from knives to umbrellas. Ida’s handlers have complained.

The University of Oslo, meanwhile, claims rights to Ida’s hand, which may even be used on beer bottles. An undignified use of the old girl, feel some of her admirers. The lemur-like lady may have entered deeper into commerce than her discoverers intended.