For the first time ever, scientists discovered an ancient snake embryo contained in 105-million-year-old amber. The discovery reveals important information on the evolution of modern snakes.
“This snake is linked to ancient snakes from Argentina, Africa, India and Australia,” said paleontologist Michael Caldwell, lead author of the study and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “It is an important—and until now, missing—component of understanding snake evolution from southern continents, that is Gondwana, in the mid-Mesozoic.”
Caldwell and his team, which includes researchers from China, Australia, and the United States, tracked the migration of the ancient Gondwanan snakes all the way back to 180 million years ago when they were transported by tectonic movements created by continents and their parts.
The team also gained information from the amber fragment that encased the specimen.
“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,” Caldwell said. “Not only do we have the first baby snake, we also have the first definitive evidence of a fossil snake living in a forest.”
The team used computerized tomography (CT) scans to study the ancient snake and compare it with the children of modern snakes, shedding light on the embryology and development of the ancient specimen.
“All of these data 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,” Caldwell said. “There is a great deal of new information preserved in this new fossilized baby snake.”
The findings were published in Science Advances.