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Texas and Reptile: Extinct Worm Lizard Discovered; Lived in Warm, Wet Environment

Feb 21, 2016 06:36 PM EST
fossilized skull of Solastella cookei
An extinct worm lizard was recently discovered from fossils found in West Texas. It is from about 40 million years ago.
(Photo : Michelle Stocker and Chris Kirk)

In a long-ago, balmy and wet version of West Texas, a worm lizard lived. Researchers from the University of Texas's Jackson School of Geosciences have discovered the now-extinct species and called it the "Long Star" lizard. They say it marks up evidence that the area was a subtropical safe place during one of the past's great cooling periods, and they note that we might learn more from it about how species will react to future climate change.

The research was recently published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and the worm lizard was officially called Solastella cookei. Solastella is "lone star" in a Latinized form.

The term "worm lizard" already describes amphisbaenians, a group of reptiles with long bodies and small to no limbs that make them look like earthworms. Some of them still exist. Solastella was in the subgroup Rhineuriadae -- only one of its group exists, the Florida worm lizard.

Researcher Michelle Stocker, paleontologist, identified the new (though extinct) worm lizard while working on her PhD. She is now at Virginia Institute of Technology. At the time of the identification, Stocker was analyzing fossil skulls in a West Texas area called the Devil's Graveyard Formation, according to a release.

Solastella existed in the Late Middle Eocene, about 40 million years ago. It had a fully enclosed eye socket, which is not the case in today's amphisbaenians but was for extinct relatives.

"What's special about reptiles is that they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, so they need to maintain their body temperature to the external environment," Stocker said in the release. "You can actually get a better sense at what the climate was like from reptiles than from mammals. We were very excited that we not only found Solastella at the site, but a whole bunch of other reptiles."

Stocker also notes that we can learn from the discovery a bit more about how animal groups might react to climate change as we go forward. "With climate change, animals either adapt, or they move, or they go extinct. And so we can look at what's happened in the past and see that certain conditions caused certain things to happen in certain groups," Stocker said in the release. "The great thing about the fossil record is that the experiment has already been done for us. We just have to collect the evidence."

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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