News Article | March 6, 2016
Diversity of lizards in Cretaceous amber fossils. Image: Courtesy of David Grimaldi, additional photos by Kristen Grace, Florida Museum of Natural History Some 99 million years ago, a rich diversity of lizard species foraged in the tropical forests of what is now Myanmar. The vast majority vanished without a trace; their fragile remains rapidly recycled by an opportunistic environment. But occasionally, these arboreal creatures were subsumed by floods of resin, exchanging their lives for preservation in the fossil record’s eerie amber snapshots of bygone ecosystems. Now, scientists have been granted access to twelve of these sepia-toned Cretaceous tableaus, which had been hitherto cloistered away in private collections. The specimens were recently donated to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and reveal many “missing links” in lizard evolution according to Edward Stanley, a postdoctoral researcher in herpetology and co-author of a study on the specimens published Friday in Science Advances. "These fossils tell us a lot about the extraordinary, but previously unknown diversity of lizards in ancient tropical forests,” said Stanley in a statement. “The fossil record is sparse because the delicate skin and fragile bones of small lizards do not usually preserve, especially in the tropics, which makes the new amber fossils an incredibly rare and unique window into a critical period of diversification.” This is especially true given the extraordinary condition of the fossils. Fine details like scales, skin pigments, and soft tissue are frozen in these amber coffins, providing an unprecedented glimpse of a bygone ecosystem. “Usually we have a foot or other small part preserved in amber, but these are whole specimens—claws, toe pads, teeth, even perfectly intact colored scales,” Stanley said. Even in cases of bodily decay, Stanley and his colleagues were able to digitally reconstruct the anatomies of the lizards using micro-CT scanners and 3D-printing printers. This approach yielded a host of new insights about the evolutionary origins and trajectories of multiple lizard groups. For instance, the specimens include the oldest chameleon ever found, beating out the previous contender by a whopping 75 million years. The intricate remains of adhesive gecko toe pads reveal that this animal’s climbing abilities took hold way back in the evolutionary timeline, earlier than previously assumed. But more broadly, the specimens demonstrate that the tropical forests of the Cretaceous were as rich in lizard diversity as modern equatorial jungles. Not only does that provide perspective on the origins and past evolution of lizards, it also spotlights their future on the planet, which is increasingly at risk due to human activity. “[T]he tropics are not impervious to human efforts to destroy them,” Stanley concluded. “These exquisitely preserved examples of past diversity show us why we should be protecting these areas where their modern relatives live today.”
Belonging to a group known as the Arctics, the Tanana Arctic, Oeneis tanana, is the first new butterfly species described from the Last Frontier in 28 years and may be its only endemic butterfly. University of Florida lepidopterist Andrew Warren suggests the butterfly could be the result of a rare and unlikely hybridization between two related species, both specially adapted for the harsh arctic climate, perhaps before the last ice age. Details of the finding are available online today in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. Digging deeper into the Tanana Arctic's origins may reveal secrets about the geological history of arctic North America and the evolution of hybrid species, said Warren, who led the new study. "Hybrid species demonstrate that animals evolved in a way that people haven't really thought about much before, although the phenomenon is fairly well studied in plants," said Warren, senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. "Scientists who study plants and fish have suggested that unglaciated parts of ancient Alaska known as Beringia, including the strip of land that once connected Asia and what's now Alaska, served as a refuge where plants and animals waited out the last ice age and then moved eastward or southward from there. This is potentially a supporting piece of evidence for that." The new butterfly lives in the spruce and aspen forests of the Tanana-Yukon River Basin, most or all of which was never glaciated during the last ice age, about 28,000 to 14,000 years ago. Study researchers suggest that sometime in the past, two related species, the Chryxus Arctic, O. chryxus, and the White-veined Arctic, O. bore, may have mated and their hybrid offspring subsequently evolved into the Tanana Arctic. Then, during the coldest part of the last ice age, the Tanana Arctic and White-veined Arctic apparently remained in Beringia while the Chryxus Arctic was pushed south into the Rocky Mountains. This would mean all three species were once present in Beringia before the last ice age, Warren said. For more than 60 years the Tanana Arctic hid beneath scientists' noses incognito as its very similar relative the Chryxus Arctic, until Warren noticed its distinct characteristics while curating collections at the McGuire Center. In addition to expanded white specks on the underside of its penny-colored wings giving it a 'frosted' appearance, the Tanana Arctic is larger and darker than the Chryxus Arctic. It also has a unique DNA sequence, which is nearly identical to those found in nearby populations of White-veined Arctics, further supporting the hypothesis the new species may be a hybrid, Warren said. "Once we sequence the genome, we'll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments," he said. "This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly." Warren said more field research is needed to investigate whether the Tanana Arctic also exists further east into the Yukon. Other species of Arctics are found in places like Russia and Siberia. The group is known for living in environments too cold and extreme for most other butterflies, and they survive in part thanks to a natural antifreeze their bodies produce. Because butterflies react extremely quickly to climate change, the new butterfly could serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes in the relatively untouched areas of Alaska where the Tanana Arctic flutters. "This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if it ever moves out, we'll be able to say 'Wow, there are some changes happening,'" Warren said. "This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing." Warren plans to go back to the Yukon-Tanana basins next year in search of the Tanana Arctic. He hopes fieldwork in this rugged environment will result in fresh specimens to fully sequence the species' genome, which will reveal the butterfly's genetic history, including if it is truly a hybrid. "New butterflies are not discovered very often in the U.S. because our fauna is relatively well-known," Warren said. "There are around 825 species recorded from the U.S. and Canada. But with the complex geography in the western U.S., there are still going to be some surprises." Explore further: New Jamaica butterfly species emphasizes need for biodiversity research
