New fossils reveal snakes are older than we thought

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Fossilized remains of four ancient snakes that are at least 140 million years old reveal that the serpents have been slithering around the Earth for far longer than experts had realized, according to new research published online Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The oldest of the fossils, which was found in a quarry in southern England, belonged to a roughly 10-inch long reptile known as Eophis underwoodi, Reuters explained. The remains are about 167 million years old, or some 65 million years older than what had been the oldest snake ever discovered, according to University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell.

Other fossils found in  Portugal and the US also predated the 102 million year old specimen that had been the oldest snake fossil ever discovered, dramatically altering existing notions about the origins of these creatures in the scientific community, the news organization added.

“The study explores the idea that evolution within the group called ‘snakes’ is much more complex than previously thought,” Caldwell, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Importantly, there is now a significant knowledge gap to be bridged by future research, as no fossils snakes are known from between 140 to 100 million years ago.”

While Eophis underwoodi is the oldest, it was identified only from fragmented remains and was described by the researchers as a small individual, though it is unclear how old it was when it died. The largest, Portugalophis lignites, was approximately one meter long and was recovered from coal deposits near Guimarota in Portugal, while others were found in swampy coastal areas on large island chains in western parts of ancient Europe.

Scientists have previously stated that snakes evolved from lizards, and many fossils discovered recently were of primitive snakes with small back legs. The newly discovered remains appeared to have some form of reduced forelimbs and hind limbs, Caldwell told Reuters. However, those remains were likely used for grasping, not walking, meaning that they did likely slither.

On the whole, the anatomy of the four snakes was described as similar to those of their modern counterparts and other fossilized serpents. Caldwell explained that the characteristic skull found in snakes probably emerged before their elongated and legless bodies. He added that none of the four were venomous, meaning that the oldest poisonous snakes remain 20 million years old.

“Based on the new evidence and through comparison to living legless lizards that are not snakes, the paper explores the novel idea that the evolution of the characteristic snake skull and its parts appeared long before snakes lost their legs,” Caldwell explained, adding that the anatomy of the snakes likely indicates that there are even older fossils of the creatures yet to be found.

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