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.
At the same time, this implies that the squamate group had already split from other ancient reptiles prior to the Permian/Triassic extinction which took place about 252 million years ago and had survived it.
Simoes, along with Michael Caldwell, one of the study's co-authors, also likened the fossil to "a virtual Rosetta Stone in terms of the information it gives us on the evolution of snakes and lizards". Its new home? At the beginning of the squamate branch, single-handedly dragging the timeline for lizards back 75 million years.
Initially mislabeled as a member of a broader reptile group, scientists writing in the journal Nature have finally discovered that not only is Megachirella a lizard, but that it's the world's oldest known lizard.
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"That's more time than there is between us and the dinosaurs, and we had no clue what was going on", said Tiago Simões, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta. They also found evidence of vestigial traits that more modern squamates have since lost - a small cheek bone called the quadratojugal and primitive belly bones called gastralia (which are found in many dinosaurs, too).
"It deserved further attention - especially in the form of CT [computed tomography] scanning - to provide greater anatomical details and an improved data set, to understand its placement in the evolutionary tree of reptiles", Simões said.
The famous Dolomites mountain range in Italy's north is home to huge swathes of exposed rock, some of which is sand and clay that dates back to around 240 million years ago.
All this new information was analysed using state of the art methods to assess relationships across species, revealing that the once enigmatic reptile was actually the oldest known squamate.
As it turns out, the Megachirella is the ancestor of squamates, which is the class that both snakes and lizards belong in now.