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Bizarre Worm Lizards Rafted Across Oceans to Find Their Homes

Apr 07, 2015 01:06 PM EDT

There are a lot of strange creatures out there that you probably have never seen. This is likely the case for the tiny burrowing reptiles known as worm lizards, which can be found just out of sight in five of the seven continents. Now new research has determined that to be so wide-spread, these little-known creatures actually rafted across vast oceans in prehistoric times.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which describes how experts have found "definitive fossil evidence" that worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) did not spread across the world when Earth's supercontinent, Pangaea, first began to split apart.

Today, there are about 180 extant species of amphisbaenians, all characterized by their long bodies, simple eyes, and worm-like segmentation. One species (bipes biporus - pictured above) even boasts small stubby front legs, but most are limbless. And understandably, these creatures aren't exactly known for their ability to cover ground.

That's why experts have been so fascinated with the idea that they must have traveled to their many homes today somehow - becoming noticeably dispersed 65 million years ago, just after the dinosaur's mass extinction.

"Continental drift clearly can't explain the patterns we're seeing. Continental breakup was about 95 million years ago, and these animals only become widespread 30 million years later," researcher Nick Longrich, from the University of Bath, explained in a statement.

Instead, experts including Charles Darwin had proposed that the primitive ancestors of many small subterranean species must have pulled off the near-impossible, rafting across vast oceans within mats of soil held together by tree and grass roots. (Scroll to read on...)

"It seems highly improbable not only that enough of these creatures could have survived a flood clinging to the roots of a fallen tree and then travelled hundreds of miles across an ocean, but that they were able to thrive and flourish in their new continent," Longrich said. "But having looked at the data, it is the only explanation for the remarkable diversity and spread of not just worm lizards, but nearly every other living thing as well."

"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever you're left with, no matter how improbable, must be the truth," he added.

Interestingly this could explain why underground life today is not only so widespread, but also why it is so diverse. Other recent research has determined that the unseen ecosystems just below our feet might be the most diverse on Earth, with millions of species and billions of individual organisms beneath a single grassland or forest. And the complex interplay of all these species may heavily influence what kind of flora and fauna are seen on the surface.

Jakob Vinther, an expert in macroeveolution from the University of Bristol and co-author of the study, even goes as far as to suggest that vibrant subterranean life -which thrives off the death of organisms above - could have actually done exceptionally well in the wake of the steroidal impact which wiped out an estimated 75 percent of life on Earth.

"The asteroid hit would have killed most of the plants, meaning there was no new food," he explained. "However, scavengers like worm lizards that live off dead and decaying matter were able to survive and thrive. Their tunnels would have acted like bomb shelters, allowing them to withstand the asteroid impact and without any competition for food and space, they flourished."

The study details how fossil records indicate that it was a mere 100 to 1000 years after that impact that the first worm lizards set out on the incredible and accidental voyages that would find them new homes across half the habitable world.

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