A new species of reptile: a lizard without legs that lived in Murcia one million years ago

The discoverers have dedicated the new species to the paleontologist Miguel Ángel Mancheño, first director of the excavations in the Murcian site of Quibas, where it has appeared

The findings shows that the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula was the last ecological refuge for subtropical species in Western Europe

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Hugues-Alexandre Blain, researcher at IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), in collaboration with Salvador Bailon from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (MNHN), have described a new species of lizard without legs of the genus Ophisaurus, family of the Anguidae as the slowworm, present today in the Iberian Peninsula. The remains found include: a maxilla, three jaws, two parietals, numerous vertebrae and an osteoderm. The find is dedicated to Miguel Ángel Mancheño, Professor and paleontologist from the University of Murcia and former director of the Quibas excavations (Abanilla, Murcia), where the fossil remains that gave rise to the new species are from. Thus, the new lizard has been named Ophisaurus manchenioi. Judging by the recovered fossil remains, and the knowledge of the current lizards of this type, it is thought to have about 40 centimeters length.

The genus Ophisaurus is currently represented by other species living in the tropical and subtropical environments of North Africa (Morocco and Algeria), North America and Southeast Asia. The paleobiogeographic analysis of the genus shows that it appeared in Europe during the Eocene (56 and 34 million years ago), and that it had its maximum extension during the Miocene (between 23 and 5.3 million years ago). During the Pliocene (between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago), its distribution in Europe was restricted to the Mediterranean. It survived longer in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, which apparently acted as a refuge area. The species eventually became extinct one million years ago, with its last mention in the site of Quibas, in Murcia.

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Fossil remains of the new species of lizard discovered in Murcia – Author: IPHES

During the Pliocene (between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago), its distribution in Europe was restricted to the Mediterranean. It survived longer in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, which apparently acted as a refuge area. The species eventually became extinct one million years ago, with its last mention in the site of Quibas, in Murcia.

“Until now, the fossil presence of this genus was known in other Early Pleistocene sites of the Iberian Peninsula, such as, Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 (Granada, Spain), but its key defining element -the parietal, a bone from the skull -was not available to compare it with the other fossil species defined from: this bone”, points out Hugues-Alexandre Blain, IPHES researcher and co-author of the scientific article that published the finding. “Osteologically, this new species is more closely related to the fossil species Ophisaurus holeci from the Miocene of Germany and the Czech Republic than to its modern North African representative (Ophisaurus koellikeri)”, he adds. “That is why we can say that it is a European relict species and that it does not come from a landbridge between North Africa and the South of the Iberian Peninsula”, he points out.

By comparison with the other extant species of the genus, it can be inferred that this reptile had tropical or subtropical ecological requirements. Its extinction at the species level in the Iberian Peninsula and in Europe coincides with the progressive disappearance of certain subtropical arboreal taxa (Cathaya, Elaeagnus, Engelhardia, Eucommia, Liquidambar, Keteleeria, Nyssa, Sciadopitys, Symplocos, Pretoria, Parthenocissus, Pterocarya and Tsuga). “Consequently, the extinction of this reptile is contemporary with the disappearance of the last haven with subtropical conditions (warm and humid forests) in southern Europe around 1.2 million years ago, during a period of very important climatic changes known at the transition from the Early to Middle Pleistocene”, notes Hugues-Alexandre Blain.

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The Quibas excavations (Abanilla, Murcia) – Author: IPHES

Since its discovery in 1994, the paleontological site of Quibas (Abanilla, Murcia) has yielded, the fossil remains from more than 70 species of the late Early Pleistocene, around 1 million years old. “It is a karstic site whose importance lies in the great diversity of fauna, excellent preservation of the remains and the possibility of finding human evidence”, says Pedro Piñero, current co-director of the excavations in Quibas and collaborator of IPHES.

Remarkable also is the presence of fossil bones from: macaques, large felids, lynxes, foxes, musk oxen, goats, rhinoceros, deer, porcupines, bearded vultures, eagles (or ibis), as well as a long taxonomic list of small vertebrates, including: hedgehogs, mice, dormice, shrews, bats, snakes, vipers, geckos and agàmid lizards. “Research concerning these remains highlights the importance of this site, now with the presence of a new species previously unknown to the scientific community, as is the case of this new lizard,” says Pedro Piñero.

