Modern lizards unchanged from ancient forebears preserved in amber

Scientists have been amazed to find that a group of lizards, preserved in amber for 20 million years, are identical to modern ones.

“These fossils were really surprising because of how much detail they contained, allowing us to see how these lizards would have looked in real life,” the study’s lead author Dr Emma Sherratt of the University of New England in Australia, told reporters.

The anolis lizards from the island of Hispaniola were preserved in remarkable detail, even down to their colour.

“Most of ours had full skeletons, and details of the skin were impressed on the amber, providing very detailed images of tiny scales on the body and on the sticky toe pads,” she told the ABC.

“You could have taken a lizard today, embedded it resin and it would have looked like one of these creatures. That’s how realistic and modern they look.”

DNA studies show that the 400 species of anolis lizards across the islands of the Caribbean began colonising the region about 40 million years ago, and quickly adapted to most habitats, with their body shapes, leg length, and the scales on their toe pads adapting to suit each niche.

Using x-ray microcomputer tomography to produce three dimensional reconstructions of the fossils inside their amber cocoons, the researchers showed that the diversity of lizards that resulted 20 million years ago is the same seen today.

“Given we see the same range of morphological features this means the community of lizards has remained unchanged all this time,” says Sherratt.

The research was reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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