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Eocene lizard from Germany reveals amphisbaenian origins

Abstract

Amphisbaenia is a speciose clade of fossorial lizards characterized by a snake-like body and a strongly reinforced skull adapted for head-first burrowing1,2. The evolutionary origins of amphisbaenians are controversial, with molecular data uniting them with lacertids3,4, a clade of Old World terrestrial lizards, whereas morphology supports a grouping with snakes and other limbless squamates5,6,7,8,9. Reports of fossil stem amphisbaenians10 have been falsified11, and no fossils have previously tested these competing phylogenetic hypotheses or shed light on ancestral amphisbaenian ecology. Here we report the discovery of a new lacertid-like lizard from the Eocene Messel locality of Germany that provides the first morphological evidence for lacertid–amphisbaenian monophyly on the basis of a reinforced, akinetic skull roof and braincase, supporting the view that body elongation and limblessness in amphisbaenians and snakes evolved independently. Morphometric analysis of body shape and ecology in squamates indicates that the postcranial anatomy of the new taxon is most consistent with opportunistically burrowing habits, which in combination with cranial reinforcement indicates that head-first burrowing evolved before body elongation and may have been a crucial first step in the evolution of amphisbaenian fossoriality.

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Figure 1: Cryptolacerta hassiaca gen. et sp. nov., holotype (SMF ME 2604).
Figure 2: Cryptolacerta hassiaca gen. et sp. nov., holotype (SMF ME 2604), anatomical features as revealed by CT.
Figure 3: Phylogeny of Cryptolacerta and the evolution of cranial akinesis in the origin of the amphisbaenian skull.
Figure 4: Ecomorphology of Cryptolacerta.

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Acknowledgements

We thank S. Schaal for making the specimen available for study, J. J. Wiens for providing his morphometric data set of extant squamates, J. L. Conrad for providing his morphological data set of fossil and extant squamates, I. Manke for technical and administrative support, H. Mewis, H. Stöhr and A. Paulke for technical support, C. Bell and D. Evans for discussion, and P. Holroyd, M. Kroniger, M. Cunningham, M.-O. Rödel, K. Seymour, H.-D. Sues and F. Tillack for access to specimens. J.J.H. was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery and Research Tools and Instruments grants, R.R.R. was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery grant and the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung.

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Contributions

J.M., C.A.H., J.J.H. and R.R.R. contributed to project planning and anatomical analysis. J.M., C.A.H., N.K. and A.H. contributed to micro-CT scanning. J.M. contributed to phylogenetic analysis. J.J.H. contributed to ecomorphological analysis. M.W. contributed to project initiation. All authors contributed to manuscript and figure preparation.

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Correspondence to Johannes Müller.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Müller, J., Hipsley, C., Head, J. et al. Eocene lizard from Germany reveals amphisbaenian origins. Nature 473, 364–367 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09919

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