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

The fossil of Megachirella wachtleri

"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".

Squamates are reptiles of the larger order Squamata and include snakes, lizards and amphisbaenians.

The fossil was originally found 20 years ago in the Dolomite Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Italy.

That, in turn, suggested that squamates had already split from other ancient reptiles before the Permian/Triassic mass extinction some 252 million years ago, and survived it.

More light will be shed on snakes and lizards, both living and dead, thanks to this research.

"The specimen is 75 million years older than what we thought were the oldest fossil lizards in the entire world", Tiago Simões, lead author and PhD candidate, said in a statement.

Enter Megachirella wachtleri, a three-inch, 240-million-year-old fossil - and an exciting new clue in this evolutionary mystery.

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"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.

Self-described explorer Michael Wachtler first found the fossil, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports. Researchers couldn't figure out what type of reptile it was and how far back it dated.

"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", Simoes explained. They put together the biggest ever reptile dataset to pinpoint Megachirella's place in the family tree.

"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 and his colleagues are still seeking evidence of megachirella's behavior.

Paleontologists have identified a 240-million-year-old fossil of a lizard as the "ancestor" of all modern lizards and snakes, providing key insight into the origin and evolution of one of the largest groups of vertebrates on Earth. Scientists found that the creature's ribs, spine, front limbs, and skull were still attached to the skeleton, and over the next 10 years the fossil was closely studied and scrutinized by scientists. 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".

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