Researchers found the snake embryo inside an ancient amber fossil from Myanmar. Photo by Ming Bai/Chinese Academy of Sciences
July 19 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have discovered a snake embryo in a 105-million-year-old amber fossil, the first of its kind. The find has offered scientists important insights into the evolution of modern snakes.
"This snake is linked to ancient snakes from Argentina, Africa, India and Australia," Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist and professor at the University of Alberta in British Columbia, said in a news release. "It is an important -- and until now, missing -- component of understanding snake evolution from southern continents, that is Gondwana, in the mid-Mesozoic."
The tectonic rearrangement that followed the breakup of Gondwana helped early snakes migrate across the globe -- across Africa, Madagascar, Australia, India and Myanmar.
Amber fossils can help scientists get a better idea of the types of habitat these early snakes inhabited as they moved and evolved.
"It is clear that this little snake was living in a forested environment with numerous insects and plants, as these are preserved in the clast," said Caldwell. "Not only do we have the first baby snake, we also have the first definitive evidence of a fossil snake living in a forest."
X-ray imaging helped researchers analyze the fossil. Scientists compared the ancient snake embryo to the embryos of modern snakes, which revealed differences in the ways the serpents developed vertebrae and notochords.
Researchers detailed their analysis in a paper published this week in the journal Science Advances.
"All of these data 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 Caldwell. "There is a great deal of new information preserved in this new fossilized baby snake."