The world of evolutionary biology and science just got a big bigger, when it was found that a 20 million year old amber fossil preserved an extinct salamander in what is today the Dominican Republic.
It has been a shocking discovery for researchers at the Oregon State University (OSU) and University of Berkley in California, who have just gained new information about a world far, far before our own.
According to George Poinar, Jr., professor at OSU, there are few samples of fossilized salamanders in existence, much less one that has been so well preserved in amber. Many other life forms have been found immortalized in the resin, such as insects, plants, along with a few others, but never salamanders, which raised many questions on how it even happened.
Upon examination, it appears that the preserved amphibian had a very bad day and a tragic end to a short life. The specimen has been reported to have been a mere baby, whose leg was bit off by a predator before it managed to escape its clutches. It crawled on three legs and somehow ended up falling in the resin where it got trapped and perished.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire seems to have been the case for the salamander, but that incident has led to what is now a perfectly formed amber to retell its story.
The now extinct species of salamander has been called Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae by the researchers and authors of the paper. It is believed to be a very distant relative of a common species now found in North America, specifically the Appalachian Mountains.
However, today, they are nowhere near the Dominican Republic or the Caribbean, which has garnered another surprised reaction from researchers.
The fossil was dated between 20 and 30 million years ago, but the lineage of the salamander could possibly go back 40 or even 60 million years, as it has been suggested that they were living before the Proto-Greater Antilles, when islands such as Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica joined with North and South America.
It’s presumed that the small amphibians have either remained on the islands before the tectonic shift, could have crossed the land bridge during lower sea levels of the Caribbean or some have somehow drifted across the wild waters. It can only be theorized as to how they got where they are today, but it’s quite clear that their start point was far from their endgame.
The Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae salamander had the trademark back and front legs of today’s specimens, but lacked the proper distinctive separation between toes, which were almost fully completed with webbing. They only featured tiny bumps that might have led to the cause of death, as it was likely not the most proficient climber and was an easy target for predators.
Image source: anoleannals.org