Extinct Lizard ‘Obamadon’ Latest Creature to be Named after President Obama

First Posted: Dec 11, 2012 02:35 AM EST

After fish and lichen, it is an extinct lizard that has been named after the recently re-elected President Obama. With the fish named Ethiostoma Obama and the lichen Caloplaca obamae, the small insect-eating lizard is called Obamadon.

This lizard was discovered during the process of fossil re-examination from across the country by researchers from the Yale University and Harvard University.

Nicholas Longrich, a postdoctoral associate with Yale's Department of Geology and Geophysics, named the ancient creature after Obama figuring that it would please both Democrats and Republicans as both an honor and possibly an insult, said US News and World Report.

"The Obamadon was probably a foot long, with these tall, slender teeth it used to eat insects and plant matter," said Longrich, lead author of the study, reported US News. "It's something a lot of people haven't thought about we have a variety of large lizards and snakes now, and we did then, too."

Possessing tall slender teeth with three cups on each tooth and a slender jaw, Obamadon existed some 65 million years ago. It is an extinct genus of polyglyphanodontian lizard from the late Cretaceous of North America. These fossils were found in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana and the Lance Formation of Wyoming.

The researchers were re-examining the fossils in an attempt to figure out the reason for the mass extinction of these species. 

The researchers predict that the asteroid collision that was thought to have killed the dinosaurs also led to the extreme devastation among the snake and lizard species.

"The asteroid event is typically thought of as affecting the dinosaurs primarily," said Longrich. "But it basically cut this broad swath across the entire ecosystem, taking out everything. Snakes and lizards were hit extremely hard."

Prior to this, the studies have indicated that some snakes and lizards species became extinct after an asteroid struck Earth 65.5 million years ago on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. But according to the latest research, the collision's consequences were far more serious for snakes and lizards than previously understood because nearly 83 percent of the snake and lizard species died. Bigger the creature, the more likely it was to become extinct, with no species larger than one pound surviving.

The authors examined 21 previously known species and also identified nine new lizards and snakes. The study was based on a detailed examination of previously collected snake and lizard fossils covering a territory in western North America stretching from New Mexico in the southwestern U.S. to Alberta, Canada.

The researchers were surprised to see the range of reptiles that existed during the last days of the dinosaurs. From tiny lizards to snakes that were the size of a boa constrictor, large enough to take the eggs and young of many dinosaur species. Iguana-like plant-eating lizards inhabited the southwest while carnivorous lizards hunted through the swamps and flood plains of what is now Montana, some of them up to six feet long.

"Lizards and snakes rivaled the dinosaurs in terms of diversity, making it just as much an 'Age of Lizards' as an 'Age of Dinosaurs,'" Longrich said.

According to the researchers, the most diverse lizard branches wiped out were the Polyglyphanodontia that included up to 40 percent of all lizards living in North America. In reassessing previously collected fossils, they came across an unnamed species and called it Obamadon gracilis.

The mass (but not total) extinction of snakes and lizards paved the way for the evolution and diversification of the survivors by eliminating competitors, the researchers said. There are about 9,000 species of lizards and snakes alive today.

"They didn't win because they were better adapted, they basically won by default, because all their competitors were eliminated," Longrich said.

Co-author Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, a doctoral student in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, said: "One of the most important innovations in this work is that we were able to precisely reconstruct the relationships of extinct reptiles from very fragmentary jaw material. This had tacitly been thought impossible for creatures other than mammals. Our study then becomes the pilot for a wave of inquiry using neglected fossils and underscores the importance of museums like the Yale Peabody as archives of primary data on evolution -- data that yield richer insights with each new era of scientific investigation."

The paper is titled "Mass Extinction of Lizards and Snakes at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary." The National Science Foundation and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies supported the research.

The study was scheduled for online publication the week of Dec. 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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