Fossil Inception: Fossil in a Fossil Unveils New Lizard Species

A team of researchers in China have discovered the complete remains of a new lizard species within a Microraptor.
Fabienne Lang
New lizard species in the abdomen of a Microraptor Jingmai O'Connor/CAS

A team of paleontologists in China has uncovered the full remains of an ancient lizard species within the stomach of a feathered dinosaur, the Microraptor

The fossil of the four-winged dinosaur was found in northeastern China, from the 130-million-year-old Jehol Biota, a treasure trove of fossils from the Cretaceous period. 

The findings were published in Current Biology on Thursday. 


Microraptors swallowed preys whole

This was the fourth discovery of a Microraptor fossil's preserved stomach contents, but it was the first to unveil that they ate lizards.

Moreover, similar to our modern-day owls' feeding habits, the study showed that these Mircoraptors had a penchant for swallowing their preys whole and head-first. 

Fossil Inception: Fossil in a Fossil Unveils New Lizard Species
Illustration of the lizard-swallowing Microraptor. Source: Doyle Trankina/Chinese Academy of Sciences

What this finding shows is that these small flying dinosaurs ate what they could find in order to survive. They were not known for being picky eaters, choosing to munch on whatever they could: mammals, birds, fish, and now lizards. 

Fossil Inception: Fossil in a Fossil Unveils New Lizard Species
A new lizard species in the abdomen of a specimen of Microraptor. Source: Jingmai O'Connor/Chinese Academy of Sciences

New species of lizard

The lizard that was found in the contents of the dinosaur's preserved belly is now known as Indrasaurus wangi. It was named after Prof. Wang Yuan from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

Indrasaurus stems from a Vedic legend where the god Indra was swallowed by a dragon during a great battle - the dragon in this instance is the Microraptor. 

Dr. Dong Liping, a former student of Wang's and who ran the most extensive analysis of Cretaceous lizards ever conducted, took part in the research in closely analyzing the lizard's remains.

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Liping determined that this new lizard species was the first discovered of its kind, but closely related to the Liushusaurus, a medium-sized, stocky lizard dating from the Lower Cretaceous.

What sets this lizard apart from its relatives, is its teeth. 

This study will also prove useful in reconstructing the first Jehol food web.

"Although certainly preliminary, this food web indicates that fish formed the most important food source for secondary and tertiary consumers," wrote the researchers. "This food web can be used in the future to better understand the Jehol ecosystem."

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