Oldest fossil chameleon found trapped in amber

A baby chameleon preserved in amber for 99 million years is by far the oldest fossil of its kind.

Baby chameleon lived 99 million years ago, represents 'missing link' in lizard evolution

The oldest known fossil chameleon (lower right corner) was found decades ago in a mine in Southeast Asia along with other ancient, well-preserved reptile fossils, but the U.S. scientists were able to analyze the finds and determine their age only recently. (David Grimaldi/Florida Museum of Natural History/Reuters)

A fossilized lizard found in Southeast Asia preserved in amber  dates back some 99 million years, Florida scientists have determined, making it the oldest specimen of its kind and a "missing link" for reptile researchers.

The lizard is some 75 million years older than the previous record holder, according to researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who announced the finding this week.

It was found decades ago in a mine along with other ancient, well-preserved reptile fossils, but the U.S. scientists were 
able to analyze the finds only recently.

"It was incredibly exciting to see these animals for the first time," Edward Stanley, a member of the research team, said on Saturday. "It was exciting and startling, actually, how well they were preserved."

This micro-CT scan of the oldest known fossil chameleon shows the hyoid bone highlighted in blue, which proves it had a projectile tongue like modern species. (Edward Stanley/Florida Museum of Natural History)

Scientists believe the chameleon-like creature was an infant when it was trapped in a gush of sticky resin while darting 
through a tropical forest in what is now Myanmar, in Southeast Asia.

Gecko, arctic lizard

The creature's entire body, including its eyes and colourful scales, is unusually well-preserved, Stanley said. The other 
reptiles trapped in the amber, including a gecko and an arctic lizard, were also largely intact.

Small reptiles have delicate bodies and typically deteriorate quickly, he said. Being encased in solid amber helped to lock the specimen together.

Stanley and other researchers used high-resolution digital X-ray technology to examine the creatures and estimate the age of the amber without breaking it.

The discovery will help researchers learn more about the "lost ecosystem, the lost world" to which the creatures 
belonged, Stanley said, and it may help researchers learn more about the creatures' modern relatives.

"It's kind of a missing link," Stanley said.

Created at UF’s Nanoscale Research Facility, this 3-D print enlarged five times of an early gecko encased in amber provides a clearer view of the lizard’s remarkably preserved details, including its tiny teeth. (Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History)