Various lizard specimens are shown preserved in ancient amber from present-day Myanmar in Southeast Asia, in this handout photo provided by the Florida Museum of Natural History on March 5, 2016. A fossilized lizard found in Southeast Asia preserved in amber dates back some 99 million years, Florida scientists have determined, making it the oldest specimen of its kind and a "missing link" for reptile researchers. The lizard is some 75 million years older than the previous record holder, according to researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who announced the finding this week. REUTERS/David Grimaldi/Florida Museum of Natural History/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. More (Reuters) - A fossilized lizard found in Southeast Asia preserved in amber dates back some 99 million years, Florida scientists have determined, making it the oldest specimen of its kind and a "missing link" for reptile researchers. The lizard is some 75 million years older than the previous record holder, according to researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who announced the finding this week. It was found decades ago in a mine along with other ancient, well-preserved reptile fossils, but the U.S. scientists were able to analyze the finds only recently. "It was incredibly exciting to see these animals for the first time," Edward Stanley, a member of the research team, said on Saturday. "It was exciting and startling, actually, how well they were preserved." Scientists believe the chameleon-like creature was an infant when it was trapped in a gush of sticky resin while darting through a tropical forest in what is now Myanmar, in Southeast Asia. The creature's entire body, including its eyes and colorful scales, is unusually well-preserved, Stanley said. The other reptiles trapped in the amber, including a gecko and an arctic lizard, were also largely intact. Small reptiles have delicate bodies and typically deteriorate quickly, he said. Being encased in solid amber helped to lock the specimen together. Stanley and other researchers used high-resolution digital X-ray technology to examine the creatures and estimate the age of the amber without breaking it. The discovery will help researchers learn more about the "lost ecosystem, the lost world" to which the creatures belonged, Stanley said, and it may help researchers learn more about the creatures' modern relatives. "It's kind of a missing link," Stanley said.
A new species of butterfly could provide clues about Alaska's geological history and its changing climate, according to a University of Florida researcher. Research by lepidopterist Andrew Warren suggests that the newly discovered Tanana Arctic butterfly evolved from the offspring of two related butterfly species, the Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic. He thinks all three species lived in the Beringia region before the last ice age, reported The Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/1pyeusq ). Scientists have been seeing the Tanana Arctic butterfly for more than 60 years, but its similarity to the Chryxus Arctic led them to believe it was the same species. Warren noticed its distinct characteristics as senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. The Tanana Arctic has white specks on the underside of its penny-colored wings, giving it a "frosted" appearance, and it is larger and darker than the other species. It also has a unique DNA sequence that is very similar to that in nearby populations of White-veined Arctics, said Warren, leading to the hypothesis that the new species is a hybrid. More field research is needed to find out whether the Tanana Arctic also exists further east into the Yukon. Arctic butterflies live in environments that are too cold and extreme for most other butterflies and can survive in part thanks to a natural antifreeze their bodies produce. "Once we sequence the genome, we'll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments," said Warren. He plans to return to Alaska and look for the butterfly next year. Warren wants to collect new specimens in order to fully sequence the genome, which could reveal the species' history and show whether it's truly a hybrid. The Tanana Arctic lives in spruce and aspen forests in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin. Because butterflies react quickly to climate change, the new species could serve as an early warning indicator for the remote region. "This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if it ever moves out, we'll be able to say 'Wow, there are some changes happening,'" Warren said. "This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing."
Researchers discovered a possible new butterfly species in Alaska and believe it could tell us more about the pace of climate change. The Tanana Arctic, or Oeneis tanana, likely evolved from a rare hybrid when two butterflies species mated before the last ice age, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. While the butterfly could help shed light on the North American Arctic’s geological history, it can also serve as a sort of canary in the coalmine when it comes to current and future environmental changes. That’s because butterflies, which are sensitive to climate changes and react rapidly to them, are considered environmental indicators. “This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if it ever moves out, we’ll be able to say ‘Wow, there are some changes happening,’” University of Florida lepidopterist Andrew Warren said in a release. “This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing.” As the Arctic warms, permafrost thaws. And this thawing of ground that previously remained frozen throughout the year could release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere — which could lead to more global warming. [The Arctic climate threat that nobody’s even talking about yet] Arctic butterflies are especially unique because they’ve adapted to live in cold temperatures and harsh conditions that would kill most other butterflies. The bodies of these butterflies produce natural antifreeze proteins. The newly discovered butterfly lives in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin’s aspen and spruce forests, an area that mostly wasn’t glaciated during the last ice age about 14,000 to 28,000 years ago. The Tanana and Yukon river basins formed the southeastern limits of Beringia, an area considered a refuge for plant and animal life during the Ice Age and may have once formed a landbridge connecting Asia and Alaska, the study authors write. The study from Warren and his colleagues suggests that two butterfly species — Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic — mated back then and produced what evolved into the Tanana Arctic. But the Tanana Arctic eluded researchers for years because of its striking similarity to the Chryxus Arctic. That is, until Warren was examining the butterflies at the Florida Museum of Natural History and noticed distinctions between them. The Tanana Arctic is larger and darker than the Chryxus Arctic, and has a unique DNA sequence. White specks underneath penny-colored wings give it a frosted look. “Once we sequence the genome, we’ll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments,” he said. “This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly.” It’s been 28 years since a new butterfly species has been discovered in Alaska. The study authors write that more research is needed to definitively determine whether the Tanana Arctic should be classified as a new species or a sub-species, although they write their evidence suggests it’s a newly identified species. The remote Alaskan village that needs to be relocated due to climate change Obama using Alaska to add urgency to his climate change warnings In this tiny Arctic town, dramatic warmth threatens everything