The studied material from this new lizard species was revealed from excavation campaign dating to 2006. Revision of these fossils is part of the new project, inscribed in the research project CGL2016-80000-P “Climatic crises of the Early and Middle Pleistocene and its incidence in the evolution of the microvertebrate communities of the Spanish Levante” and in the research group of the IPHES Human Paleoecology of Plio-Pleistocene (PalHum). AGAUR-Generalitat de Catalunya, 2017SGR-859.

Bibliographic reference

Hugues-Alexandre Blain & Salvador Bailon. 2019. Extirpation of Ophisaurus (Anguimorpha, Anguidae) in Western Europe in the context of the disappearance of subtropical ecosystems at the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2019.01.023

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The research stay of José Ramón Rabuñal at the Max Planck Institute

The objective was to learn new techniques to better understand how activities were organised in prehistoric settlements

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The IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) predoctoral researcher, José Ramón Rabuñal, completed a three-month research stay at the Department of Human Evolution of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), under the supervision of Dr. Shannon P. McPherron.

The purpose of the stay was to expand his training in intra-site spatial analysis techniques. This type of methodology is directed towards understanding how space is organised in settlements by studying the spatial distribution of occupation evidence.

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The IPHES researcher, José Ramón Rabuñal, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany),

His research aims to reconstruct, within the framework of his doctoral thesis, the formation processes and the spatial organisation of Mesolithic occupations in the open-air site of the Arenal de la Virgen (Villena, Alicante), between 9,200 and 8,300 years ago. This site was recently excavated in the framework of the ERC PALEODEM research project (Ref.683018), which focuses on the analysis of demographic dynamics and cultural transmission processes during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in the Iberian Peninsula.

After three months learning and applying new spatial statistics techniques, he will join the rest of the PALEODEM team to prepare scientific publications and disseminate the European project’s research results.

José Ramón Rabuñal’s stay was financially supported by the URV (the University Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona) and the European Commission, through an Erasmus-Placement mobility grant within the Erasmus + program, as well as by the ERC PALEODEM project.

Research collaboration between the IPHES and the University of La Laguna to study how the last hunter-gatherers in the Iberian Peninsula used fire

The IPHES researcher, Ana Polo, recently carried out a research stay at the AMBI LAB Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarker Lab of the University of La Laguna to promote scientific collaboration between the PALEODEM European project of this research centre in Tarragona and the PALEOCHAR project in the Canary Islands. Both projects include, among their main objectives, the microscopic study of sediments from archaeological hearths to provide information on human behaviour and climate changes during Prehistory.

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The IPHES postdoctoral researcher, Ana Polo Díaz, completed a three-week research stay at the Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarker AMBI Lab of the University of La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain). The aim of the visit was to establish scientific collaboration between the interdisciplinary research teams of the ERC projects PALEODEM (Ref. 683018) and PALEOCHAR (Ref. 648871) led by Dr. Javier Fernández López de Pablo (IPHES) and Dr. Carolina Mallol (ULL), respectively.

Both projects include among their main objectives the study of sediments from archaeological hearths on a microscopic scale. The aim of these investigations is to understand how groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies in Southwestern Europe used fire as well as associated domestic activities; the purpose is to offer a clearer picture of their ways of life, how they exploited natural resources and how they adapted to climate challenges.

In Tenerife, Ana Polo had the opportunity to discuss various aspects of the formation process of approximately 9,000-year-old Mesolithic hearth-pits documented in the site of El Arenal de la Virgen (Villena, Alicante) with AMBI Lab’s scientific staff. Similarly, she was able to consult the laboratory’s extensive reference collection of thin films from sites with evidence of occupation by hunter-gatherers who inhabited Europe over the last 50,000 years.

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The IPHES postdoctoral researcher, Ana Polo Díaz

Dissemination work was equally carried out during her stay to circulate the objectives, challenges and geoarchaeological research methods applied to the study of both archaeological sites excavated within the framework of the PALEODEM project: El Arenal de la Virgen and Casa Corona. As part of this task, the researcher shared the results of the sediments’ taphonomy (alterations) obtained from her study of both sites mentioned above and explained the role that human activities and natural processes had in accumulating and altering archaeological deposits. Ana Polo also highlighted the implications of these results: they allow us to better understand the impact of taphonomy on archaeological sites and, therefore, our ability to extract information from them and interpret the past.

This dissemination work included a didactic session in AMBI-LAB on microscopy and the presentation of results as well as a guest lecture, held on 21 November, called Integrative Geoarchaeological Approaches to the Investigation of Mesolithic Campsites in SE Iberia.

Ana Polo’s stay received financial support from the European Commission through the ERC PALEODEM project.