A team of National Park Services interns working in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park have unearthed the remains of a 220 million year old reptile that had eagerly sought after. Known as the Skybalonyx skapter, this burrowing "anteater-like reptile" had evaded scientists for a long time until the team found the fossilized remains in the so called "Thunderstorm Ridge." Xavier Jenkins, a Idaho State University PhD student who was credited with the Skybalonyx's discovery, said that the animal lived in a region once teeming with life during the Triassic Period some 220 million years ago.
Previously thought to only live in trees, the Skybalonyx skapter, which in Greek means "dung-claw digger" has been described by the University of California Museum of Paleontology as "seemingly drawn at random from evolution's spare parts box," with bird-like beaks and tails punctuated with a claw, almost too oddly fantastical to be real. The Skybalonyx skapter belongs to the genus Drepanosaur, often considered the ugly duckling of reptiles for their similarity to the modern day birds.
"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. In its prime, the area was likely a "swamp-like" environment with rivers and lakes that attracted species of all kinds -- including, it seems, the typically tree-dwelling drepanosaur.
"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.
"These prehistoric ecosystems are not as alien as once thought, and are ... eerily familiar in composition to those of today," Jenkins said.