Fossilized remains of an ancient lizard uncovered in the Italian Alps could completely alter the reptile family tree, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.
The species — known as Megachirella wachtleri — existed during the Triassic period some 240 million years ago. The small lizard-like animal is significant because it is the oldest known squamate, a group that includes lizards, snakes, and modern worm lizards.
That classification is important because, not only does it shed light on the last common ancestor of scaled reptiles, but it also shows that squamates came about much earlier than previously thought.
“All lizards and snakes are descendants from Megachirella or a Megachirella-like lizard,” explained study co-author Massimo Bernardi, a researcher from the University of Bristol, according to The Guardian.
Using CT-scans, a group of international researchers reanalyzed the creature, which scientists first found during the early 2000’s. The new technology enabled the team to examine previously hidden fossil features. In addition, they also looked at roughly 150 specimens of ancient lizard-like creatures from museum collections around the world and studied the DNA of modern squamates.
Such analysis confirmed that, despite suspicions, Megachirella was a squamate. That information pushes back the earliest known member of the group by roughly 75 million years, changing the perception of reptile evolution and revealing that geckos evolved much earlier than iguanas.
The team also discovered that the first squamates likely originated just before an extinction event known as the “Great Dying” that took place around 252 million years ago. This challenges theories that the group first came about only after the disaster. The team hopes the new findings will not just provide new information on reptiles, but also bring more interest to the group and research on ancient creatures as a whole.