Oldest Fossil of a Baby Snake Discovered Trapped in Amber Tomb

Federico Mansilla
Julio 19, 2018

Based on dating of the volcanic rock in which the amber was preserved prior to collection, the team estimates the snake specimens are 98.8 million years old, give or take a couple hundred thousand years.

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.

"We present the first known fossilized snake embryo/neonate preserved in early Late Cretaceous (Early Cenomanian) amber from Myanmar, which at the time, was an island arc including terranes from Austral Gondwana", states the paper's introduction.

"Even though it is a baby, there are very unique features of the top of the vertebrae that have never been seen before in other fossil snakes of a similar kind", he said.

Furthermore, the amber fragment the snake was found in was also useful to the scientists. At almost 100 million years old, the baby snake's remains provide researchers with significant new information about the animals' development and global distribution. According to the researchers, it was luck this one was actually caught in amber.

This was the same time that hulking beasts like the Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Spinosaurus were dominating the planet, and this newly-discovered juvenile snake would have seemed incredibly tiny by comparison.

The snake lived in what is now Myanmar, during the age of the dinosaurs. "Not only do we have the first baby snake, we also have the first definitive evidence of a fossil snake living in a forest".

Oldest Fossil of a Baby Snake Discovered Trapped in Amber Tomb
Oldest Fossil of a Baby Snake Discovered Trapped in Amber Tomb

The chunk of amber holds two remarkable fossils: the tiny hatchling and a scrap of shed skin thought to belong to a larger snake.

The snake's body can be seen inside the chunk of amber, made up of 97 vertebrae plus attached ribs.

Scientists found that the mechanism through which snakes develop their spinal bones has changed very little over millions of years. Instead, it met a sticky end in a patch of resin that eventually formed the wee snake's amber tomb.

Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchlings shown emerging from their eggs on the forest floor 100 million years ago.

"It is clear that this little snake was living in a forested environment with numerous insects and plants, as these are preserved in the clast", explained Caldwell. 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.

The findings were published online today (July 18) in the journal Science Advances.

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