Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Lizard King Of The Eocene Myanmar

The megafaunal lizard Megalania which existed in Oceania just
40, 000 years ago may be the source of the Maori legend of the
 giant Kumi lizard, a whisper of truth in a myth older than the
pyramids. There have been more recent yet unconfirmed sightings of
what some believe to be living specimens of Megalania
The Mesozoic Era is sometimes referred to as the Age of the Dinosaurs. In my opinion, this is a rather narrow view. While the dinosaurs dominated the land, the rivers were the haunt of the ancestors of the crocodiles and the seas were patrolled by marine lizards which would dwarf most creatures in the sea today. The Mesozoic should be known as the Age of Reptiles: these scaly-skinned, cold-blooded creatures were the lords of Earth. Yet this all changed 65 million years ago.

The asteroid which devastated Earth was responsible for the destruction of the dinosaurs and the marine reptiles alongside hundreds of other animal groups. Briefly birds and then the mammals became the dominant animals on the planet. Yet the crocodilians, turtles, tortoises and some lizards which remained as small dwellers in the undergrowth made it through to the Cenozoic to give rise to the reptiles which inhabit the planet today. Yet while their heyday was over, throughout the last 65 million years of geological history, they made brief encores.

Perhaps the greatest of these was between 3 million and 10,000 years ago with the Australian mega-fauna. These giants lived alongside the earliest settlers of Oceania and exist as the faintest myths and legends of the Aboriginal dream-time stories. Now a new episode has come to light. Discovered in Myanmar in the 1970s by Russell Ciochon from the University of Iowa, fossils of a mysterious creature sat, unstudied, in a storeroom of the University of California's Museum of Palaeontology.

The 40 million year old jawbone from Myanmar
They were examined earlier this year by a team led by Jackson Head of the University of Nebraska Lincoln. While the material consisted mainly of jawbones and other pieces of the skull, by looking at the size ratios between the body and the head of similar reptiles, the researchers were able to build up an image of what this creature was like. In short, it was big. Comparable in size to modern day Komodo dragons, it would have been around two metres in length and weighed in at over 30 kilograms.

While large reptiles are well known for going for long periods of time without eating, when they do refuel, they need substantial prey. Komodo dragons live alongside water buffalo which are their primary source of food. Based on what fossil record exists from Myanmar 40 million years ago, the environment which this creature inhabited was a tropical jungle.

Barbaturex may have been very similar in form to a Komodo dragon
Yet such places are not known for their large mammals. Therefore this creature must have been feeding on something else in order to sustain its significant size. Based on its teeth, Jackson Head thought that plants made up its diet. When he first examined the fossils, he noticed the creature's bones were characteristic of a group of modern lizards that includes bearded dragons and chameleons.

'When I started studying its modern relatives, I realized just how big this lizard was. It struck me that we had something here that was quite large and unique,' said Head. What we are left with is rather strange. Today the only plant-eating reptiles are small. This creature from Myanmar is a throwback from the time of the giant herbivorous reptiles of the Mesozoic.

The brightly coloured chin flaps of a species
of south east Asian lizard
Ridges on the underside of the jaw suggested that there were once flaps of soft tissue attached to them which may have been multicolored as they are in modern day species. The researchers called it Barbaturex morrisoni. The genus name translates as 'bearded king' while the species name honors Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the 1960s' rock-band The Doors, whose lyrics earned him the moniker of 'Lizard King.'

'I was listening to The Doors quite a bit during the research,' said Head. 'Some of their musical imagery includes reptiles and ancient Barbaturex would have been a true king.'

It is easy to imagine this reptile as it was 40 million years ago, its bulk spread out over a large boulder, displaying its resplendent chin flaps to other members of its species as a sign of dominance. In the future there is a distinct possibility that giant reptiles may once again dominate the face of the Earth, but for now the time of reptiles is certainly not over.