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IL: Professor Counters Possible “Missing Link” Discovery in Nature Journal

November 04, 2009

by Jill Blair-Smith

Johnathan PerryA study co-authored by a faculty member at Midwestern University (MWU) disputes a claim made earlier this year that scientists had found a crucial missing link in the human evolutionary chain. As part of a team of paleoanthropologists from three universities, Jonathan Perry, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Anatomy at MWU, co-authored a study that refutes the claim that a 47- million-year-old fossil found in Germany is the first link in the human family tree. Officially known as Darwinius masillae, the German fossil was featured both in a TV special and book, and heralded as the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail.

While Darwinius was making headlines, Dr. Perry and a team of scientists were completing their analysis of a newly discovered fossil called Afradapis found in the Fayum Basin of Egypt in 2000. A careful study of Afradapis' teeth and jaw fragments indicates that it shares a common ancestry with Darwinius, and that both fossils are more closely related to modern lemurs than to humans. "The major split in the primate family tree is the split that leads on the one hand to lemurs and lorises and on the other hand to monkeys, apes, and humans," Dr. Perry said. His team's findings were published in the October 22 issue of Nature, a prominent British scientific journal.

"The analysis that we performed is called a cladistic analysis. We have a large database representing 360 anatomical features of more than 100 living and extinct primates. We added the German fossil information into the analysis we had already done in order to compute a family tree for the species," Dr. Perry said. "The analysis showed both our fossil and the German fossil grouping with the lemurs and the lorises rather than grouping with the higher primates."

As a scientist specializing in study of the skull and teeth of fossil mammals, Dr. Perry is interested in how this anatomy can give scientists information about what ancient animals ate and how they lived. "Afradapis is completely new to the fossil record. It has interesting implications for the primate family tree. It is also important in terms of what the animal was doing in its life and especially what it was eating, and in terms of geography. This animal was living in North Africa, but some of its closest relatives were from Europe. It looks like there was a lot more dispersal going on than we might have otherwise thought."

In addition to his research, Dr. Perry teaches anatomy to students in the osteopathic medicine, physician assistant, and physical therapy programs at MWU.

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Jill Blair-Smith