A hundred million years ago, our planet was dominated by dinosaurs, lizards, birds, and insects roamed the land of Myanmar.
Recently, scientists have discovered the first ever fossilized baby snake, preserved in amber located in this ancient forest.
“It’s spectacular to have a baby snake in the fossil record because, of course, they’d be such tiny, delicate things,” said Michael Caldwell, a biology professor at the University of Alberta who called the discovery “beyond exciting.”
On July 18, 2018 Caldwell published a co-authored study in the journal Science Advances that describes what a phenomenal finding the discovery of this fossilized snake was; and also included was a finding of a piece of shedding from a much larger snake. It is unknown whether this piece of skin shed is from the same species of snake, however this preserved piece still shows some of its light and dark patterns.
Together, these two findings provide the first evidence of snakes living in forests.
They show their early evolution — at a time when a huge variety of dinosaurs thrived. Most snake fossils of the same age have been found in deserts only up until this point. These discoveries will also help show how snakes developed and spread around the globe.
The fossils were found in 99-million-year-old amber deposits that have already yielded other amazing treasures, including dinosaur feathers, baby birds and lizards, along with the usual insects and plants typically found in amber.
This fossil is unique because this reptile became stuck in tree sap, a sticky substance that can preserve skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures.
“It’s the super-glue of the fossil record,” said Prof Caldwell.
“Amber is totally unique – whatever it touches is frozen in time inside of the plastic-like resin.”
The snake’s body can be seen inside the chunk of amber, made up of 97 vertebrae plus attached ribs. Shockingly enough, the snake’s head is missing. The creature’s bones were analysed inside a synchrotron, an extremely powerful source of X-rays, and compared with those of living snakes. Anatomical features suggest development of the backbone of snakes appears to have changed little in nearly 100 million years. Scientists say the snake may have survived for tens of millions of years in a primitive state, before going extinct.
Fragments of plants and insects were also found inside the amber, and it confirms that the snake lived in forests. This has not been shown before for this time period, as the few other fossil snakes discovered come from rocks associated with rivers or the sea. During floods, amber floats and then gets washed into rivers and eventually the sea.
“There are literally tens of thousands of these little amber blobs,” said Caldwell. “They collect together like plastic debris, I guess, on the edge of a beach and they get covered up by beach sands.” That’s how they end up embedded in sandstone deposits like the ones mined in Myanmar. The researchers don’t know how big the baby snake would have grown had it survived, but Caldwell estimates that it probably would have been about a metre long.
The new snake species has been given the name Xiaophis myanmarensis, which means “dawn snake of Myanmar.” The name also honours Xiao Jia, the amber specialist who donated the specimen to the Dexu Institute of Paleontology, the museum in Chaozhou, China that now houses the baby snake. She was a member of the group that originally called Xing about the fossil.
As for the snakeskin, Caldwell estimates it was shed from a snake about as long as a baguette and “quite big around,” but it’s impossible to tell what kind of snake it was.
In addition to Caldwell and Xing, the study also involved other researchers from Canada, China, the U.S. and Australia. It was funded by the National Science Fund of China, the U.S. National Geographic Society, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of China, the Chinese Academy of Science, the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Australian Research Council.