Scientists find 99-million-year-old snake trapped in an amber tomb

Rodiano Bonacci
Luglio 19, 2018

Inside the amber, the scientists found about half of the vertebrae of an intact fetal or newborn snake - about 97 bones in all - measuring about 1.9 inches (4.8 centimeters) in length.

What is truly impressive about the discovery, however, is what the tiny fossil indicates about the trapped animal's heritage.

"This snake is linked to ancient snakes from Argentina, Africa, India and Australia."

"It is an important-and until now, missing-component of understanding snake evolution from southern continents, that is Gondwana, in the mid-Mesozoic", continued Caldwell. Researchers also compared the new fossil's bone structure to an existing database of snake fossils to see where it might fit into the evolutionary record.

However, they can't tell if the snake is the same species as the baby, or if it's something different all together.

Caldwell and his global team, including collaborators from Australia, China and the United States, have tracked the migration of these ancient Gondwanan snakes beginning 180 million years ago when they were carried by tectonic movements of continents and parts of continents, from Australia and India, to Madagascar and Africa, and finally to Asia, in modern-day India and Myanmar.

World's First Known Ancient Baby Snake Fossil Discovered Preserved in Amber
Source Ming Bai Chinese Academy of Sciences via University of Alberta

Along with the baby snake, researchers studied a second piece of amber with what appears to be a fragment of shed skin from a larger snake. "When it caught the baby snake, it caught the forest floor with the bugs, plants and bug poop - so that it is clear the snake was living in a forest".

The study also offered the first evidence that some Cretaceous-era snakes lived in forests.

Snake fossils of any kind are very rare.

The research saw the collaboration of and global team that included the China University of Geosciences, the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Midwestern University, the South Australian Museum, Flinders University, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the University of Regina, the Paleo-Dairy Museum of Natural History and the Beijing Forestry University. This makes them the earliest forest-dwelling snakes - nearly all other snakes known from the same period of the fossil record have adaptations for aquatic environments or were found in river sediments.

What they found helped "refine our understanding of early snake evolution, as 100-million-year-old snakes are known from only 20 or so relatively complete fossil snake species", said Prof Caldwell.

Now, the discovery of a baby snake in present day Myanmar is helping researchers to better understand how snakes have changed over millions and millions of years.

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