The fossil worm salamander is missing the puzzle piece in the history of life on Earth

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A fossil discovered by Virginia Tech paleontologists reshapes our understanding of the past.

It’s a fossil worm salamander: amphibian, without limbs. The animals have smooth skin with rings, like an earthworm, but scales are hidden underneath. There is a wide variety of sizes. The small one is about 9 cm long, but the large one can reach 1.5 meters in length. In their mouths, they have a double row of small sharp teeth with which they can grab their prey.

Fossils of the animal are extremely rare. Only 10 are known so far, the oldest being 183 million years old. Now, however, researchers have found a fossil from the Triassic period: a period in the geological time scale from about 250 to 200 million years ago. The worm salamander they found was, to be exact, 220 million years old, which indicates that the animal must have lived 35 million years earlier than previously thought.

The discovery was made in 2019 in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, an area where we now know there are many fossils to be found. The tiny salamander, named Funcus-vermis by the researcher who found it—or during: Funky Worm after the Ohio Players song—is causing quite a stir.

There has been much uncertainty about this period in evolution, leading to discussions about amphibians and their relationship to later relatives such as frogs and salamanders for years. Amphibians still exist today, but they have now fully adapted to life underground. Their atypical ancestor was most similar in skeletal terms to early frogs and salamanders. And so we found another piece of the puzzle of the evolution of life on Earth.

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Read more about research: A new study in Earth Sciences reveals Triassic fossils that reveal the origins of living amphibians.

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