The fossil may be a 'missing link' to the evolutionary history of modern-day lizards.
Researchers have found 12 ancient lizards trapped inside pieces of amber. One of the lizards persevered in sticky tree resin is estimated to be some 99 million years old, making it the oldest example of a specimen from a chameleon, almost 78 years older than the previous specimen on record.
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These early lizards were creeping through the tropical forests of what is now called Myanmar during the Mid-Cretaceous period. The lives of those lizards were cut short when they crawled into tree sap. Over time, the substance fossilized into amber and preserved lizards for millions of years, only to provide us a glimpse of a ‘lost world.’ These well-preserved fossils are a “missing link” of the evolutionary history of modern-day lizards.
“These fossils tell us a lot about the extraordinary but previously unknown diversity of lizards in ancient tropical forest,” said co-researcher Edward Stanley from University of Florida. “The fossil record is sparse because the delicate skin and fragile bones of small lizards do not usually preserve, especially in the tropics, which makes the new amber fossils an incredibly rare and unique window into a critical period of diversification.”
The amber fossils were pulled from mine decades ago but it was not until recently that scientists had the opportunity to analyze them.
Of those 12 specimens, three - a gecko, an archaic lizard and the chameleon- are particularly well preserved while the oldest of them is a new species and has not been named yet. The tiny creature’s entire body including its eyes and colorful scales are remarkably well preserved and it looks similar to the modern-day lizards.
The amber fossils were obtained from American Museum of Natural History and researchers applied micro- computed tomography (micro-CT) to analyze the ancient lizard.
“It was mind-blowing. Usually we have a foot or other small part preserved in amber but these are whole specimens – claws, toepads, teeth, even perfectly intact colored scales.” Stanley said.
Scanned images of the fossils provided an opportunity to look at the anatomy and ecology of the ancient lizards. The fossils can reveal how the modern chameleons have evolved into the unique body shape that we see today.
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“These exquisitely preserved examples of past diversity show us why we should be protecting these areas where their modern relatives live today,” said Stanley. “The tropics often act as a stable refuge where biodiversity tends to accumulate, while other places are more variable in terms of climate and species. However, the tropics are not impervious to human efforts to destroy them.”