World's oldest lizard fossil reveals new evolutionary clues about reptiles, scientists say
Jun 02 2018 by Michele Stevens
Found in the early 2000s after 240 million years embedded in the mountains of northern Italy, a fossil known as Megachirella wachtleri has claimed the title of oldest-known species of the reptilian order Squamata, making it an ancestor of all the world's lizards and snakes, as The Washington Postexplains. "Our new understanding of Megachirella is one point in ancient time, but it tells us things about the evolution of lizards that we simply can not learn from any of the species of lizards and snakes alive today". But recent scans revealed features in the fossil that were hidden, enabling scientists to identifyMegachirella as the oldest known ancestor in the squamate lineage - the reptile group that includes lizards and snakes.
"It's nearly 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.
"I spent almost 400 days visiting over 50 museums and university collections across 17 countries to collect data on fossil and living species of reptiles to understand the early evolution of reptiles and lizards", Simões explained to the AFP. The tiny lizard was the size of a finger and it's 250 million years old.
About 240 million years ago, Megachirella wachtleri trod the vegetation in what is now the Dolomites region of northern Italy.
Soon after he found it, he gave it to scientists, who named it after Wachtler. Scientists have always been unsure of M. wachtleri's place in the reptile family tree. The CT scan brought more facts to light about the physical characteristics of the Megachirella, for example a small bone in the lower jaw of the creature that is a distinct feature of the squamate group.
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Since this discovery, scientists didn't know much about the early stages of lizard and snake evolution, even though there are twice as many different species of them as mammals, the University of Bristol notes.
Simões and his colleagues have written and published their study on 30 May in the journal Nature.
"For the first time, having that information with this highly expanded data set, now it became possible to actually assess the relationship of not only this species but also of other species of reptiles".
"When I first saw the fossil I realised it had important features that could link it to the early evolution of lizards", he said.