Scientists discover 240 million years old lizard fossil, the ultimate survivor

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Originally found in the early 2000s in the Dolomites Mountains of Northern Italy, researchers considered it an enigmatic lizard-like reptile but could not reach conclusive placement, and it ramained almost unnoticed by the worldwide community.

The 240-million-year-old fossil, Megachirella wachtleri, is the most ancient ancestor of all modern lizards and snakes, known as squamates, according to researchers including those from the University of Bristol in the UK. Scientists have always been unsure of M. wachtleri's place in the reptile family tree.

"The specimen is 75 million years older than what we thought were the oldest fossil lizards in the entire world", explained Tiago Simões, lead author and PhD student in the University of Alberta's Department of Biological Sciences.

At the same time, this implies that the squamate group had already split from other ancient reptiles prior to the Permian/Triassic extinction which took place about 252 million years ago and had survived it.

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As said by the co-author of the study, Michael Caldwell, today there are near about ten thousand morder species of the squamate group, nevertheless, until now no one had any idea about their evolution.

"It's nearly a virtual Rosetta stone", said Caldwell, also a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, "in terms of the information that it gives us on the evolution of snakes and lizards".

A new research conducted by a team of scientists revealed what is called today "the mother of all lizards". 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".

"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 said.

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Megachirella wachtleri walks through plants in this artist's impression of the Italian Dolomites region, about 240 million years ago.

"Our results re-shape the diapsid phylogeny and present evidence that M. wachtleri is the oldest known stem squamate", the study reads.

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

"Before this work, he added, "[We] really had no real understanding of where they came from in terms of their evolutionary history".

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