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First Prehistoric Snake Slithered Out on Land–Not at Sea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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snake lizard fossil jaw evolve land

Lizard jaw, Coniophis jaw and a snake jaw; courtesy of Nick Longrich

Sorry, sea serpents. Snakes, it seems, slithered off their lizard legs on land. A new analysis of a primitive snake fossil suggests that these animals emerged from a line of burrowing reptiles.

Snakes are in the same reptilian order that includes lizards, but just how and where they split off to live their legless lives has been a bit of a mystery. Transitional fossils showing the move from four-legged lizard to belly-crawling snake have remained scarce. However, that the jawbones of a Cretaceous snake from North America suggest that it might be the earliest snake on record. And this serpent was terrestrial, clearing up decades of debate about whether snakes evolved for swimming or slithering, researchers reported online July 25 in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

The first known example of the snake in question, Coniophis precedens, was collected in eastern Wyoming and described from a single vertebra in 1892. In the 120 years since, additional vertebrae and jaw bones from the species ” have been collected but never described,” wrote the researchers, led by Nicholas Longrich, of Yale University’s geology and geophysics department. Their analysis shows that the 70 million-year-old specimen is probably the most primitive known snake—and a sister line to the nearly 3,000  snake species that exist today.

The early snake had slightly hooked teeth and a relatively flexible jaw joint, but much of the overall shape was still similar to a lizard. Its long slender body measured about 70 centimeters from snout to the base of its tail. In sum, it combined “a snake-like body with a lizard-like head,” the researchers noted, which could have provided advantages for burrowing—and eating. (There are some legless lizards, but they have a slightly different skeletal structure and other distinctive lizard features.) Earlier research suggested that the first snakes might have been best adapted to feed on insects and other invertebrates. But the teeth and jaws of C. precedens suggests that it was “suited to piercing and holding soft-bodied prey,” specifically small vertebrates.

This proto-snake likely lived in a floodplain area and “lacks adaptations for aquatic locomotion,” the researchers noted. Instead, its vertebrae and the shape of its jaw suggest a life accustomed to burrowing, with time spent aboveground hunting for prey. Even ancient sea-faring snakes such as Simoliophiidae likely evolved from lines similar to this early landlubber.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. babby 3:07 pm 07/27/2012

    Wonder what kind of snake it was that lured Eve down the garden path ?!?! (Sorry, I couldn’t help that; I just got off the Scientology website & am still in a silly mood.

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  2. 2. chy12 9:32 pm 07/31/2012

    Burberry USA, the German people were very fond of soccer, even though sports were not popular at all. Their love to football was out of our imagination. Consequently, a good pair of soccer shoes became almost all the German people’s dreams. They had a keen business sense even when they were only children, and the Dassler brothers began to study again in the factory and design football shoes at once. The very simple design may seem outdated today, but at the time they were totally new and advanced design. Several years later, the brothers built a bigger shoes factory and began to sell to the whole Germany. The new factory was named as Adidas Factory which was the predecessor of today’s famous Adidas.

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