"We were lucky to have him doing this work, because it would have been relatively easy to dismiss the fossil," Bolet said. The skull is surrounded by a concretion of carbonate rock that has hardened around it like cement.
Locked in stone
Fortunately, Bolet said, Méndez "immediately realized that what he had found was a small vertebrate skull, a rather exceptional finding, because screen-washing techniques mostly retrieve disarticulated bones and isolated teeth."
The researchers were used to working with tiny fossils, even ones less than a half-inch across, like this one. But removing the rock crust from the fossilized bone would be impossible without damaging the skull inside, they knew. So they turned to technology. Using computed tomography (CT) scanning, the same sort of imaging used in hospitals, the researchers created a virtual reconstruction of the bone still locked in the rock.
The result, Bolet said, is a three-dimensional digital model that allows the researchers to study the skull. They realized the specimen, which measured only 0.23 inches (5.8 mm) at its widest spot and had 20 teeth, was a previously unknown species. They dubbed the animal Blanus mendezi in honor of the technician who discovered the skull.
B. mendezi dates back to the Miocene epoch and is about 11.6 million years old, but its skull looked very similar to those of worm lizards alive today. The researchers suspect this species lived after the evolutionary split between eastern and western Mediterranean worm lizards, and represents the oldest known record of the western group.
The study also highlighted the mystery of worm lizards, Bolet said — even modern species.
"One of the things that became evident during this study was that the osteology of even living species of Blanus is still not well-known," he said. "At the same time, this precludes a proper identification of fossil specimens at the species level, because variation within species has been barely studied."
Ongoing research will need to focus on describing the bones of both fossil and modern blanids, Bolet said, in order to build a family tree for these wiggling enigmas.
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