A 48-million-year-old fossil of a new species from the Bridger Formation in Wyoming may be the earliest ancestor of what is known as the “Jesus lizard” group of animals. The new species has been named Babibasiliscus alxi.
New Species, Old Fossil: 48-Million-Year-old New Species of Jesus Lizard in Wyoming
The unearthing of a 48-million-year-old fossil at the Bridger Formation in Wyoming has led to the exciting discovery of a new species. Researchers believe the new species, named Babibasiliscus alxi, may be the earliest ancestor of the Corytophanidae group. This group is commonly referred to as the “Jesus Christ lizard” due to its ability to walk on water, a reference to Jesus Christ in a Christian Bible passage.
The study was conducted by Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History and published on 1 July in the journal PLOS ONE .
Conrad, a resident research associate of vertebrate paleontology, believes the fossil can give insight into how climate change affects tropical species.
Earliest ancestor of Jesus Lizards lived in Wyoming’s tropical habitat
The fossil found in Wyoming belonged to the earliest known member of what would later become the group of Jesus Lizards. Contrary to the group name, the group is also comprised of iguanas and chameleons.
Though the Jesus Lizards are well-known by the general public perhaps for the informal name or its odd ability to walk across water, research is limited as only a small sample of fossils are available to study. The recent discovery of Babibasiliscus alxi however, has widened the understanding of the early ancestor of the casquehead lizards.
Conrad believes the fossil found was two feet in length and lived in a tropical Wyoming. Yes, a tropical Wyoming. It was a rather different climate 48 million years ago when temperatures in the northwestern state averaged 16 degrees Fahrenheit more than its current, much more mild temperatures.
The author said the lizard ancestor was most likely active in the day, skimming across the surface of Wyoming’s warm waters and shimmying up trees in the lush tropical paradise. It dined on plants, snakes, fish, insects, and other lizards with its tiny but well-adapted teeth. However, it also could have feasted on larger prey as its cheekbones were fairly large for the lizard’s size.
With such a hot and sunny climate, the lizard’s skull had evolved a ridge of bone over its eyes to give a permanent, angry scowl that doubled as shade for its eyes.
What the Jesus Lizard Fossil Can Teach Us About Climate Change
Today, the idea of a tropical Wyoming is so far-fetched it is almost inconceivable. Wyoming’s climate now is not ideal for the Jesus lizard, which has mostly fled further south to warmer areas near the equator between central Mexico and Colombia.
Other fossil records of animals and plants also indicate similar migration patterns of species from higher altitudes, which were considerably warmer millions of years ago, to the equator where they now thrive in the warm climate.
Conrad believes the ancient lizard’s descendants and their migration south can teach us about climate change and how it will affect other tropical species.
“Given our current period of global climate fluctuation, looking to the fossil record offers an important opportunity to observe what is possible,” said Conrad.
As we persist in finding ways to preserve our planet with the ongoing climate change, the new species of Jesus lizard can provide clues to how species lived in other climates, survived great changes, and continue to thrive today.