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Ancient lizard that died out with the dinosaurs named after Obama

Carl Buell

In this artist's conception, the carnivorous lizard Palaeosaniwa stalks a pair of hatchling Edmontosaurus dinosaurs as the snake Cerberophis looks on from above, and the lizard Obamadon watches from below. Meanwhile, in the background, a Tyrannosaurus rex encounters a Triceratops troop while an asteroid streaks down to Earth.

The mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago also did in lots of lizards — including a newly identified creature that's been named Obamadon gracilis in honor of President Barack Obama.

Obama already has a type of fish (Ethiostoma obama) and lichen (Caloplaca obamae) named after him, and now the recently re-elected leader of the free world can add a foot-long, slender-toothed casualty of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction to the list.

Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich, the lead author of a paper announcing the find in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told me that the name arose from a conversation he had with a friend in late 2008, when folks were wondering how Obama's election would change the political scene.

"I said, yeah, we should name a dinosaur after him," Longrich said. "It was sort of a smart-ass comment."

But the idea stuck. After all, this is the guy who named a different fossil "Mojoceratops."

"It was catchy, and it seemed like a fun thing to do," he said.

There's a serious point behind the paper, of course: Longrich and his colleagues analyzed at fossils representing 30 different types of snakes and lizards, previously collected from locales in western North America ranging from New Mexico to Alberta. Nine of the species, including Obamadon, were previously unrecognized.

"Lizards and snakes rivaled the dinosaurs in terms of diversity, making it just as much an 'Age of Lizards' as an 'Age of Dinosaurs,'" Longrich said in a Yale news release.

Previous studies had suggested that some snake and lizard species went extinct, along with the dinosaurs and many types of mammals, birds, insects and plants. The extinction was presumably due to a catastrophic asteroid strike on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The new survey suggests that snakes and lizards were hit much harder than previously thought. Longrich and his colleagues estimate that up to 83 percent of all snake and lizard species were killed off. The bigger the creature, the more likely it was to become extinct: The researchers concluded that no species weighing more than a pound survived.

Obamadon was part of a group of creatures known as polyglyphanodonts, which accounted for up to 40 percent of the lizards living in North America before the extinction. Obama's namesake was identified on the basis of jaw fossils from Montana's Hell Creek Formation, with "tall, slender teeth with large central cusps separated from small accessory cusps by lingual grooves."

The lizard was less than a foot long and probably caught insects in its teeth, Longrich said.

The discovery of Obamadon just goes to show how new discoveries can come from old specimens — including fossils that were collected years ago, by paleontologists who were focusing dinosaurs or early mammals rather than snakes or lizards. "There hasn't been a heck of a lot of interest in these specimens," Longrich said. "Here we have all this data that's there, waiting to be studied."

Two of the newly recognized fossil species don't yet have scientific names, but when it comes time for the naming, rest assured that Longrich won't come up with anything too wild and crazy.

"We decided not to do the Hitlerosaurus," he said.

More about celebrity species:

In addition to Longrich, the authors of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "Mass Extinction of Lizards and Snakes at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary," include Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and Jacques A. Gauthier. Longrich says the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary is a more recent term that applies to the mass extinction also known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.