Extinct worm lizard found in Texas is dubbed ‘Lone Star’

Worm lizard is the common name for a group of reptiles called amphisbaenians, whose long bodies and reduced or absent limbs give them an earthworm-like appearance. Pictured above is Blanus cinereus. (Credit: Mario modesto/Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers have discovered a new species of extinct worm lizard in Texas and dubbed it the “Lone Star” lizard.

It’s officially named Solastella cookei—Solastella is a Latinized form of lone star.

“Nothing has been called Solastella before, which is amazing to me because there are so many fossils from Texas. It’s the one guy, and it’s from the Lone Star State, so it just seemed to fit,” says Michelle Stocker, a paleontologist who described the extinct reptile while earning her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. She is now a research scientist at Virginia Tech.

The second part of the scientific name honors botanist William Cook, a professor at Midwestern State University, which owns the property where the fossils were collected.

[Prehistoric lizard babies were born in water]

Worm lizard is the common name for a group of reptiles called amphisbaenians, whose long bodies and reduced or absent limbs give them an earthworm-like appearance. The group includes extinct species as well as ones still living today. Solastella belonged to a subgroup called Rhineuridae, a group with only one living member—the Florida worm lizard.

Researchers identified Solastella as a new species by analyzing fossilized skulls unearthed in the Devil’s Graveyard Formation in West Texas. Solastella lived during the Late Middle Eocene, a geologic period about 40 million years ago, and that its eye socket was fully enclosed, a feature lacking in all living amphisbaenians but present in extinct relatives.

As reported in the Journal Vertebrate Paleontology, the discovery of an amphisbaenian in Texas helps bridge the gap between extinct species found in the western interior of the United States and the living worm lizard in Florida today. It also supports the theory that Texas served as a subtropical refuge for species that found it difficult to survive during the cooling climate of the Late Middle Eocene.

“What’s special about reptiles is that they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, so they need to maintain their body temperature to the external environment,” Stocker says. “You can actually get a better sense at what the climate was like from reptiles than from mammals. We were very excited that we not only found Solastella at the site, but a whole bunch of other reptiles.”

[Lizards aren’t so picky about ideal heat]

The presence of a variety of primate fossils in the same formation as Solastella also supports the idea that Texas was a refuge in a cooling climate, says Chris Kirk, an anthropology professor who has conducted paleontological fieldwork in the Devil’s Graveyard Formation since 2005.

“Primates are generally tropically adapted mammals that prefer warm climates,” Kirk says. “The diverse primate community from the Devil’s Graveyard Formation is another indicator that the Big Bend region of Texas was warm, equable. and forested during the Late Middle Eocene.”

The discovery gives insight into how certain animal groups could respond to climate change in the future, Stocker says.

“With climate change, animals either adapt, or they move, or they go extinct. And so we can look at what’s happened in the past and see that certain conditions caused certain things to happen in certain groups. The great thing about the fossil record is that the experiment has already been done for us. We just have to collect the evidence.”

The University of Texas at Austin, the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology funded the work.

Source: University of Texas at Austin