Soft tissue rarely fossilizes, but the special conditions at American Cave served as “strong waters” to preserve this skin, says Gilly Romer, a professor emeritus of paleontology who was not involved in the research. “This gives you insight into taphonomy, the science of fossilization.”
Researchers, including from the University of Toronto, suspect that an unusual interaction between the oil spill, hydrocarbons and tar slowed the decomposition process in the cave so much that a piece of skin – the size of a fingernail – remains untouched to this day. He perished. The new discovery is at least 21 million years older than the previous “world’s oldest skin” record holder.
The researchers wrote that the animal to which this skin belonged may have fallen into the cave and died there. Since no skeleton or other remains were found besides the skin, it is unclear exactly what type of animal this was. The skin has the characteristics of ancient and ancient reptiles. The surface closely resembles the grainy skin of a crocodile, and the deeper structures resemble those of wormy snakes and lizards.
Roemer says this discovery confirms the assumption that animals had scales at that time. He spontaneously gave a short lecture: “Amniotes, animals that lay shell-shaped eggs, evolved about 320 million years ago. Because of the shell surrounding their eggs, these animals did not have to return to the water to lay their eggs, which provided them with an evolutionary advantage. At the same time, this carried the risk of dehydration, which meant that individuals with well-protected skin survived and reproduced. This is how wild animals slowly developed tough, scaly skin.
“It doesn't surprise me that the existing skin has scales,” Romer says. “But they're beautiful fossils. It's amazing that this has remained beautiful for so long.”
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