Tiny Prehistoric Lizard Sheds Light on Reptile Evolution

(CN) – Scientists have discovered a new prehistoric lizard that may be key to understanding the ancient evolutionary history of precursor reptiles, according to new research released Thursday.

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports announced that researchers have uncovered the fossilized remains of what is believed to be an entirely new prehistoric reptile species.

Fossil of the tiny prehistoric lizard Vellbergia bartholomaei, an over 200 million-year-old specimen scientists believe may fill in the gaps in the evolutionary history of reptiles. (Sobral et al. / Scientific Reports)

Dubbed by scientists as the Vellbergia bartholomaei and discovered in Vellberg, Germany, researchers believe that this 237- to 247-million-year-old fossil could help to fill in long and crucial gaps in our understanding of reptilian ancestors and their earliest evolutionary patterns.

A detailed analysis of the newly discovered fossil point to the lizard being a member of the lepidosauromorph family, an ancient family of over 10,000 tetrapod lizard species that are believed to be the genetic predecessors of many modern-day lizard species seen today.

Researchers say the newly discovered species stands somewhat distinct from its other family members, however, given its incredibly small stature and notably narrow teeth.

Paleontologists were particularly interested in the fact that while the species may stand out amongst its prehistoric relatives, it has a remarkable number of features that are similar to modern reptiles. These similarities suggest the possibility that the Vellbergia bartholomaei may be a common ancestor to at least two other reptilian family trees.

Gabriela Sobral of the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart in Germany and first author of the study said these findings could help researchers better understand the complexities of the earliest reptilian evolutionary timelines.

“These results showed that Vellbergia is more closely related to lepidosaurs (a group comprising lizards and snakes [squamates] on one side and the tuatara [rhynchocephalian] on the other) than to any other reptile group,” Sobral said in an email. “Vellbergia has a unique set of features that are common to other, more primitive reptiles as well as characters usually found in lepidosaurs, showing us that the evolutionary scenario for the evolution of these traits is more complex than usually acknowledged – and that they may not be a good tool to identify future fossil findings from this group.”

The study notes that this finding is also remarkable because of the time period it came from, given the shockingly light fossil records of the Early and Middle Triassic periods.

“The Middle Triassic was a time of major changes in tetrapod faunas worldwide, but the fossil record for this interval is largely obscure for terrestrial faunas. This poses a severe limitation to our understanding on the earliest stages of diversification of lineages representing some of the most diverse faunas in the world today, such as lepidosauromorphs (e.g., lizards and tuataras),” the study states.

This lack of fossil record is particularly frustrating for scientists because it is over a time period that many believe was critical to the evolutionary activity of numerous lizard species. Researchers are hopeful that the discovery of the Vellbergia bartholomaei, however, could help to add some much-needed data to this time period researchers desperately wish to better understand.

Scientists are particularly hopeful that this data could shed light on how lizard groups adapted and evolved after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event that took place some 250 million years ago. This event singlehandedly destroyed countless species on Earth that are now long extinct, and scientists have frequently debated how long it took for life on Earth to bounce back from the event.

The estimated age of the Vellbergia bartholomaei places the creature at the heart of this period, and the data gleaned from it could help researchers unravel the timeline of this recovery phase on Earth.

Sobral and colleagues also believe that it is likely that creatures more diminutive in size stood a better chance of surviving these kinds of extinction events, given the smaller fossils found at the site in Germany.

“It is a hypothesis that says that small-bodied groups are more likely to survive extinction events such as the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, which had happened about 12 million years before that – in geological terms, a rather short time interval,” Sobral said.

To begin better solving these mysteries and confirming these theories, scientists maintain that greater access to fossilized data from this period is irreplaceable. Thankfully, the research team believes that the region the Vellbergia bartholomaei was discovered is nothing short of gold mine when it comes to this information – one that researchers will continue to dig through until more answers are uncovered.

“The Vellberg locality is a very interesting place which will likely yield us many fossils more in the coming years, and I hope we can find more complete materials of this new species. I also believe Germany will prove to be an important place for the early evolution of lepidosaurs in the near future,” Sobral said.

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