Mar 9, 2016 | By Tess

Many will remember the fateful amber-trapped mosquito in Jurassic Park that provided the fictional scientists with the dinosaur DNA necessary to replicate them. Though we may still be quite far from ever creating a living dinosaur, scientists have found some of the missing links in the evolutionary history of lizards thanks to a number of ancient amber-fossilized lizards, which includes the world’s oldest chameleon ever found.

The amber fossils, which originated from a region that is now present-day Myanmar, were donated by a private donor to the American Museum of Natural History. From the twelve fossils donated, three of them contain nearly complete lizard specimens, including the aforementioned 99 million year old infant chameleon, a gecko, and an archaic lizard.

"These fossils tell us a lot about the extraordinary, but previously unknown diversity of lizards in ancient tropical forests,” says Edward Stanley, a University of Florida postdoctoral student in herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The fossil record is sparse because the delicate skin and fragile bones of small lizards do not usually preserve, especially in the tropics, which makes the new amber fossils an incredibly rare and unique window into a critical period of diversification.”

To analyze the contents of the amber fossils without destroying the fragile specimens inside, Stanley and his team used micro-CT scanning technologies to gather information from inside the amber, and subsequently used 3D modeling and 3D printing to recreate elements of the ancient lizards’ anatomies.

“It was mind-blowing,” says Stanley, who co-authored the study about the fossils. “Usually we have a foot or other small part preserved in amber, but these are whole specimens—claws, toepads, teeth, even perfectly intact colored scales. I was familiar with CT technology, so I realized this was an opportunity to look more closely and put the lizards into evolutionary perspective.”

The CT scanning technologies allowed Stanley and the team of scientists to determine that the infant chameleon they found was 75 million years older than the previous contender for oldest chameleon, a discovery that is also challenging the belief that chameleons originated in Africa. The examination of the specimen also gave hints and provided information into the evolutionary development of the chameleon, as it possessed the same projectile tongue as modern chameleons but had not yet developed its recognizable body shape and fused toes.

3D print of one of the fossilized lizards

3D scans of the fossilized gecko also showed that the creature may have evolved earlier than scientists thought, as it already possessed the advanced adhesive pads on its toes that modern geckos use to climb. The third fossil, of the archaic lizard, will soon be named and findings from it will be disclosed in a future study.

Though the fossils are millions of years old, the amazing discovery bears relevance for us all. As Stanley explains, the fact that these ancient lizards still have modern descendants demonstrates the importance and stability of tropical rainforests, which have sustained the existence of these long-enduring species.

“These exquisitely preserved examples of past diversity show us why we should be protecting these areas where their modern relatives live today,” explains 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.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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