Finding the world’s oldest chameleon trapped inside a block of amber, scientists took a 3D scan and 3D printed the model for further study.
A tiny skeleton of a baby chameleon, trapped in amber, dates back 99 million years to the Cretaceous Period, making it the oldest chameleon ever found.
Seventy-eight million years older than the previous oldest specimen on record, the 18-millimetre (0.7in) chameleon — along with 11 more ancient fossil lizards — were pulled from a mine several decades ago. Originating from tropical jungles in Myanmar, a gecko, an ancient lizard and the chameleon were in particularly excellent condition.
After the specimens were donated to the American Museum of Natural History by a private collector, researchers have published a paper on three of the specimens in the journal Science Advances. Study co-author Edward Stanley of the University of Florida explained to the Florida Museum of Natural History:
“These fossils tell us a lot about the extraordinary, but previously unknown diversity of lizards in ancient tropical forests. 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.”
Stanley knew the fossils were ancient, but it was a combination of luck and micro-CT technology that allowed him to identify the oldest chameleon without even cutting into the amber.
3D printing was used to learn more about each animal’s physiology. To do this, the team digitally reconstructed models of the skeletons using 3D scanning, then created 3D printed models from the digital data.
What did the Team Learn About the World’s Oldest Chameleon?
“It was mind-blowing,” Stanley said. “Usually we have a foot or other small part preserved in amber, but these are whole specimens — claws, toepads, teeth, even perfectly intact colored scales. I was familiar with CT technology, so I realized this was an opportunity to look more closely and put the lizards into evolutionary perspective.”
From these remains the team managed to learn a lot about the specimens. For example, it appears that geckos developed adhesive toe-pads earlier than is believed.
In addition, from the bones in the chameleon’s head, the team was able to determine that its tongue, like the tongues of modern chameleons, flicks out at high speed to capture prey. However, it had not yet developed the fused toes or body shape of modern chameleons.
The existence of this specimen also challenged the current belief that chameleons originated from Africa, as well as giving researchers clues about where they can look for more.
“These exquisitely preserved examples of past diversity show us why we should be protecting these areas where their modern relatives live today,” said Stanley. “The tropics often act as a stable refuge where biodiversity tends to accumulate, while other places are more variable in terms of climate and species. However, the tropics are not impervious to human efforts to destroy them.”
(Photo credits: Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace)
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