First fossilized snake embryo ever discovered rewrites history of ancient snakes

A worker displays a newly hatched reticulated python at Guindy Snake park in Chennai

The world's first known ancient snake embryo has been discovered in Myanmar preserved in 99 million years old amber.

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. The amber was found by workers in Myanmar quarries near the Chinese border.

"There is a great deal of new information preserved in this new fossilised baby snake".

The piece of amber described in the study was originally privately owned and was later donated to the museum of the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology, near Beijing, where the researchers were able to analyze it, Caldwell said.

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. Other spectacular finds from Myanmar, including a feathered dinosaur tail and the first rainforest-dwelling frogs, have taken similar paths.

The team used microscopes and x-ray scanning to analyse the size, shape, and orientation of the bones. "Not only do we have the first baby snake, we also have the first definitive evidence of a fossil snake living in a forest".

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The chunk of amber that holds the baby snake also has a scrap of shed skin that the researchers believe might have once belonged to a larger snake. The spinal cord was found to form late in the snake's development; when compared to present-day snakes, very little about their spinal bone development has changed.

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

But what's cool about this little amber snake isn't just what we know about it. Based on the fragments present in the amber, the researchers concluded the snakes lived in a forest environment. 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. It appears the animals were more widely spread than previously thought, though the researchers caution more specimens are needed before they can determine routes of slithery migration across the Southern Hemisphere supercontinent of Gondwana.

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

Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchlings shown emerging from their eggs on the forest floor 100 million years ago. Gobs of tree resin foreshadow their fate.

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