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June 19, 2007
Museum Scientist Discovers Fossils of Unknown Reptile Tuesday, June 19, 2007

By SHAWN HOPKINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

A Virginia Museum of History scientist has discovered fossils of a long-necked, gliding reptile that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

According to a press release and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Dr. Nick Fraser, director of research and collections and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Martinsville museum, found two fossils of the reptile in a 220-million-year-old sediment layer in the Solite Quarry in Saltville, straddling the Virginia-North Carolina line.

According to the press release, Fraser said that although similar extinct gliding reptiles have been found, they have had much shorter necks and look more like modern gliding lizards.

"One of the really neat things about the new glider is the feet. They are preserved in a hooked posture, which is unusual and strongly suggests a grasping habit, further emphasizing a lifestyle in the trees," Fraser said in the press release.

The lizard probably fed on insects while it climbed trees and glided from tree to tree, the release said.

According to the release, Fraser said the reptile, named Mecistotrachelos apeoros (which means "soaring, long-necked"), probably is related to a group of extinct reptiles called the protosaurs, which also had long necks.

The fossils Fraser discovered were not prepared by standard mechanical methods because of the nature of the sediments involved. Instead, the descriptions come from CT scans, a technique rarely used to describe new species, the release said.

The work on the scanning was led by Tim Ryan of the Center for Quantitative Imaging at Pennsylvania State University.

"This is a really cool little reptile which was very difficult to see until we looked at the CT scans," Ryan said in the release.

The other authors of the article announcing the discovery are Alton Dooley, also of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and Paul Olsen of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, who discovered the Solite Quarry site more than 30 years ago.

The ongoing excavations at the quarry by the Virginia Museum of Natural History have been supported by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. National Science Foundation, the release said.

Fraser could not be reached for comment Monday.