Fossil lizard from Messel, Germany, provides missing link in debate over snake origins
The origins and evolutionary relationships of snakes are controversial and poorly understood. Genetic studies suggest that snakes are related to monitor lizards and iguanas, while their anatomy points to amphisbaenians (“worm lizards”), a group of burrowing lizards with snake-like bodies. These different results have not been reconciled, and the debate has been unresolved until now.
The recent discovery of a tiny, 47 million-year-old fossil lizard from Germany provides the first anatomical evidence for the origin and relationships of amphisbaenians, revealing that they are not closely related to snakes, but instead are related to lacertids, a group of limbed lizards from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
A joint study of the lizard named Cryptolacerta hassiaca (“hidden lizard from Hesse”; Hesse is the German province where the Messel Pit is located) was published this week in the journal Nature by a research collaboration between the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany, University of Toronto at Mississauga, Canada, Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin and the Erdgeschichtliche Denkmalpflege in Mainz, Germany. “This fossil refutes the theory that snakes and other burrowing reptiles share a common ancestry and reveals that their body shapes evolved independently,“ says lead author Johannes Müller, researcher at the Museum für Naturkunde and Professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin. “It is the missing link everybody was looking for.”