Amber, or fossilised tree sap, has the ability to beautifully preserve the remains of animals and plants that become trapped in it. In the film Jurassic Park (and the novel it was based upon), the whole concept of bringing dinosaurs back to life is based upon the extraction of dinosaur blood from mosquitoes fossilised in amber. While it’s not actually possible to obtain usable dinosaur DNA in this way – the DNA would most likely break down, and also be seriously contaminated – real-life amber still turns up all sorts of interesting specimens, and not just insects. In December 2016, it was reported that the feathered tail of a small dinosaur, dating from 99 million years ago – the mid-Cretaceous period – had been found in amber from Myanmar. In June of this year, four Cretaceous frogs were also reported to have turned up in Myanmar amber. Now, just after World Snake Day (16th July), something else unique has been found in the amber: a baby snake!
(Ming Bai/Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Snake skeletons don’t tend to fossilise well, so there are a lot of gaps in their fossil record and most specimens that do exist are incomplete. This makes it difficult to figure out exactly how and when snakes evolved; in 2015, snake fossils dating from the Jurassic Period were reported – these were nearly 70 million years older than the previous oldest known snakes. So this new discovery, just by existing, makes an important contribution to knowledge about prehistoric snakes.
Discovered in Myanmar and dating from 99 million years ago (like the previously mentioned amber-preserved fossils), the snake has been named Xiaophis myanmarensis, and is the first fossil of a baby snake ever to be discovered. The fossil is headless, with 4.75cm of the rear body preserved. It appears to be quite similar to modern pipe snakes (Cylindrophis), relatively primitive burrowing snakes which are found in Myanmar and other southeast Asian countries. One especially interesting thing about this little snake is that it was undoubtedly living in a forest – confirmed by the presence of insects, and bits of plant, in the amber – whereas other snake fossils from around the same time have tended to be found in sediments from more aquatic environments. Indeed, the same paper notes that another piece of amber has been found containing a piece of snake skin; this came from a larger animal, possibly an older Xiaophis.
While this discovery has certainly filled in a gap and provided new revelations regarding the fossil record of snakes, it raises new questions too, and hopefully further discoveries will continue to expand our knowledge of the history of these fascinating reptiles!
Xing, L., Caldwell, M.W., Chen, R., Nydam, R.L., Palci, A., Simoes, T.R. & McKellar, R.C. (2018), A mid-Cretaceous embryonic-to-neonate snake in amber from Myanmar. Science Advances 4 (7), EAAT5042.