World's oldest lizard fossil reveals new evolutionary clues about reptiles, scientists say

The fossil of Megachirella wachtleri

The fossil of Megachirella wachtleri

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.

The new dating of this Megachirella means that lizards evolved more than 75 million years before they were first thought to have existed, according to Dr. Palci. At that time, scientists couldn't completely understand how the fossil fit into the family tree of the reptiles.

As part of this study, the scientists scanned a piece of fossilized skeleton of the ancient chameleon-sized reptile known as Megachirella and discovered the creature to be the ancestor of the lizard of today.

"It's a fossil lizard that we found to be the oldest-known lizard on the planet", said Tiago Simões, a PhD student in the University of Alberta's biological sciences department and the study's lead author.

One of the greatest things about the discovery of the Megachirella lizard fossil is that it proves that lizards and snakes survived the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, and also that lizards came into being long before what has been called the Great Dying, as paleontologist Alessandro Palci explained. It dates back to 240 million years ago.

Michael Caldwell is the co-author of the study and a paleontologist at the University of Alberta.

Initially mislabeled as a member of a broader reptile group, scientists writing in the journal Nature have finally discovered that not only is Megachirella a lizard, but that it's the world's oldest known lizard. Simões concludes that the information they got from the fossil can help them understand the transition "from general reptile features to more lizard-like features".

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

"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.

"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", Simões said.

The researchers then flushed a small bone of the lower jaw of the animal as the squamates (a group that includes lizards and snakes) are the only ones to have.

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

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