October 30, 2007—An undergraduate student digging through a collection of fossils in a Pennsylvania museum recently found beautifully preserved full-body impressions of foot-long (30-centimeter-long) salamander-like creatures that lived 330 million years ago.
The fossils, top, don't contain bones. But that's good, said Spencer Lucas, curator of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, who presented the find today at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.
That's because bones are merely skeletons. "From the cast of the body, you can see the actual shape of the body and can see what the texture of the skin was like," Lucas said in a telephone interview.
"There's never been a body impression of this kind of amphibian found before," he added.
The imprints reveal that the animal had webbed feet and that its skin was smooth, not scaly or armor-plated, as seen in an artist's depiction (bottom).
Also, the fact that two of the salamanders are aligned head-to-toe might indicate courtship behavior similar to that engaged in by modern salamanders. But "that's very speculative," Lucas said.
The fossil had been in the museum since before World War II, until David Fillmore, an undergraduate at Kutztown State University in Pennsylvania, looked at it as part of a senior research project.
"It's a classic case in point that a lot of these collections scattered around the nation have important discoveries waiting to be made in them," Lucas said.
—Richard A. Lovett
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