The fossilized remains of a small, sharp-toothed lizard, left in a cupboard for more than half a century, have pushed back the origins of the group that encompasses modern snakes and lizards by tens of millions of years.
The specimen was collected in the 1950s from a quarry near Tortworth in Gloucestershire by the late fossil hunter Pamela L Robinson. But its true identity was not appreciated as the creature was erroneously labeled and stored, until recently when it was found in the Natural History Museum in London.
The University of Bristol took CT scans of fossilized remains and this discovery suggests lizards have existed for 35 million years longer than previously thought. They show the unknown reptile to be closely related to modern-day lizards. It belongs to Squamates, a clade comprising 11,000 living species of lizards, snakes, and relatives.
The long-tailed creature – about 25cm in length – is thought to have lived around 202m years. The team, led by Dr. David Whiteside of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, have named their incredible discovery Cryptovaranoides microlanius meaning "small butcher"; in tribute to its jaws that were filled with sharp-edged slicing teeth.
The discovery has important implications for understanding the rate of evolution within the tree of life, and the timescale and triggers of biodiversity within modern squamates – the latter of which may help the conservation of living species.