Fossil Find Indicates Venomous Snakes Were in Africa as Early as 25 Million Years Ago

Posted on March 20, 2014

oldest fossil evidence of an elapid snake


This fossil of a snake vertebrate found by Ohio University scientists indicates elapid snakes were in Africa as early as 25 million years ago. Elapid snakes are venomous snakes that include cobras, kraits and sea snakes. They belong to a larger group of snakes known as colubroids. Jacob McCartney, a postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, is the leader author of the study.

McCartney says in a statement, "In the Oligocene epoch, from about 34 to 23 million years ago, we would have expected to see a fauna dominated by booid snakes, such as boas and pythons. These are generally 'sit and wait' constricting predators that hide and ambush passing prey."

The newly discovered species has been named Rukwanyoka holmani. The name is a combination of the Rukwa region name with the Swahili word for snake. The snake is also named in honor of paleontologist J. Alan Holman.

The researrchers were surprised to discover the ancient fauna revealed more colubroids than booids. The researchers say this higher-than-expected concentration of colubroid snakes suggests the local environment became more open and seasonally dry. This meant it would be more hospitable to snakes that don't require cover to hide and ambush prey.

A research paper, "The Earliest Colubroid-Dominated Snake Fauna from Africa: Perspectives from the Late Oligocene Nsungwe Formation of Southwestern Tanzania," was published here in PLoS One. Eight different types of fossil snakes - five colubroid and three booid - are described in the research paper.

Photo: Jacob McCartney, Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine