Well-preserved 100m-year-old chameleon found in amber

7 Mar 2016

Researchers in Myanmar have made the discovery of a lifetime following the recovery of fossilised amber that contained a 100m-year-old infant chameleon.

The fossilised resin from an ancient coniferous tree ended up being the final resting place of the young lizard aeons ago and, now, it is the world’s oldest recorded specimen of a chameleon.

According to researchers from the University of Florida (UF), this young lizard specimen is 78m years older than the previous record-holder, and was one of 12 ancient amber-encased lizards found in a mine in the Asian nation a number of decades ago.

Amber collection

Image via UF

Of the 12 analysed by the team, three of them – a gecko, archaic lizard, and chameleon – were particularly well-preserved and were, in fact, new species that had yet to be catalogued.

One of the co-authors of the study, to be published on the new species in the journal Science Advances, Edward Stanley, said he first encountered the specimens after a donation from a private collector, but only after he ran advanced scanners over them did he realise the significance of the chameleon find.


Gif via UF

“[The discovery] was mind-blowing,” Stanley said, on seeing the fossils for the first time. “Usually we have a foot or other small part preserved in amber, but these are whole specimens—claws, toepads, teeth, even perfectly intact coloured scales.

“I was familiar with CT technology, so I realised this was an opportunity to look more closely and put the lizards into evolutionary perspective.”

Changes understanding of chameleon origin

Using a micro-CT scanner, the UF team was able to analyse the chameleon remains and digitally piece together a structure of how the chameleon would have looked, without damaging the sample itself.

The chameleon discovery is not just important in terms of it being the oldest discovered example but, also, Stanley added, it challenges our previous belief that Africa was the birthplace of the species.

“These exquisitely preserved examples of past diversity show us why we should be protecting these areas where their modern relatives live today,” Stanley said.

Chameleon image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic