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Science

Paleontologists uncover 300 million-year-old reptile skeleton in central Germany

Scientists have discovered the well-preserved fossil of a primitive reptile at the Bromacker Quarry in the heart of Germany's Thuringian Forest. The find dates back to the Permian period, well before the dinosaurs.

Thomas Martens

Thomas Martens unveils the find from Thueringia.

An old sandstone quarry in central Germany has yielded another significant paleontological find: the skeleton of a 60-centimeter primitive reptile some 300 million years old.

The fossil was unearthed on August 4 at the Bromacker Quarry near the town of Tambach-Dietharz, where scientists have been organizing annual digs since 1993.

Thomas Martens, a paleontologist from the Nature Museum in Gotha, Germany, and a member of the excavation team, said the group found what they hope is a complete skeleton.

"When we find these things, we don't know if it's the whole or partial skeleton," he told Deutsche Welle. "But we saw parts of limbs and vertebrae in an articulation – meaning the bones are still together."

Scientists have yet to determine whether their newest find constitutes a new species of primitive reptile.

The 2010 excavation brought together scientists from Europe and the United States, including paleontologists from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh (USA), California State University San Bernardino (USA), and Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia.

60-centimeter primitive reptile fossil

The primitive reptile fossil is estimated to be approximately 300 million-years-old.

From field to fossil prep

The team is still waiting to transport the skeleton overseas to Pittsburgh in order to extract the fossil. Until then, scientists will have to wait to categorize their latest find.

"We really won't know until we prepare the fossil," said Amy Henrici, collection manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pennsylvania and one of the paleontologists responsible for the preparation work.

Based on what the team saw in the field, Henrici told Deutsche Welle that the specimen is thought to be from the order pelycosaur. "This is the group of animals that eventually gave rise to mammals," she said.

Though discoveries of that order are rare at the Bromacker site, the new animal is thought to look something like the pelycosaur dimetrodon, a predatory reptile featuring a sail-like back.

"It's a big, stocky, sort of Komodo dragon-like animal," Henrici said. The team hopes the new skeleton includes a skull – something missing from two pelycosaur specimens unearthed during previous digs.

Since work started at the Bromacker Quarry 18 years ago, researchers have discovered a range of well-preserved fossils at the location. "We're finding complete animals with all their toes and wrists and ankle bones - which is very unusual," she said.

Specimens found at the site in central Germany date back to the early Permian period, more than 250 million years ago.

Amy Henrici

Amy Henrici says scientists suspect the fossil is from the order pelycosaur, the group that later gave rise to mammals.

The Pangaea connection

The Bromacker discoveries have also shed new light on the origin of the continents, and the existence of the single super-continent Pangaea some 300 million year ago. Paleontologists have discovered similar fossils in both Bromacker Quarry and the southwestern United States, such as the tetrapod species Seymouria sanjuanensis .

Henrici noted the first evidence for Pangaea's existence was based on rock types and plant fossils, but the Permian reptiles found in Germany add a new dimension: "The Bromacker provides the first good vertebrate evidence," she said.

Despite the super-continent connection, the excavations in central Germany have yielded species some 10 million years older than those unearthed in North America. Moreover, the specimens uncovered so far do not constitute the oldest terrestrial reptiles on earth, though Martens described them as "near the root of this family tree."

Scientists' latest find is, however, unrelated to the dinosaurs - the species found at the Bromacker Quarry predates its Mesozoic era counterparts by tens of millions of years.

Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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