This weird Cretaceous amphibian has the oldest-recorded ballistic tongue
It looks like a chameleon, but it’s definitely not.
What has scales, claws, and looks like a lizard? Well, strangely enough, it seems one group of strange ancient amphibians did.
While these animals, albanerpetontids or “albies,” may look more like a predecessor to today’s chameleon, they are a distant cousin to frogs and salamanders that scurried about the earth in the cretaceous period up until roughly two million years ago. In a new study published last week in Science, researchers not only discovered a brand new genus and species of the weird salamander-like creatures, but also found that they had ballistic tongues for snagging prey, not unlike modern-day fly-snatching amphibians.
The authors discovered these new findings in a 99 million-year-old piece of amber from Myanmar, where one of these new albies, called Yaksha perettii, left a preserved skull with bits of soft tissue still attached. Using CT scanning technology, researchers across the globe could access the odd animal skeleton and decipher more about this mysterious animal, which had previously only been discoverable in smaller or crushed samples.
“The new materials showed up, and it was the same thing but much, much larger and less smashed,” says Edward Stanley, author of the study and an associate scientist and director of the Digital Discovery and Dissemination lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
This albie has many unique characteristics besides just the ability to trap its dinner mid-air with a flying tongue. Like a chameleon, they’ve got claws, scales, massive eye sockets, and a double-jointed neck that isn’t very characteristic of today’s amphibians. The creature looked so lizard-esque that some of the authors had previously misidentified a different specimen as an early-stage chameleon back in 2016.
“Chameleons are such a weird grab bag of characters, we thought we’d found a transitional form where it was moving from a dragon-type thing to the chameleon we know today,” says Stanley. “Turns out, we found a totally different creature.”
Susan Evans, an author on the study and a professor of vertebrate morphology and paleontology at University College London, noticed right away that this creature was not a lizard after having studied another specimen found in Spain—though you would easily confuse it for a little reptile if it scampered by you today, she says. The dead giveaway? The salamander-like tongue. “Looking at that immediately, I just said this is an albanerpetontid,” she says.
With the addition of this new specimen, preserved “in mint condition,” she and the authors could date back its tongue meant for waiting and catching its prey back nearly 100 million years before this sneaky snacking method was previously recorded.
There’s still much to learn about this distant frog-cousin, like how exactly they fit into the family tree and where they roamed on the earth while they were still in their prime. “In theory, albies could give us a clue as to what the ancestors of modern amphibians looked like,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, they’re so specialized and so weird in their own way that they’re not helping us all that much.”
Albies, like other creatures from the time, are incredibly difficult to find fossils of. After all, their homeland was a damp, wet rainforest, not exactly the perfect place for mummifying fossils, since all that moisture helps organic material decay. Luckily, amber not only captures the skeletons of unlucky prehistoric creatures but is also able to hint that these tiny animals hung around trees enough to be caught in its sap.
“Most of life [in the Cretaceous period] presumably was small, and living in warm tropical forests, neither of which lend themselves to preservation very well,” says Juan Daza, lead author of the Science study and assistant professor of biological sciences at Sam Houston State University. “But the amber fossilization process preferentially captures these two things.”
Going forward, Evans hopes to find the back half of the creature to examine just how similar they might be to their fellow amphibians, as well as computer modeling the skull to compare and contrast it to its evolutionary mates, as well as it’s chameleon look-alikes.