June 21 (UPI) -- Scientists have identified a new species of ancient marine lizard that lived 75 million years ago.
Paleontologists found the lizard's remarkably well-preserved remains in Italy. The fossil featured preserved muscle and skin.
Scientists found the remains in Puglia in what was once a shallow marine environment. They named the new species, Primitivus manduriensis, after a local red wine grape variety, primitivo, grown in Manduria.
Because the deceased lizard was quickly buried in marine sediment, its carcass wasn't accessible to predators, allowing scientists to study the specimen's scales, muscle and skin 75 million years later.
"There need to be very special conditions for soft tissue to be preserved on a fossil," Ilaria Paparella, a PhD student at the University of Alberta in Canada, said in a news release. "The location where the Primitivus manduriensis was found has a great deal of potential. We hope to get permits from the Italian authorities to conduct further fieldwork."
The well-preserved tissue helped scientists classify the new species. The species appearance in the Late Cretaceous strata suggests the slender semi-aquatic lizards emerged at least 15 million years earlier than previously thought.
"This was the first time I've ever had the opportunity to look at the complete picture of a beautifully preserved specimen, right down to the scales," Paparella said. "For living species, scientists use scale patterns and skin for identification. It was unique to be using these techniques to look at a specimen that died 70 million years ago."
Primitivus manduriensis is most closely related to snakes and mosasaurs, an extinct group of large marine reptiles.
"(The marine lizards) are essentially small, long-bodied animals that look like regular lizards with longer necks and tails," Paparella said. "They have paddle-like hands and feet for swimming but could also move on land."
Paparella and her research partners described the lizard this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.