Oldest known lizard discovered: Why is the tiny reptile so unique?

Oldest known lizard discovered: Why is the tiny reptile so unique?

Oldest known lizard discovered: Why is the tiny reptile so unique?

Paleontologists have unearthed the world's oldest squamate fossil - 240-million-year-old specimen of a species called Megachirella wachtleri - from a site in the Dolomite Mountains, Italy.

The fossil, along with data from both living and extinct reptiles -which involved anatomical data drawn from CT scans and DNA- suggests the origin of squamates is even older, taking place in the late Permian period, more than 250 million years ago.

Scientists used a new X-ray technology to examine parts of the fossil embedded within the rock to determine the species was in fact part of the lizard family based on head, shoulder and wrist features.

"The iguana, the gecko through the skink, they all come from an animal that looks like Megachirella wachtleri, the oldest lizard fossil that we know today", explains Tiago Simoes.

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Simoes, along with Michael Caldwell, one of the study's co-authors, also likened the fossil to "a virtual Rosetta Stone in terms of the information it gives us on the evolution of snakes and lizards".

"This study, along with others that try to understand fundamental aspects of evolution. will hopefully draw back people's curiosity and attention to the natural world and how it has been changing for hundreds of millions of years".

The research by scientists in Alberta - as well as in Australia, Italy and the United States - was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"Fossils are our only accurate window into the ancient past", Caldwell, a coauthor of the study, said in the university's statement.

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"We are sure it's a lizard by the particular combination of features", said Simões.

Megachirella wachtleri walks through plants in this artist's impression of the Italian Dolomites region, about 240 million years ago. They also found evidence of vestigial traits that more modern squamates have since lost - a small cheek bone called the quadratojugal and primitive belly bones called gastralia (which are found in many dinosaurs, too).

The realization of the oldest known squamate opens up a new world in the history of modern species. The conclusion is based on an analysis of data from both living and extinct 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.

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"It's confirming that we are pretty much clueless", Simões said of the new species.

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