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National Park Service interns unearthed fossils of a bizarre 220-million-year-old reptile

October 16, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

A species of peculiar burrowing reptiles that evaded scientists for over 220 million years has been found, fossilized, at last. A team of National Park Service interns are credited with its discovery.

Hidden in a once-vibrant part of Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, the burgeoning paleontologists unearthed fossils of the Skybalonyx skapter, an "anteater-like reptile" that probably predates dinosaurs, according to findings published this month in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

But the Skybalonyx skapter was real, and it lived in an area that was once overrun with life during the Triassic Period some 220 million years ago, Xavier Jenkins, a Idaho State University PhD student who was credited with the Skybalonyx's discovery, told CNN.

"It is genuinely so surprising that a site like Thunderstorm Ridge took this long to be discovered, and it's revealing a hidden diversity of ancient life at Petrified Forest," Jenkins said.

They named the species Skybalonyx skapter, which in Greek means "dung-claw digger. " It's fitting since its bones were "quite literally found in a deposit of fossilized poop," Jenkins said, and its claws were once perfect for digging.

The team's analysis showed that unlike other drepanosaur species, which all share a large claw on their second finger, the Skybalonyx skapter's claw was much wider than those of other species.

Claws that wide, Jenkins said, are seen today only in burrowing animals like echidnas, or spiny anteaters, and moles.

"Skybalonyx goes to show that prehistoric ecosystems, such as those at Petrified Forest National Park, were much more similar to the modern than previously thought, with animals climbing, burrowing, swimming and flying just like today," Jenkins said.

The discovery of Skybalonyx also suggests that Petrified Forest hosted far more life, and for far longer, than previous research expeditions suggest, Jenkins said.

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