Unique Lizard Species Named for MSU Botanist

A new species of a legless lizard fossil found at Midwestern State University's Dalquest Desert Research Station (DDRS) has been named in honor of Texas and an MSU botanist. The "Lone Star" lizard's official name is Solastella cookei — the species name in honor of Biology Chair Dr. William Cook. Solastella is a Latinized form of "lone star."

The DDRS near the Big Bend area of West Texas has been a rich resource of fossils and scientific data for researchers not only from MSU but from other universities as well. Solastella was found by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences. Dr. Christopher Kirk, Professor of Anthropology at UT, has conducted paleontological fieldwork in the Devil's Graveyard Formation on the Dalquest site since 2005.

Cook was surprised to find out about his namesake lizard - he learned of the tribute the day before the findings were published. Although he was pleased to learn the new species carried his name, he was even more honored that it was Kirk who named it. "He is an energetic researcher and the naming means even more to me because of his merit as a scientist," Cook said. Kirk was consulted when the Joe B. Hood Research Laboratory, a field station on the DDRS land, was in the planning stages.

The DDRS land was a gift to MSU from the late Dr. Walter Dalquest and his wife Rose in 1996, with the restriction that it be used only for scientific research by biologists and geologists. Dr. Norman Horner, Director of Natural Laboratories at MSU, said that the site has some of the best early primate fossils of anywhere in the world. "That area of Texas was tropical and a prime habitat for the early development of primates 45-50 million years ago," he said.

The primate fossils Diablomomys dalquesti and Mescalerolemur horneri were named in honor of the Dalquests and Horner. Diablo refers to the Devil's Graveyard Formation and Omomys, a closely-related fossil primate. Mescalerolemur is derived from the Mescalero Apache Indians that were in the area and a primitive lemur. The species name honors Horner because of his assistance in allowing Kirk to work at the DDRS.

Horner said that the scientific naming, genus and species, of animals is based on a set of rules governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The genus name is unique and not used but once, but species names are often used multiple times.

According to a press release from The University of Texas, worm lizard is the common name for a group of reptiles called amphisbaenians, whose long bodies and reduced or absent limbs give them an earthworm-like appearance. The group includes extinct species as well as ones still living today. Solastella belonged to a subgroup called Rhineuridae, a group with only one living member ù the Florida worm lizard.

The presence of a variety of primate fossils in the same formation as Solastella also supports the idea that Texas was a refuge in a cooling climate, Kirk said.

A paper describing the new species was published in February in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. "Nothing has been called Solastella before, which is amazing to me because there are so many fossils from Texas. It's the one guy, and it's from the Lone Star State, so it just seemed to fit," said Michelle Stocker, a paleontologist who described the extinct reptile while earning her Ph.D. at UT. She is now a research scientist at Virginia Tech.

The study was funded by The University of Texas at Austin, the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.