Lizards locked in amber provide clues to reptile evolution

99-million-year-old fossils preserve gecko, chameleon characteristics

lizard in amber

ENSHRINED  Lizard remains preserved in 99-million-year-old amber provide new insight into reptilian history.    

David Grimaldi 

Some ancient lizards’ bad luck has become a gold mine of information for scientists. 

Reptilian remains in roughly 99-million-year-old amber provide unusually detailed insight into the evolutionary history of lizards, researchers report March 4 in Science Advances.

The 12 chunks of amber, originally collected in Myanmar, contain parts of lizards that got trapped in tree resin during the Cretaceous period. Unlike stone, amber can fossilize small, delicate animals, as well as preserve soft tissues and organs.

Some of the amber specimens contain just a lizard leg; one holds most of a tongue. A translucent layer of scales traces where one lizard’s body once lay (left panel in the image above). In another fossil (middle panel), which contains skin and unusually long claws, sediment snuck into the lizard’s body during fossilization and created a mold of some bones. The researchers used CT scans to observe these internal structures in three dimensions.

ANCIENT BABY This fossil of a newborn lizard might belong to the oldest known relative of modern chameleons, researchers say. David Grimaldi

Amber-encased toe pads (right panel) identified a few of the lizards as gecko ancestors. One of the preserved lizards may represent an intermediate form between known older relatives and modern geckos, the team says.

The skin and skeleton of a newborn lizard just over a centimeter long (shown in the image below) is the most surprising fossil in the bunch, says study coauthor Juan Daza, a herpetologist at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. A stout skull, big eye sockets and a short, curled tail suggest that the young lizard could be the oldest known relative of modern chameleons. 

3-D MOVIE Researchers analyzed lizards embedded in amber using high-resolution CT scans. The technique allowed the team to observe the lizard remains in 3-D, including internal bone structures that were preserved by sediments creeping into the fossil as it formed. J.D. Daza et al/Science Advances 2016

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