Missing link discovered in Estonia

Like other paleontologists, Elga Mark-Kurik had long pondered that moment in geological time when the first ancestor to all land vertebrates, including man, stepped from the water and walked onto solid ground.

But the 71-year-old never imagined that a fossil of a possible species linking fish and land animals may have already been in her collection for more than 40 years.

At a recent forum at London's Natural History Museum, scientists said the 375-million-year-old jawbone Mark-Kurik found in 1953 and a similar fossil found in Latvia in 1964 could be the missing link between water and land animals.

Many scientists agree the 25,000 species of land vertebrates, including homo sapiens, all descend from a small group of creatures that were not yet quite land animals and no longer quite fish. But nobody had ever unearthed such evidence.

The most developed fish, whose fossils are relatively common, date back to about 385 million years; the earliest, clearly land-roving animals are some 365 million years old - leaving a gap of 20 million years between fish and land animals.

An article by Mark-Kurik and fellow paleontologists Per Ahlberg of Sweden and Ervins Luksevics of Latvia claims that the Baltic fossils fall within that gap. The article will be published in the August edition of the prestigious British journal Paleontology.

That one of paleontology's Holy Grails may have been discovered in Estonia and Latvia has been celebrated across the two former Soviet Baltic republics and at Tallinn's Institute of Geology where Mark-Kurik works.

Sitting in her office, she proudly pulled the thumb-sized fossil out of a small blue box and gleefully handed it to a reporter.

But she hastened to explain that thanks to repressive Moscow rule, which only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was a fossil find of a lifetime that was unnecessarily delayed.

"This has been very exciting for scientists here," said Mark-Kurik. "We had gone through such a long, dreadful period in the Soviet Union."

As a schoolgirl in 1941, a year after Soviet forces occupied the Baltic states, Mark-Kurik and her family hid in fear one night when KGB troops knocked on their door. She said they were lucky to escape deportation.

She also says it was isolation behind the Iron Curtain that kept her and other scientists from recognizing the importance of the fossil she found in an Estonian cave as a graduate student.

For decades, the Soviet regime kept her from traveling abroad to meet colleagues and see other fossil collections, and the KGB closely monitored the rare Western scientist who visited Estonia.

Scientific rules also generally required that research papers be written in Russian, so Western paleontologists couldn't readily glean insights from Mark-Kurik's published works.

"Paleontology is very much a world science," she said. "You must see fossils from around the world and you must exchange information with other scientists to understand what you have. We couldn't under the Soviets."

After the country regained independence in 1991, Mark-Kurik suddenly had the freedom but not the money to travel. She still shares an office the size of a walk-in closet with two other researchers and is paid less than 6,000 Estonian kroons - or dlrs 400 in U.S. currency - a month.

The turning point came in the mid-'90s, when Mark-Kurik, Ahlberg, Luksevics and a Russian scientist won a grant from NATO to compare ancient rocks and fauna from Scotland and the Baltics.

They weren't trying to find the link between fish and land animals. But Ahlberg had studied the field in depth and the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell together during a routine look at the Baltic jawbone fossils.

Jaw bones have distinctive, complicated joints and undergo huge changes with evolution; by comparing and contrasting them with other better-known specimens, jaw bones are especially good at revealing traits ohis hands had just the right mix of fish and land-vertebrate features that he knew well from other fossil collections, and he understood their significance almost instantly.

"These (Baltic) fossils fall bang in the middle of the gap," he said.

The animal was dubbed Livonia multidentata in Latin after the region where the fossils were found and its unique, five rows of razor-sharp teeth.

"I haven't seen anything like it, with multiple rows of teeth," said Jenny Clack, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge who was not connected to the find. "This find is certainly part of the story of the origin of tetrapods (early land animals). It's the latest twist."

But unanswered questions remain. One is whether it still had fins or already had legs. To find out, Ahlberg said the search will turn to unearthing a whole skeleton.

If it exists, it would likely be here in northern Europe, which, because of the earth's shifting tectonic plates, was at the equator and featured shallow, nutrient-rich tropical waters 400 million years ago.

But Mark-Kurik says chances of finding a full skeleton are slim.

That leaves paleontologists extrapolating how it looked by comparing Livonia multidentata to its nearest cousins, for which there are full skeletons: It probably looked like a small crocodile, though with gills and a fish-like tail.

She herself hardly seems enamored with what could have been man's first terrestrial forefather.

"It must have been horribly ugly ... I wouldn't want it walking around my house," she said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'