Paleontology’s Most Famous Missing Links

Now that "Ida" is a star, a look at some other famously transitional stars of the fossil record

The phrase “missing link” first appeared in print only four years after the publication of The Origin of the Species. By the end of that year, legendary paleontologist Richard Owen published a description of the fossil Archaeopteryx, the first specimen to carry that moniker. And with that, the concept of a “missing link” embedded itself in the popular imagination.

With missing links again thrust hastily and breathlessly into the spotlight again with the History Channel’s hyped-through-the-roof unveiling of Ida, “the most important find in 47 million years,” a look at missing links throughout history may help put things in perspective.

Of course, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of evolution knows that there’s no such scientific concept as a missing link, that the gradual nature of evolution renders all species “intermediates” between past and future forms, and that filling in the gaps between distinct groups is the paleontological equivalent of Zeno’s paradox. That has not, however, stopped almost 150 years of hype around the spectacular fossils whose chimerical appearance seems to embody the very concept of evolution.

So, in the spirit of the description of Darwinius masillae, have a look at some of the exquisite fossils that have served as prima facie evidence for the process of evolution. See it here.