Scientists Discover a 308‑Million‑Year‑Old Fossil of a Tiny Dinosaur‑Like Species
Researchers have discovered a fossil belonging to a species called microsaurs who were alive 308 million years ago. The microsaur is a now-extinct lizard-like creature that existed even before dinosaurs, and is believed to be an ancestor of reptiles.
Published last week in the Royal Society Open Science, the newly-found fossil is named after the mythical sea creature Jörmungandr — translation for the “Midgard Serpent” — because of its serpent-like body. The fossil was found in a bog in the U.S., and paleontologists note the discovery can contribute to preexisting research about how different groups of animals have evolved since prehistoric times.
In Norse mythology, the appearance of Jörmungandr‘s tail is supposed to mark “Ragnarok,” a catastrophic event triggering the end of the world. Jörmungandr, in fact, is a nemesis of Thor, the God of Thunder, and the two were prophesized to kill each other according to legend.
However, unlike the mythical Jörmungandr, which was believed to be so large that it could surround the Earth and still be able to grasp its own tail — the fossilized microsaur is only about five centimeters long.
Which also means the creature also doesn’t classify as a snake.
It had four short, plump legs, which might not have been functional though. “Its limbs were probably not very functional. It may have used them to stabilize itself as it was wobbling around. But its primary mode of movement would have been sidewinding like a snake,” Arjan Mann, a vertebrate paleontologist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who led the study, told Daily Mail.
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Earlier, microsaurs were classified as amphibians — animals that can live both on land and water — but the team of researchers for the present study discovered that the new species, the Jörmungandr, had scales like reptiles today do. “Modern amphibians… are soft and slimy things, this was not a soft and slimy thing… This animal really had a reptile-like look to it,” Mann added.
Interestingly, the finger-sized fossil also contained the animal’s skin. “This microsaur is the whole shebang… Areas of the skin had only been known from fragmentary fossils before,” Mann said in a statement.
“It’s very rare for anything 300 million years old to have skin with it!”
Researchers believe the discovery could contribute significantly to theories about the origin of life on Earth. Microsaurs were believed to have been around when amniotes (vertebrates that either lay eggs on land, or retain them within the mother’s body) first appeared on the planet.
“Microsaurs have recently become important in understanding the origins of amniotes,” Mann said. “A lot of these microsaurs have been thought to be either ancestors of amphibians or ancestors of reptiles.”
Further research into the subject could lead to interesting insights into the evolutionary processes behind prehistoric animals adapting from vast oceans to dry land.