They look like shadows in droplets of ochre, their small claws and tails intact seemingly mid-flux. They’re stuck in time.
Approximately 100 km west of the Myanmar town Myitkyina, in an outcrop dating from mid-Cretaceous, 12 amber specimens were discovered. Within these specimens is a snapshot of life from 99 million years ago, lizard life.
The study behind the find, which represents the oldest assemblage of lizards preserved in amber, was recently published in Science Advances. The find is approximately 78 million years older than the previous oldest lizard specimen on record.
“Amber selectively fossilizes small, delicate specimens, not only conserving the durable cuticular and skeletal remains but often preserving the internal organs and soft tissues with cellular and ultrastructural fidelity,” the researchers wrote.
According to Univ. of Florida, three lizard specimens—a gecko, a chameleon, and an unidentified lizard—were among the most well-preserved of the 12. To gain a better glimpse of the specimens, the researchers used micro-CT technology.
“It was mind-blowing,” said Edward Stanley, a postdoctoral student in herpetology, in a statement. “Usually we have a foot or other small parts preserved in amber, but these are whole specimens—claws, toepads, teeth, even perfectly intact colored scales.”
With the micro-CT scanner, the researchers confirmed that the gecko specimen boasted adhesive toe pads, indicating that the adaptation originated early in their evolution. Additionally, the chameleon had its signature projectile tongue, but had not yet developed its unique body shape or fused toes.
The third well-preserved lizard is believed to be a new species. A paper dedicated to its identification is forthcoming.
“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.”
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