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240 million-year-old ‘mother of all lizards’ found

About 240 million years ago, Megachirella wachtleri kicked the vegetation in what is now the region of Dolomites of northern Italy. (Credit: Davide Bonadonna)

Move over Godzilla. There is a new “mother of all lizards” in the city.

Known as Megachirella wachtleri, this old lizard is the direct ancestor of 10,000 current species of reptiles (lizards and snakes). The lizard is also thought to be 75 million years older than the earliest known squamates, and is responsible for bridging the gap between the oldest known lizards and the origin of the group, according to a new study in the scientific journal Nature.

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

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“Megachirella offers unique insights into the beginning of the acquisition of squamatan functions, as it is the first unambiguous squamate of the Trias,” the study reads.

The fossil was found in the Alps in northern Italy in 2003, but recent scans showed features that date back about 240 million years ago, making it much more important than initially thought.

Speaking with Live Science, the lead study author Tiago Simões, phd student in biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said the lizard needed further attention for the determine of the meaning thereof.

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Scientists found a preserved copy of Megachirella wachtleri in northern Italy and described it in 2003.

(MUSE-Science Museum)

“He deserved more attention, particularly in the form of CT [computed tomography] scan to allow for greater anatomical detail and improved data set, to understand its placement in the evolutionary tree of reptiles,” Simoes told the trade website in an e-mail.

Simões looked carefully on several datasets from the more than 50 museums to fully understand what he was looking for, to help him “to conduct the phylogenetic analysis in this study,” he told AFP.

Simões, along with Michael Caldwell, one of the study co-authors also compared with the fossil “a virtual Rosetta Stone in terms of the information it gives us on the evolution of snakes and lizards.”

Simoes and his team of researchers used CT scans to build 3-D models of the fossil and found a number of features link Megachirella to other squamates, including a part of the braincase and the structure of his collarbone.

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“Our results reshape the diapsid phylogeny and present evidence that M. wachtleri is the oldest known voice, squamate,” the study reads. “Megachirella is 75 million years older than the previously known oldest squamate fossils, partially fill the fossil gap in the origin of the lizards, and gives a more gradual acquisition of squamatan functions in diapsid evolution than previously thought.”

The researchers also noted that for the first time, “orphological and molecular data are in agreement with regard to early squamate evolution, with geckoes and not iguanians as the first crown clade squamates.”

Given the large gap between Megachirella and other squamates that lived to 168 million years ago, there is a lot of work to do to understand what the old lizards and snakes looked like.

“What we have discovered is the tip of the iceberg,” Simoes told Live Science. “And a lot more work needs to be done to understand the early evolution of squamates.”

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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