Published: Sun, July 22, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Snake entombed in amber offers insights into early serpent evolution

Snake entombed in amber offers insights into early serpent evolution

"No one has ever seen a fossilized baby snake of any kind whatsoever. And that goes back nearly 100 million years - just incredible", says one of the authors unique finds Michael Caldwell, an expert on fossil reptiles at the University of Alberta, Canada.

The snake is perfectly preserved. The fossil, which is the first of its kind, is around two inches in length and has 97 vertebrae.

Using CT scans, the scientific team studied the amber fossil and compared it with modern snakes' embryos.

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

"Although found in the northern hemisphere, it strongly resembles South American snakes that lived at the time".

"Whether or not these early snakes were giving live birth, which is common in modern snakes, or whether they were hatching from eggs, is unclear", said Caldwell to National Geographic. Based on the numerous anatomical features that are intact, including vertebrae and some soft tissue, the team describes it as either embryonic or newborn, and comparable in size to a modern southeast Asian pipe snake (Cylindrophis ruffus) of the same age.

Both pieces of amber were given to researchers after collection - a different route to the lab than, say, an official paleontological expedition discovering the amber in situ and digging it out directly.

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Light photographs of probable snake shed skin: (A) overall view of the complete specimen; scale bar - 5 mm; (B) close-up of the left portion of the specimen showing converging scale rows (center top); scale bar - 1 mm; (C) close-up of the right mid-region of the specimen; scale bar - 1 mm.

Other organic debris trapped in the amber alongside the baby snake proved to be less exciting than the skeleton and skin, but it still offered valuable details about the ancient snake's habitat, Caldwell said in the email. Before this finding, paleontologists had not uncovered a fossilized baby snake even in the rock fossil record, said Caldwell.

While many Cretaceous fossils have turned up at Myanmar over the years - including that of the "paragliding" beetle named after Jason and the Argonauts from Greek mythology, as reported by the Inquisitr last month - it was only recently that archeologists began uncovering vertebrate fossils preserved in amber, study co-author Michael Caldwell told Live Science.

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When the specimen was first found, the creature inside was thought to be a centipede or a millipede because the head was missing. Among lizards, birds and insects, it was soon discovered that snakes also inhabited the tropical forests of Cretaceous Myanmar.

Paleontologists from Canada's University of Alberta led the study into the snake embryo, which involved an global team of researchers.

"We should certainly keep looking, not only in amber, but also in Mongolia and other places that relatives of Xiaophis could have then reached overland".

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The skeletal remains from the Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchling trapped in amber.

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