University of Alberta scientists say the unique shape of the bones of the vertebrae links the 33 million-year-old African lizard fossil with its cousin the Komodo, which has only been around for some 700,000 years, a university release said Wednesday.
Biologist Rob Holmes says the African vertebrae fossils belonged to a lizard whose ability to swim may be why 30 million years later its ancestors turned up on the other side of the world.
The ancient African Varanus specimen was found on land that was once the bottom of a river or small lake, Holmes said.
"Whether the animals lived in the water or surrounding land, we don't know, but we do know that some modern-day species of Varanus are comfortable swimming in fresh water," he says.
Freshwater swimming wouldn't get the African lizard all the way to Indonesia, researchers admit.
"From about 100 million years ago until 12 million years ago, Africa was completely isolated, surrounded by ocean, but somehow they got out of Africa during that period," said biologist Alison Murray.
One unproven theory of how Varanus moved out of Africa is that over millions of years, small land masses or micro-plates may have moved from one place to another, carrying their fauna with them across the globe, he said.