Scientists identify world's oldest lizard fossil

Ismael LynchJun 02, 2018

"Our new understanding of Megachirella is but a point in ancient time, but it tells us things about the evolution of lizards that we simply can not learn from any of the 9,000 or so species of lizards and snakes alive today", co-author Michael Caldwell from the University of Alberta said in a statement.

Scientists say they have discovered world's oldest lizard fossil, revealing new information about the evolution of the reptiles - they might have lived among the first dinosaurs.

Megachirella, unearthed approximately 20 years ago from the compacted sand and clay bedrock of the Dolomite mountain in northeastern Italy, was mistakenly listed as a relative of modern-day lizards. Prior to their findings, scientists believed that squamates had branched off from ancient reptiles prior to the Permian/Triassic mass extinction about 252 million years ago.

The researchers also noted that for the first time, "orphological and molecular data are in agreement regarding early squamate evolution, with geckoes-and not iguanians-as the earliest crown clade squamates".

"It pushes the origin of lizards back 75 million years".

"Fossils are our only accurate window into the ancient past", says study co-author, Dr Michael Caldwell, also from the University of Alberta. Researchers couldn't figure out what type of reptile it was and how far back it dated. At a synchrotron facility, Simões and his colleagues identified features in the animal's brain case, collar bone and wrists that are unique to lizards. But they couldn't be certain of where, or if, it fit into the squamate family tree.

"Now it became possible to actually assess the relationship of not only this species but also of other species of reptiles".

This handout picture received via the Nature website on May 28, 2018 shows a life scene in the Dolomites region, Northern Italy, about 240 million years ago, with Megachirella wachtleri walking through the vegetation. Flowers had not evolved, and the ground was dominated by primitive plants called lycopods (ancestors of club mosses and quillworts).

The 240-million-year-old fossil, Megachirella wachtleri, is the most ancient ancestor of all modern lizards and snakes, known as squamates, according to researchers including those from the University of Bristol in the UK. The conditions under which the fossil was found - in marine sediments but surrounded by fossilized land plants - suggest that a powerful storm hit the coastline where megachirella lived and swept the tiny critter out to sea.

The fossil is the size of a finger, and it was found in the Italian Alps.

"It's confirming that we are pretty much clueless".

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