Fossils species are named after all sorts of things. Some titles say something about an essential trait of the animal. Others are references to rock stars. Some mean nothing at all. In the case of a Cretaceous lizard recently uncovered in Italy, the inspiration was wine.

Primitivus manduriensis, named after Primitivo di Manduria wine made in the region of Italy the reptile was recovered in, is a sinuous surprise. The nearly-complete skeleton is not only articulated, but also retains fossilized remnants of the lizard's muscles, cartilage, skin, and gut contents. As for as Cretaceous time capsules go, Primitivus is more detailed than most.

In the broader evolutionary picture, paleontologist Ilaria Paparella and colleagues write, Primitivus is a marine reptile belonging to a broader group called dolichosaurids. As you might guess from the reptile's somewhat lanky look, dolichosaurids are distant relatives of mosasaurs and snakes. 

But part of what makes Primitivus stand out - and why the genus name sticks - is because this reptile looks relatively archaic for its time and place. Dolichosaurids were thought to have gone extinct about 10 million years earlier, so, Paparella and coauthors suggest, the roughly 72 million-year-old Primitivus is a relict that represents a form of lizard that survived on the sidelines while its mosasaur cousins were ruling the aquatic realm. This also means that there have to be other, as-yet-unrecognized dolichosaurids out there awaiting discovery. Perhaps there will be enough to fill a wine cellar's-worth.

Name: Primitivus manduriensis

Meaning: The full name is a reference to a wine made near where the fossil was found, Primitivo di Manduria. 

Age: Cretaceous, about 72 million years old.

Where in the world?: Puglia, Italy.

What sort of organism?: A lizard belonging to a larger group called dolichosaurids and distantly related to mosasaurs and snakes.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A partial skeleton.


Paparella, I., Palci, A., Nicosia, U., Caldwell, M. 2018. A new fossil marine lizard with soft tissues from the Late Cretaceous of southern Italy. Royal Society Open Science. doi: 10.1098/rsos.172411

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