World's oldest lizard fossil reveals new evolutionary clues about reptiles, scientists say

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Paleontologists said that updated scans of the tiny reptile fossil Megachirella wachtleri revealed features in the fossil that were hidden, allowing them to declare it as the oldest known ancestor in the squamate lineage.

Scientists have unearthed a finger-sized fossilized reptile in the Italian Alps, which is now treated as the mother of all reptiles and the oldest reptile ever discovered.

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 global community.

"The specimen is 75 million years older than what we thought were the oldest fossil lizards in the entire world", Tiago Simões, lead author and PhD candidate, said in a statement. As per the information, Megachirella is around 75 million older than the lizard fossils found till now.

It was the evolutionary biologist Tiago Simoes who made a decision to look more closely at this tiny reptilian skeleton, and researchers were able to get a much better picture of the fossil by using a 3-D micro-CT scan. Likewise, the past of lizards can explain more regarding their biological constitutions and behavioral habits than the 9000 species that are alive today. The results indicate a more gradual evolution than previously thought.

The researchers also noted that for the first time, "orphological and molecular data are in agreement regarding early squamate evolution, with geckoes-and not iguanians-as the earliest crown clade squamates".

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As it turns out, the Megachirella is the ancestor of squamates, which is the class that both snakes and lizards belong in now.

"Megachirella provides unique insights into the early acquisition of squamatan features, as it is the first unequivocal squamate from the Triassic", the study reads. "I used this data set to perform the phylogenetic analysis presented in this study", explained Simoes.

Given the large gap between Megachirella and other squamates that lived 168 million years ago, there is significant work to be done to understand what ancient lizards and snakes looked like.

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.

Caldwell added that the fossil gave them the information they needed "on the evolution of snakes and lizards".

Researchers from the U of A, Australia, Italy and the United States worked on the analysis leading up to this discovery.