The 48-million-year-old fossilized remains of a lizard that had a penchant for running across the water could potentially hold the key to understanding the type of environment that existed in the American West before, according to a new study.

Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) believe that the remains of the Babibasiliscus alxi, one of the earliest members of a lizard group called Corytophanidae, could help shed light on how the environment was like during prehistoric times.

The Babibasiliscus alxi is commonly known as a Jesus lizard because of its ability to run across water. It shares its evolutionary history with chameleons and iguanas, but its species is yet to be fully understood by scientists because of the lack of enough fossils to study.

Jack Conrad of the AMNH explained how earlier scientists did not know much about the Babibasiliscus alxi's family tree.

He said that up until a decade ago, researchers assumed that the lizard group lived and thrived only in Central America because all of its nine existing species can be found in Mexico and Central America countries.

Conrad pointed out that their study was able to prove that members of the lizard group existed in the United States around 48 million years ago. He said this particular group is older than what was initially thought and had a wider scope of distribution in the past.

In their research, Conrad and his colleagues described another Jesus lizard known as Geiseltaliellus that lived in Germany 42 million years ago. This showed that the range of the lizard group covered a majority of the Northern Hemisphere at one point in history.

The researchers noted how the fossils of this two-foot reptile closely resembled its modern-day lizard relatives. The prehistoric specimen was similar in size with its living counterparts, with long legs and possibly even had a crest on top of its head.

According to Conrad, the discovery of the lizard remains in Wyoming allows scientists study the earlier conditions in the region back when it was still around 10 degrees warmer.

Compared to the barren badlands found in Wyoming's southwestern areas today, the region is believed to have been much different, with tropical rain forests covering large sections of its territory. It was also the home to prehistoric relatives of boa constrictors, crocodiles and komodo dragons.

These rain forests eventually transformed into grasslands around 23 million years ago and became the home of modern-day ecosystems.

Conrad said their study is more about understanding the climate than the prehistoric lizard itself. He said it describes what could be expected from a planet that is slightly warmer, much like a greenhouse world, where tropical rainforests extend across the central regions of the United States.

The American Museum of Natural History study is featured in the journal PLOS ONE.

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