Fossils of Ancient Snakes Discovered

Posted on January 28, 2015

Scientists have found fossils of the oldest known snakes. The find pushes the snake evolution clock back about 70 million years. The newly discovered fossils of four species of ancient snakes are 140 to 167 million years old.

The ancient snake fossils were discovered by an international team of researchers. The fossil of the oldest known snake, Eophis underwoodi was discovered in an area near Kirtlington in Southern England. It was about ten inches long. The find indicates snakes were present during the age of the dinosaurs during the Middle Jurassic to Lower Cretaceous. They likely ate dinosaur eggs. A more recent fossil discovered in 2010 provided clear indication that snakes ate dinosaur eggs.

University of Alberta professor Michael Caldwell, the lead author of the study, notes that the new discoveries create a gap in snake fossil history. Caldwell says, "The study explores the idea that evolution within the group called ‘snakes’ is much more complex than previously thought. 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."

The snakes pictured in the artist's interpretation above include Portugalophis lignites (top left), Diablophis gilmorei (top right) and Parviraptor estesi (bottom center). Portugalophis lignites was found in Portugal and Diablophis gilmorei was found in western Colorado. The fossil of Parviraptor estesi was found in in Swanage, England. The researchers say the ancient snakes share some features with modern snakes and with lizards.

A research paper on the ancient snakes can be found here in the journal, Nature Communications. Here is a video providing a rotating view of the lower jaw bone of Portugalophis lignites.

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