By: April Carson
Oculudentavis khaungraae, a tiny "dinosaur" discovered in Burmese amber, has been confirmed to be a previously unknown uncommon lizard species by paleontologists. In another sample of amber, scientists uncovered a comparable creature that was subsequently identified as a representative of the second genus of this family. A closer look at the preserved fragments of the first discovered lizard has now revealed more detail, including skeletal material from a single specimen.
Burmese amber is a goldmine for paleontologists. It contains the remains of a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates that lived about 99 million years ago. In recent months, scientists have revealed an ancient pollinator beetle, a spiny caterpillar, and newborn snails from Burmese amber.
Even though the fossilized tree sap in which these organisms were preserved dates to a period in Earth's history when dinosaurs roamed, numerous feathered dinosaur remains have also been found in the material.
According to scientists, they had discovered a new hummingbird-sized dinosaur species...
In an article for Nature in the spring of 2020, researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed a strange find: a skull that they thought belonged to a hummingbird-sized dinosaur near birds. They considered it to be the tiniest dinosaur yet discovered.
Oculudentavis khaungraae was the species name given to it. However, many unpleasant questions arose regarding this find. According to several anatomical features, the oculudentavis was not a dinosaur or an ancient bird but rather a lizard, according to some paleontologists.
The authors decided to withdraw their original paper after the debate. However, the tale of the oculudentavis was not yet complete. Juan D. Daza from Sam Houston State University recruited a team of paleontologists to investigate this animal's connection.
A second sample in Burmese amber disproves their claims
The scientists focused on another piece of Burmese amber with an undescribed animal that was similar to O. khaungraae. It outlasted the previous discovery, with the exception of the skull, which remains today in addition to parts of the back, ulna, humerus, scales, and soft tissues.
The new specimen was found to share a lot of characteristics with the holotype of O. khaungraae, such as huge eyes and a long, toothed snout like a beak.
The second skull, on the other hand, is longer (about 14.2 mm versus 17.3 mm) and does not appear to be a bird's as much as the previous one. The scientists discovered additional distinctions between the skulls, which mainly concerned the bones' size and form.
The animal from the amber sample studied by the researchers is a member of the genus Oculudentavis, but it differs sufficiently from O. khaungraae to be recognized as a distinct species. It was given the name O. naga – in homage to Burma's indigenous Nagas – in recognition of its connection with Burmese amber.
The discovery of the second oculudentavis allowed Daze and his colleagues to elucidate the systematic placement of this genus. The researchers determined that Oculudentavis belongs to the scaly reptiles ( Squamata ) after comparing both specimens' characteristics with those of other lizards and snakes.
Two new lizard species have been discovered
True, the genus's closest relatives remain unknown owing to its unusual structural features and differences from all living and extinct lizard species, both ancient and modern.
The oculudentavis was thus shown to be a non-avian dinosaur or a bird closer to dinosaurs. The researchers found that the skulls of these reptiles have only comparable proportions to those of birds, whereas their structure is quite different.
The skull of O. khaungraae also probably experienced a significant postmortem deformation, further enhancing its avian resemblance. Because both specimens are limited, it is difficult to determine Oculudentavis' lifestyle based on the data. These lizards had large eyes with tiny pupils, suggesting that they were active during the day.
The long, thin jaws with pointed teeth suggest that the oculudentavis was specialized for hunting tiny insects like flies and ants. It's also conceivable that the oculudentavis were arboreal, otherwise they wouldn't have gotten trapped in the resin.
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