300-million-year-old lizard-like fossil found by PEI boy fills gap in evolutionary chain
Thursday, January 15, 2015, 11:07 AM - One boy's found treasure is also a missing link in the evolutionary chain.
A Nova Scotia researcher says a fossil of a reptile found by a boy on Prince Edward Island is one of the only reptiles in the world ever found from its time, 300 million years ago.
The fossilized species has been named Erpetonyx arsenaultorum after the family of Michael Arsenault of Prince County, P.E.I., who found the fossil embedded in a sandstone rock along the shore in Egmont Bay, said a study published this week in the Proceedings of Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
The lizard-like creature -- about 25 centimetres long -- is the oldest known example of a parareptile, a type of reptiles that emerged long before dinosaurs and which some researchers argue could be distant ancestors to turtles.
Sean Modesto, a professor of biology at Cape Breton University, said it’s one of the most well-preserved reptile fossils of the Carboniferous era.
“This specimen is really rare,” said Modesto, who was the principal investigator of the project. “It’s the only specimen we know of from this particular part of the Carboniferous and it’s the only reptile from that slice of time.”
He adds that the fossil is the closest and the oldest relative that has ever been found of a group of early reptiles known as bolosaurids parareptiles.
Researchers say the finding gives a hint that reptiles at the end of the Carboniferous era were more diverse than considered before.
Modesto says the specimen increases reptile diversity at the end of the Carboniferous era by 80 per cent.
If the Erpetonyx arsenaultorum were seen scurrying around the ground today, it would look similar to a generic reptile, walking on four legs equipped with claws, says Modesto.
Modesto was one of several researchers on the project and says it's not surprising the fossil was found in the Maritimes.
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With files from The Canadian Press, CBC and the Proceedings of Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.