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June 12, 2007
Tiny, Winged Lizard Unearthed from Quarry

Press Release: Roanoke Times

By Ruth L. Tisdale

An artist's interpretation of Mecistotrachelos apeoros is based on fossils found six years ago in Pittsylvania County

Nicholas Fraser almost missed it.

After digging at the Solite Quarry near the Virginia-North Carolina border for several years, Fraser almost threw away the fossil bones of the only known long-necked gliding reptile in the world.

"I thought it was the bones of a fish tail," Fraser said. "When I went back through the notes I had gathered, I looked at it again and noticed a little head. I knew we had something then."

Fraser's work is featured in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and the fossils will go on display at the Virginia Museum of Natural History beginning next month.

The fossil is that of a small, long-necked, insect-eating reptile that lived 250 million years ago and became extinct 50 million years later, along with the dinosaurs.

With a head an inch in length and a neck 2 inches long, Fraser said, the creature called Mecistotrachelos apeoros might be the ancestor of the extinct species Tanystropheus, an animal with a 6-foot-long neck whose fossil remains were found in Sweden.

Because the Earth's continents were connected at the time of dinosaurs, Fraser said, it is possible the animal could have reached North America from faraway places.

"It's a really bizarre species," Fraser said. "It's not related to any other species from the dinosaur period. We are still finding out information."

The Solite Quarry site, in Pittsylvania County, was made famous in 1975 when paleontologist Paul Olsen discovered insect fossils there from the Triassic period, Fraser said.

"This was the first of its kind because it came from the period when dinosaurs lived," Fraser said.

Paleontologists eventually left the site, but to Fraser it was a scientific gem.

"I came to the museum just to excavate this site," he said. "A lot of people overlooked the significance of this site, but we've made a lot of strides since I've been here."

With a grant from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic, Fraser said he and his team were able to find the fossil six years ago.

Classifying the reptile fossil was difficult, he said, because of its fragility as well as its placement in the rock, said Alton Dooley of the museum.

"The bone and the rock were the same color, so we couldn't use traditional methods," Dooley said. "If we were to attempt to take the bone out, it would have broken and we would have lost the fossil."

Dooley said the museum decided to use CT scanning, a medical imaging technology, to reveal the fossil in the rock -- an unusual technique in paleontology.

"This is probably one of the first times this method has been used," Dooley said. "Its success will allow us to be able to use it in the future."

Dooley said the discovery has put the museum back on the map in the science world.

"We were already a name people knew of, but this gives us additional recognition," he said.

Dooley said he and his team would continue to excavate the site in hopes of finding additional creatures.

"It's just what we do here."