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Researchers name ancient lizard after President Obama

President Barack Obama, who recently defeated Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, can add another item to his list of honors and awards: Yale and Harvard researchers have named an ancient lizard after the commander-in-chief.

According to a YaleNEWS release, a lot of lizards, including a newly discovered one named Obamadon gracilis, were killed off with the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. This lizard and many other snake and lizard species were killed off by an asteroid collision that is also thought to have led to the demise of dinosaurs.

“The asteroid event is typically thought of as affecting the dinosaurs primarily,” said lead author Nicholas R. Longrich, a postdoctoral associate with Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, in a statement. “But it basically cut this broad swath across the entire ecosystem, taking out everything. Snakes and lizards were hit extremely hard.”

This is not the first study to suggest that some snake and lizard species went extinct after the asteroid collided with the Earth on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula millions of years ago. This study, however, makes the case that the consequences of the asteroid’s impact were far worse for snakes and lizards than scientists previously thought. In fact, researchers suspect that up to 83 percent of all snake and lizard species were killed off (the larger the species, the more likely it was to become extinct).

The researchers have based their conclusions on a careful study of previously collected snake and lizard fossils found in a territory in western North America touching everything from New Mexico to Alberta, Canada. They looked at 21 previously known species and also identified nine new lizards and snakes.

The researchers discovered that a surprisingly diverse range of reptile species existed in the final days of the dinosaurs. They found tiny lizards, a snake that could eat the eggs of young dinosaur species and iguana-like planet-eating lizards in the southwest. They also found meat-eating lizards that foraged through territory that is now Montana.

“Lizards and snakes rivaled the dinosaurs in terms of diversity, making it just as much an ‘Age of Lizards’ as an ‘Age of Dinosaurs,'” Mr. Longrich said.

The researchers discovered that many of these reptiles represented ancient lizard and snake families that vanished at the end of the Cretaceous, after the asteroid collision.

Polyglyphanodontia, one of the more diverse lizard branches, was completely killed off even though this category accounted for as many as 40 percent of all lizards then residing in North America. During their reassessment of previously collected fossils, researchers discovered Obamadon gracilis. Odon means “tooth” and gracilis means “slender.”

“It is a small polyglyphanodontian distinguished by tall, slender teeth with large central cusps separated from small accessory cusps by lingual grooves,” the researchers write when describing Obamadon. Researchers posit that this ancient lizard was less than one foot long and probably feasted on insects.

According to researchers, people should not assume any political motivation to name the ancient lizard after President Obama. “We’re just having fun with taxonomy,” the researchers write.

Today’s snakes and lizards are the result of the evolution and diversification of the survivors of the mass extinction.

“They didn’t win because they were better adapted, they basically won by default, because all their competitors were eliminated,” Mr. Longrich said.

“One of the most important innovations in this work is that we were able to precisely reconstruct the relationships of extinct reptiles from very fragmentary jaw material,” said co-author Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, a doctoral student in organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, in a statement. “This had tacitly been thought impossible for creatures other than mammals. Our study then becomes the pilot for a wave of inquiry using neglected fossils and underscores the importance of museums like the Yale Peabody as archives of primary data on evolution — data that yield richer insights with each new era of scientific investigation.”

This is certainly not President Obama’s first honor since entering the Oval Office four years ago. After defeating Arizona Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, Mr. Obama was named Time’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine. The president was also honored with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the third sitting U.S. president to win the prize.

This is also not the first creature to be named after President Obama. Boing Boing reports that the president already has a lichen (Caloplaca obamae) and a worm (Paragordius obamai) named after him. If this trend continues, it will be interesting to see what other species are named after the president during his second term in office.

The study’s findings are described in detail in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.