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Mother Of All Lizards: World's Oldest Reptile Fossil Dates Back 240 Million Years

Jun 01, 2018 01:47 AM EDT
Scientists have unearthed the mother of all lizards using the largest reptile dataset ever collected.
(Photo : Pixabay)

Meet the mother of lizards, a tiny ancient creature that lived around 240 million years ago and roamed the Earth with early dinosaurs.

By studying the fossil of this ancient "mother," scientists are able to bridge gaps in knowledge on a reptilian group's evolution. Despite the volume of lizards and snakes throughout the planet, little is known about their early days.

Finding The Roots Of Lizards

A team of international scientists published their findings in the academic journal Nature, which revolved around the chameleon-sized reptile Megachirella wachtleri. Scans of the reptile's fossilized skeleton showed that it's actually the ancestor of a group of reptiles that are dubbed as squamates, which includes all of today's lizards and snakes.

The researchers analyzed the Megachirella fossil as well as data from more than 130 fossilized and living reptiles and then found that the squamates' origins can be traced back even further than initially thought. It turns out these reptiles lived in the Permian period over 250 million years ago.

"The specimen is 75 million years older than what we thought were the oldest fossil lizards in the entire world," lead author Tiago Simoes, who is a PhD student from the University of Alberta, explains in a release from the university. "This discovery provides valuable information for understanding the evolution of both living and extinct squamates."

The Result Of Well-Curated Data

The realization of the oldest known squamate opens up a new world in the history of modern species.

"It's almost a virtual Rosetta stone," coauthor Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, says in a video for the MUSE Science Museum in Italy. "In terms of the information that it gives us on the evolution of snakes and lizards. 10,000 modern species of these animals alive today, but yet we've really had no real understanding of where they came from in terms of their evolutionary history."

Until now.

The discovery was only possible with a comprehensive collection of data that's painstakingly assembled over the years, which is described by the university as the "largest reptile dataset ever created."

Modern technology also allowed for micro CT scans and a reconstruction of the Megachirella fossil.

"This is the story of the re-discovery of a specimen that highlights the importance of preserving naturalistic specimens in well-maintained, publicly accessible collections," adds Massimo Bernardi, another coauthor who is associated with MUSE and University of Bristol. He points out that brand-new techniques could yield a fresh perspective on even the most familiar specimens in the planet.

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