Researchers: Characteristic snake skull and its parts appeared long before snakes lost their legs
This new study makes it clear that the sudden appearance of snakes some 100 million years ago reflects a gap in the fossil record, not an explosive radiation of early snakes. From 167 to 100 million years ago, snakes were radiating and evolving toward the elongated, limb-reduced body shape characterizing the now well known, ~100-90 million year old, marine snakes from the West Bank, Lebanon and Argentina, that still possess small but well-developed rear limbs.
Caldwell notes that the identification of definitive snake skull features reveals that the fossils — previously associated with other non-snake lizard remains — represent a much earlier time frame for the first appearance of snakes.
“Based on the new evidence and through comparison to living legless lizards that are not snakes, the paper explores the novel idea that the evolution of the characteristic snake skull and its parts appeared long before snakes lost their legs,” he explains.
Abstract: The previous oldest known fossil snakes date from ~100 million year old sediments (Upper Cretaceous) and are both morphologically and phylogenetically diverse, indicating that snakes underwent a much earlier origin and adaptive radiation. We report here on snake fossils that extend the record backwards in time by an additional ~70 million years (Middle Jurassic-Lower Cretaceous). These ancient snakes share features with fossil and modern snakes (for example, recurved teeth with labial and lingual carinae, long toothed suborbital ramus of maxillae) and with lizards (for example, pronounced subdental shelf/gutter). The paleobiogeography of these early snakes is diverse and complex, suggesting that snakes had undergone habitat differentiation and geographic radiation by the mid-Jurassic. Phylogenetic analysis of squamates recovers these early snakes in a basal polytomy with other fossil and modern snakes, where Najash rionegrina is sister to this clade. Ingroup analysis finds them in a basal position to all other snakes including Najash.
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