A piece of amber recovered from Myanmar, a Cretaceous site in Southeast Asia famous for its wealth of fossils, has yielded the world’s “first known fossilized snake embryo/neonate,” reports a recent study.
The research, published yesterday in the journal Science Advances, documents the finding of baby snake remains trapped within the amber at Myanmar and which belong to a previously-undiscovered snake species.
“This unique and very tiny snake fossil is an articulated postcranial skeleton, which includes posterior precloacal, cloacal, and caudal vertebrae, and details of squamation and body shape,” the researchers explained in the study.
In addition to the baby snake remains, the scientists also uncovered a second snake fossil preserved in Myanmar amber, this time consisting of skin fragments with clearly visible scales and which are believed to have come from a larger snake.
“A second specimen preserves a fragment of shed skin interpreted as a snake,” the authors wrote in their paper.
Both fossils are 100-million-years-old and have been dated to the Upper Cretaceous, before the time of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
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.
A Sticky End
According to the research team that made the discovery, the baby snake fossil found at Myanmar is the oldest one ever unearthed from a prehistoric site. The fossil is made up of about 97 bones and represents half the vertebrae of an intact snake that was either a newborn or a fetus.
“Even though it is a baby, there are very unique features of the top of the vertebrae that have never been seen before in other fossil snakes of a similar kind,” said Caldwell, who is a professor of biology at the University of Alberta in Canada.
The scientists believe that the baby snake hatched from its egg some 100 million years ago and slithered into a patch of amber, remaining forever trapped inside the sticky resin.
The baby snake fossil is about 1.9 inches (4.8 centimeters) long and it’s missing the skull. Nevertheless, the team managed to identify it as a new prehistoric snake species.
Dubbed Xiaophis myanmarensis, after the Myanmar site from where it originated, the newfound fossil “fits into the base of the snake family tree, and into a group of snakes that appear to be very ancient,” notes Caldwell.
The second fossil, however, has remained unidentified, as the researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint whether the skin fragments belong to the same snake species.
Oldest Snake Fossil To Be Found In A Forest Environment
Three years ago, the Inquisitr reported on the discovery of the oldest-ever snake fossils, dated to between 140 and 167 million years ago and retrieved from a Late Cretaceous site in India. This latest discovery at Myanmar holds the record of oldest-known snake to dwell in a forest environment.
“The new species is the first Mesozoic snake to be found in a forested environment, indicating greater ecological diversity among early snakes than previously thought,” the study authors wrote in their paper.
The revelation came after the scientists uncovered small clues cemented inside the amber next to the snake fossil, which showed that the reptile had lived in a forest ecosystem.
“Amber collects everything it touches — kind of like super glue — and then holds onto it for a hundred million years,” said Caldwell. “When it caught the baby snake, it caught the forest floor with the bugs, plants and bug poop — so that it is clear the snake was living in a forest.”
According to Newsweek, the snake fossil and the bug remains found alongside it were extensively studied through multiple analysis methods, including CT scans, X-rays, microscopes and even particle accelerator technology. Five snake paleontologists and five imaging scientists worked tirelessly in order to obtain highly detailed images of the fossilized specimens.
As Caldwell pointed out, Xiaophis myanmarensis was found to belong to “an ancient lineage living in the southern hemisphere continents of Gondwana” — an ancient supercontinent comprised of South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica, the Inquisitr previously reported.
This suggests that snakes traveled from underwater and coastal regions to forest environments earlier than initially believed, states Science Magazine.
Other Myanmar Oddities
Some of the other unexpected discoveries at Myanmar to make headlines in the last few months included the remains of a prehistoric tick trapped by amber in what would later be known as a “primordial worst-day-ever,” the Inquisitr reported in mid-June.
The same Myanmar site also yielded the oldest-known frog fossils, detailed in another Inquisitr report.
Last year, a Myanmar expedition revealed the existence of a previously-unknown prehistoric tick species after the parasite was discovered entombed in amber alongside a feather from a Cretaceous dinosaur, the Inquisitr reported in December.