HOUSTON, TEXAS — A tiny skull entombed in 99-million-year-old amber that became the subject of scientific debate last year was initially thought to belong to the world’s smallest dinosaur species.
However, the high-profile March 2020 scientific paper that unveiled the discovery of Oculudentavis khaungraae was retracted later that year. New research published on Monday, based on another, better-preserved amber specimen, suggests that the skull was from a prehistoric lizard.
“It’s a really weird animal. It’s unlike any other lizard we have today,” said co-author of the new study Juan Diego Daza, a herpetologist and assistant professor of biological sciences at Sam Houston State University in Texas, in a news release.
“We estimate that many lizards originated during this time, but they still hadn’t evolved their modern appearance,” he said. “That’s why they can trick us. They may have characteristics of this group or that one, but in reality, they don’t match perfectly.”
The authors of the new paper published in the journal Current Biology named the creature Oculudentavis naga in honor of the Naga people of India and Myanmar, where the amber was found. They said it was from the same family or genus as Oculudentavis khaungraae, but likely a different species.
Oculudentavis means “eye tooth bird” in Latin, but Daza said taxonomic rules for naming and organizing animal species meant that they had to continue using it even though it wasn’t accurate.
“Since Oculudentavis is the name originally used to describe this taxon, it has priority and we have to maintain it,” Daxa said. “The taxonomy can be sometimes deceiving.”
The better-preserved amber, which was found in the same amber-mining region in Myanmar as the first described Oculudentavis specimen, held part of the lizard’s skeleton, including its skull, with visible scales and soft tissue. Both pieces of amber were 99 million years old.