Slavoia darevskii was a lizard that lived in what is now Mongolia and Kazakhstan during the Late Cretaceous, about 85-70 million years ago.

Around 12cm long ~(4.75″), it had a compact skull, small eyes, a short neck, shovel-like hands, an elongated body and slightly reduced hind limbs – all features that indicate it was a burrowing animal, digging tunnels and feeding on underground invertebrates.

Its exact relationships are uncertain, but recent studies have suggested it was an early amphisbaenian, representing a point in the group’s evolution before the full loss of their legs and the development of their extremely long worm-like shape.


Bipedal running has convergently evolved multiple times in squamate reptiles, known in over 50 modern species – and fossil evidence shows this is nothing new, with lizards repeatedly developing the ability to sprint on their hind legs for well over 100 million years.

Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus here lived in east-central Mexico during the mid-Cretaceous, about 105 million years ago. About 25cm long (10″), it was part of an early branch of the iguanomorph lineage, related to the ancestors of modern lizards like iguanas, chameleons, and agamids.

Its limb proportions indicate it would have been a bipedal runner, making it one of the earliest known examples of this type of locomotion in lizards. Its skull also had some features convergent with varanids, suggesting it may have had a similar sort of active-pursuit-hunting ecology.

Eons Roundup 4

Some more recent commission work for PBS Eons!

The entelodonts Eoentelodon and Brachyhyops, from “The Hellacious Lives of the Hell Pigs”

The early ichthyosaur Tholodus and the mosasaurPluridens, from “When Ichthyosaurs Led a Revolution in the Seas”

The early bats Onychonycteris and Icaronycteris, from “When Bats Took Flight”

Island Weirdness #26 – The Mauritian Giant Skink

Along with its unique birds, Mauritius was also home to many endemic reptile species. In the absence of terrestrial mammals giant tortoises were the largest herbivores on the island, and various geckos, skinks, and snakes helped to fill out the rest of the vertebrate ecosystem.

Leiolopisma mauritiana was a very large skink, one of the biggest ever known to have existed with a total length of around 80cm (2′7″). Its ancestors originated in Australasia, over 5600km away (~3500 miles) at least 3-4 million years ago – and they must have endured a particularly long ocean rafting journey without any island hopping stops, since none of the other islands along that route seem to have ever had populations of similar skinks.

It probably lived in rocky areas, possibly also being capable of digging burrows, and would have eaten an omnivorous diet of seeds, fruits, invertebrates, and smaller lizards and birds.

By the early 1600s it was already extinct, very soon after the arrival of humans, probably due to predation from invasive mammals like rats. However, its half-sized close relative Leiolopisma telfairii does still survive on rat-free Round Island a short distance to the north of Mauritius, and recent conservation efforts have been rebuilding its population and setting up new colonies on other nearby small islands.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #23 – Enamel-Armored Lizards

The glyptosaurines were a group of lizards that first appeared in the Late Cretaceous, about 85 million years ago. They were an early branch of the anguid lineage, originating in North America, and had heavily armored bodies covered in bony osteoderms – superficially similar to those of modern beaded lizards, but structurally much more complex with the outermost layer formed from a unique enamel-like substance called osteodermine.

They were some of the few lizards to survived through the end-Cretaceous extinction 66 million years ago (which killed off over 80% of the lizard species known at the time) and went on to become quite successful in the warm climates of the early Cenozoic.

They spread across to Europe and Asia and developed much larger body sizes, going from small 10cm-long (4″) forms in the Early Paleocene (~65 mya) to over 60cm long (2′) by the mid-Eocene (~40 mya). In North America and Europe they became common enough that they were probably important parts of the local ecosystems, and their widespread distribution suggests they were able to adapt to a variety of different habitats and environmental niches.

Their teeth resembled those of modern omnivorous lizards like blue-tongued skinks, suggesting they had a similar generalist diet – although their strong jaws have also been proposed to be specializations for crushing hard-shelled invertebrates such as snails.

Helodermoides tuberculatus here was one of the largest glyptosaurines, about 65cm long (2′2″). It lived during the Late Eocene and Early Oligocene (~34-33 mya) in the northwestern and midwestern United States, with fossils known from Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska.

One fossil shows evidence of having lost part of its tail, probably dropping it in a self-defense behavior to escape a predator. However, unlike the regenerating tails of many other lizards, the osteoderms of Helodermoides instead seem to have formed a thick rounded bony cap over the wound, preventing any significant regrowth and leaving its tail permanently stumpy.

During the Late Eocene and Early Oligocene the glyptosaurines began to disappear, probably struggling to cope with cooling and drying climates, and their last definite fossils date to about 30 million years ago. Possible fragmentary remains from as late as the Early Miocene of Central Europe (~16 mya) may indicate that a few isolated late-surviving members of the group persisted on for a while longer, but if they did hang on that long they were probably finished off by further sharp temperature drops in the mid-Miocene.


Barbaturex morrisoni, a large herbivorous lizard which lived about 40-37 million years ago during the Eocene. Known from Myanmar in Southeast Asia, it’s estimated to have reached lengths of 1.4-1.8m (4′7″-5′10″) and was closely related to modern spiny-tailed lizards.

It had a row of bony knobs along the edges of its lower jaw, which may have supported some sort of display structure. I’ve given it some fleshy double-dewlaps here, and a spiky tail similar to its relatives, but since it’s only known from fragmentary fossils these features are pretty speculative.

Surprisingly Barbaturex was much bigger than a lot of the herbivorous ungulate mammals around at the time, and was also larger than most of the local carnivores – a very different situation to modern ecosystems, where even the biggest plant-eating lizards are still smaller than ungulates.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #12 – Muddled Mosasaurs

Numerous groups of reptiles have “returned to the water” and become aquatic over the last three hundred million years, but tracing their direct ancestry can be surprisingly difficult. Highly modified and specialized anatomy, lack of transitional forms, and similar features convergently evolving multiple times can all obscure relationships, making it hard to properly classify them.

We’re only just starting to figure out the true origin of turtles (they’re probably archosauromorphs), and they’re a marine reptile group with living members.

Some of the completely extinct ones are even more uncertain. For example: mosasaurs. (Represented here by the eponymous Mosasaurus.)

While some semi-aquatic early mosasaurs are known, and they seem to be closely related to aigialosaurs and dolichosaurs, their exact placement within the squamates is a lot less clear. Traditionally they were regarded as the sister group to snakes, but some studies have found them to be closer to monitor lizards instead, and others have even placed them as much more basal scleroglossans. Their classification in phylogenetic analyses is “highly unstable”, changing depending on what other reptile groups are included, so there’s no real current consensus.

(And even if they are most closely related to snakes, that doesn’t necessarily help much – the exact origin and evolution of snakes is still very poorly known, too!)