The new fossil species, unearthed appropriately in what's known as the Lucky Lizard Locality of Uinta County, Wyo., has been named Babibasiliscus alxi. Author Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History explained that "Babi" is a Shoshone Native American word meaning "older male cousin."
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"The generic name is meant to honor the Shoshone people who originally inhabited the areas in which the specimen was discovered," he wrote, adding that the inclusion of the term for "cousin" refers to the relationship of the animal with other Jesus lizards.
Conrad said that Wyoming at the time had a climate matching today's tropics. The newly discovered lizard used to skim the surfaces of lush, watery habitats there.
The lizard's fossils suggest that, when alive, it was around 2 feet long. Conrad believes the Jesus lizard was active during the day and spent a lot of time in trees.
A ridge of bone on the skull gave the lizard an angry look while providing shade for its eyes. The look must have terrified prey, which for this predatory lizard was ample. Conrad noted that each of its small teeth had three points suitable for eating snakes, lizards, fish, insects and plants.
The lizard also had large cheekbones, which suggest it could enjoy larger prey items as well.
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Modern relatives of the Jesus lizard live in an area stretching from central Mexico to northern Colombia, flourishing in the higher temperatures found at the equator. Like Babibasiliscus alxi and its kin, members of various animal, plant, fungal and other clades currently confined to the tropics or subtropical areas are often found in fossil records at mid-to-high latitudes from warm periods in our planet's history.
Discoveries of such fossils over long periods of time therefore suggest how various species migrate - thereby shifting their ranges - in response to climate change.
"Given our current period of global climate fluctuation, looking to the fossil record offers an important opportunity to observe what is possible," Conrad said," and may give us an idea of what to expect from our dynamic Earth."