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06/05/2013

Giant ancient lizard named after the Doors' Jim Morrison

Lizardking

An artist's rendering of Barbaturex morrisoni. (IMAGE CREDIT: Angie Fox, Nebraska State Museum of Natural History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

There's only one extinct ancient lizard who can conceivably boast that his mojo is rising, and that lizard's name is Barbaturex morrisoni.

Barbaturex was 60 pounds and nearly six feet long when it roamed the Earth -- 40 million years ago. Given that the animal was a king of lizards, the paleontologist who helped discover it wanted to name it after another Lizard King, Jim Morrison.

"I was listening to The Doors quite a bit during the research," said Jason Head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in a news release on the school's website. Head lead the research team that described the animal. "Some of their musical imagery includes reptiles and ancient places, and Jim Morrison was of course 'The Lizard King,' so it all kind of came together."

Barbaturex (which means bearded king) morrisoni (the meaning of which should be obvious by now) lived during a global hothouse period during the Eocene, when the Earth was covered with lush tropical forests and there were no polar ice caps. 

The lizard was so big that it would have outsized most of the mammals it lived with, according to the university. But it itself was an herbivore.

That suggests it was the warm climate that allowed Barbaturex to grow so big with no competition from mammals. Most modern-day lizards are much smaller, and the gigantic ones, like Komodo dragons, live on inacessible islands with not a lot of predator competition. 

The fossil was discovered in modern-day Burma in the 1970s, but wasn't studied until Head and his team began looking at it.

 "I thought, 'That's neat. Based on its teeth, it's a plant-eating lizard from a time period and a place from which we don't have a lot of information.' But when I started studying its modern relatives, I realized just how big this lizard was. It struck me that we had something here that was quite large -- and unique," he said.

The jaw of the fossil was also ridged on its underside, suggesting it might have supported the kind of bearding seen on some modern-day lizards. 

The scientists did not discuss whether the ancient lizard's beard or the late Jim Morrison's luscious mane would reign supreme in a battle between lizard-kingly follicles.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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