It was hidden, forgotten. It can change an entire chapter of natural history. The lizard fossil lost in a museum hides a great discovery. It sat for 70 years in a storage cabinet at London’s Natural History Museum. And it proves that modern lizards originated 35 million years earlier than previously thought.
The lizard has been christened ‘Cryptovaranoides microlanius‘. The first part of its name means ‘hidden lizard’, because it has remained in a drawer. The second part of its name is ‘small butcher’. It is because of its jaws replete with sharp teeth for cutting. It probably fed on arthropods and small vertebrates. When it was discovered in the 1950s no one knew how to recognize its value. The necessary technology did not exist to expose its contemporary characteristics.
David Whiteside, of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, saw the specimen. It was in a cabinet full of fossils in the museum’s storerooms. The lizard was listed as a fairly common fossil reptile.
Scientists X-ray scanned the fossil. They found that it was related to modern lizards.It is clearly a squamate because of different physical characteristics, such as the neck vertebrae, the architecture of the skull, etc.
“This changes the origin and diversification of squamates from the Middle Jurassic to the Late Triassic.” says Mike Benton, co-author of the study. “This was a time of major restructuring of terrestrial ecosystems. New groups of plants originated, especially conifers. And new types of insects. Also some of the earliest modern groups such as turtles, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and mammals,” he explains.
“Adding the oldest modern squamates completes the picture. They came on the scene as part of a major reconstruction of life on Earth. It happened after the mass extinction at the end of the Permian 252 million years ago. And especially the Carnian Pluvial Event, 232 million years ago. Climates fluctuated between wet and warm and caused great disruption to life.”
For researchers, the lizard fossil lost in a museum “is very special. One of the most important found in recent decades.”