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Re: Darwin's young dead pet from Messel



I've been getting to know /Darwinius/ a bit over the last couple of days, and I still find it an absolute stunner. I've been trying to figure out why. Agreed, the paper is rather lightweight when it comes to the phylogenetic aspects. Then again, the priority of the authors lay in the description.

The big story can't, regardless of any headlines and comments to the contrary, lie in the transitional characters of the genus; a "missing link" and all that kind of jazz. The cited relevant characters are at best feather-light and, mostly, actually absentees rather than present characters. The lack of a grooming claw and a toothcomb seem to be no big deal, and that absence could have arisen independently a number of times. The shape of a single ankle bone is perhaps a bit more substantial, but not by all that much. That aspect would also benefit from much tougher examination.

Unfortunately, a side-effect of the "missing link" headlines and hype can give the impression that transitional fossils are great rarities. That's a likely conclusion for some non-knowist to come to. Such a thing gets announced, and this triggers an extradinary level of interest and, therefore, must be an extraordinary and rare event. Should anybody be planning or pondering some kind of article involving this thing, that misimpression could be usefully countered by the mention of far more obviously transitional forms long known from the same locality. Messel has already yielded charming mini horses with lots of toes and low-crowned teeth for chewing on leaves and grapes. Compared to those excellent transitional specimens, this newling merits nothing more than a small footnote. If the authors are indeed correct with their interpretations, it's but a minor statement of the already bleedingly obvious.

I can think of four big stories.
1. This specimen is staggeringly complete.
2. It's stunningly beautiful.
3. It's fascinating to see how much well-founded information the authors were able to infer on age, size, lifestyle and that sort of aspect; how much life they were able to sensibly breathe into this seriously dead critter.
4. The mass of new information that's now available for future studies, including those that will doubtlessly attack the phylogenetic problems.


And a side effect of the publicity splash could also be useful. Somewhere, some innocent by-stander may find themselves seriously soaked with wanting to learn more about fossil mammals. They could have their future gloriously blighted by suffering from a wonderful obsession.