Ancient fossils related to modern lizards found in a UK museum cupboard

These lizards have evolved, survived, and thrived; a few years in a cupboard is surely no match for what their pre-historic jaws are capable of.

 Artist’s impression of Cryptovaranoides when it was alive (photo credit: LAVINIA GANDOLFI)
Artist’s impression of Cryptovaranoides when it was alive
(photo credit: LAVINIA GANDOLFI)

The fossilized remains of a relative of the modern-day lizard were found in a museum collection cupboard from a UK museum hailing back to the 1950s. Unlike other ancient lizards recently revisited by archaeologists, this little creature has a long family line crawling through history behind it. 

After collecting dust in a storage space in the Natural History Museum in London, England, a now-extinct relative of monitor lizards, Gila monsters and slow worms was uncovered. These archived specimens were brought back into the spotlight when researchers realized that technological advancement today, compared to the original sample from the 1950s, would allow them to learn more about the evolution process and imaging

More importantly, this discovery taught archaeologists that lizards as a species dated back to a different time period than previously thought. 

Lizards and their many forms dated back to the Late Triassic period and not the Middle Jurassic.

A team of archaeologists, led by Dr. David Whiteside of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, named their discovery Cryptovaranoides microlanius meaning ‘small butcher’ in tribute to its jaws that were filled with sharp-edged slicing teeth. This could be a key indicator of how the species had managed to eventually thrive throughout history.

 Fossil – the whole specimen showing the skull (left) and skeleton (base of specimen)  (credit: DAVID WHITESIDE, SOPHIE CHAMBI-TROWELL, MIKE BENTON, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM UK) Fossil – the whole specimen showing the skull (left) and skeleton (base of specimen) (credit: DAVID WHITESIDE, SOPHIE CHAMBI-TROWELL, MIKE BENTON, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM UK)

According to Whiteside, the specimen in its jar was not something that would have typically turned heads in his lab.

“I first spotted the specimen in a cupboard full of Clevosaurus fossils in the storerooms of the Natural History Museum in London where I am a Scientific Associate. This was a common enough fossil reptile, a close relative of the New Zealand Tuatara that is the only survivor of the group, the Rhynchocephalia, that split from the squamates over 240 million years ago," he stated.

The sleepy specimen that changed everything

“Our specimen was simply labeled ‘Clevosaurus and one other reptile.’ As we continued to investigate the specimen, we became more and more convinced that it was actually more closely related to modern-day lizards than the Tuatara group. We made X-ray scans of the fossils at the University, and this enabled us to reconstruct the fossil in three dimensions and to see all the tiny bones that were hidden inside the rock,” Whiteside said.

This discovery was far from minor, and actually changed the scope of how modern reptiles became just that. 

Whiteside included the timing of it all in his research. He acknowledged the changes across the planet when the modern-day relatives of this reptile began evolving. "This was a time of major restructuring of ecosystems on land, with origins of new plant groups, especially modern-type conifers, as well as new kinds of insects, and some of the first of modern groups such as turtles, crocodilians, dinosaurs, and mammals."

Some of Whiteside's partners added their thoughts on the importance of this discovery for the reptilian world. “The name of the new animal... reflects the hidden nature of the beast in a drawer but also in its likely lifestyle, living in cracks in the limestone on small islands that existed around Bristol at the time. The species name, meaning ‘small butcher,’ refers to its jaws that were filled with sharp-edged slicing teeth and it would have preyed on arthropods and small vertebrates.”

Now, it's no wonder why this ancient creature's cousins have crept their way into the ecosystems of the modern day!