by Matthew Cobb
The question of why some research articles get published in high-profile scientific journals is one that perpetually preoccupies scientists (or at least, those of us who don’t habitually publish in such journals), and has been discussed here a number of times. The latest issue of Nature raises this question again.
Nature – a commercial publication – is one of two weekly science journals that has a high public and academic profile, and which publishes material covering the whole range of scientific endeavour. (the other is Science). To keep up its profile – and thereby its profits – Nature has to have a keen eye for research that is sexy and exciting. One person’s sexy is another’s dull, of course, and sometimes it’s hard to see what made the editor’s eye gleam – I’m happy to admit that I don’t understand the titles of many of the articles in Nature (“Intra-unit-cell electronic nematicity of the high-Tc copper-oxide pseudogap states” for example, which I’m sure is really fantastic, but I don’t get it…).
This week’s Nature has a dramatic cover of a frontal view of a battered fossil primate skull, with the headline “The parting of the ways”. Sure looks sexy:
The associated article, by Zalmut et al, is entitled “New Oligocene primate from Saudi Arabia and the divergence of apes and Old World monkeys“. It describes the skull of a new species, Saadanius hijazensis, which was found in Saudi Arabia and is an early (“stem”) catarrhine. “Catarrhine” is the term that describes old world monkeys and the apes (including us), which split away from the New World Monkeys (platyrrhines) around 40 MY ago. Exactly when the apes split from the old world monkeys has been a matter of some discussion, and this fossil, which has few catarrhine specialisations, dates to 28-29MY ago, suggesting the split took place after this date.
Here are the details of the fossil:
The authors also include this useful diagram of primate evolution and the place of Saadanius within it. This will no doubt feature in many future lectures on primate evolution:
Is this Big News? Well probably not. When I suggested to Jerry he might blog on this, he mailed back “so what?” (He didn’t use those exact terms, but something more robust…). As he pointed out – “If it was a fly ancestor it would go to Drosophila Information Service…” (DIS – a highly valued publication – is pretty much what it says, and not exactly Nature.)
Basically, the fossil provides physical evidence that the split took place <28 MY ago (the previous youngest stem catarrhine fossil was from around 30 MY), which fits in which the molecular data, suggesting there may have been an early-Oligocene split (i.e. 23 MY at the earliest). Is that something that’s really amazing? I’m not sure. But the Nature editors obviously thought so.
Interestingly, the part of the story I found the most fascinating appeared in today’s Guardian, in an article by Ian Sample, which in its earlier editions appeared with a dramatic picture showing the skull in situ and goes on to describe how the poor animal met its end:
Iyad Zalmout, lead author of the study, spotted the damaged skull of Saadanius lying upside down in the sediment with its teeth glinting in the sun. Serious wounds on the front of the skull suggest the creature met a violent end. “He got in the way of a big carnivore and died in a horrible way,” Zalmout said. “The puncture marks in the skull suggest he was seized by the head, got chewed around a bit, and was then thrown away.”
Brenda Benefit, professor of biological anthropology at New Mexico State University, said: “For me this discovery is one of the most significant in my lifetime. Until now we have not had a very perfect fossil ancestor for the Old World monkeys and apes.”
“Some palaeontologists, inlcuding myself, thought that this is exactly what the common ancestor to Old World monkeys and apes would look like, based on resemblances between Miocene fossil Old World monkeys and apes, whereas others thought they would be shorter snouted and more round-headed like modern gibbons.
“Saadanius resolves this debate and demonstrates the importance of the fossil record for knowing what our ancestors looked like.”
Now that’s a lot more convincing. Maybe for once the science journalist got it right, while the scientists and the journal editors didn’t.
Note to creationists: this post is not about the validity of the discovery, it’s more a reflection on our views about what is and is not noteworthy in science.
UPDATE: The BBC website also reports this and concludes with this underwhelming phrase: “The new date, of 29 million years ago, fits more closely with what the researchers would have expected and is not surprising from a palaeontological point of view.” So Nature is putting “not surprising” results on its front cover…
Reference: Iyad S. Zalmout, William J. Sanders, Laura M. MacLatchy, Gregg F. Gunnell, Yahya A. Al-Mufarreh, Mohammad A. Ali, Abdul-Azziz H. Nasser, Abdu M. Al-Masari, Salih A. Al-Sobhi, Ayman O. Nadhra, Adel H. Matari, Jeffrey A. Wilson & Philip D. Gingerich (2010). New Oligocene primate from Saudi Arabia and the divergence of apes and Old World monkeys. Nature 466:360-364. [Subscription needed to see beyond abstract.]