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Dino-killing asteroid set the stage for evolution of modern snakes

New research suggests snakes took advantage of the ecological niches left empty in the wake of the dinosaur's disappearance. Photo by Joschua Knüppe
New research suggests snakes took advantage of the ecological niches left empty in the wake of the dinosaur's disappearance. Photo by Joschua Knüppe

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- For the majority of species living during the Cretaceous period, the asteroid responsible for Mexico's Chicxulub crater spelled doom. But for those that survived, the catastrophe offered opportunity.

According to a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs triggered a period of accelerated diversification among snakes.

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In fact, all modern snakes, of which there are some 4,000 living species, can be traced to a handful of ancestors that emerged unscathed from the ashes of the asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period.

An extensive survey of fossil snake vertebrae before and after Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, extinction event revealed the extinction of early snake lineages and the emergence of more modern lineages.

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With so much of life on Earth wiped out, a wealth of ecological niches were available for exploitation -- and snakes took advantage.

In the millennia that followed the asteroid impact, a variety of new snake lineages emerged, including tree snakes, sea snakes, vipers and cobras, as well as massive constrictors like boas and pythons.

"It's remarkable, because not only are they surviving an extinction that wipes out so many other animals, but within a few million years they are innovating, using their habitats in new ways," lead author Catherine Klein, who recently earned a doctoral degree at the University of Bath, said in a press release.

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Klein, who now works at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, and her colleagues determined that around the same time snakes began diversifying, they also started spreading across the globe.

Though the evidence suggests the earliest modern snake ancestors likely originated in the Southern Hemisphere, the fossil record shows snakes began spreading across Asia shortly after K-Pg extinction event.

"Our research suggests that extinction acted as a form of 'creative destruction' -- by wiping out old species, it allowed survivors to exploit the gaps in the ecosystem, experimenting with new lifestyles and habitats," said co-author Nick Longrich.

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"This seems to be a general feature of evolution -- it's the periods immediately after major extinctions where we see evolution at its most wildly experimental and innovative," said Longrich, a researcher at Bath's Milner Center for Evolution.

Previous studies suggest snakes weren't alone.

Mammals rapidly diversified in the wake of the K-Pg extinction event, too, which was good news for emerging snake species in search of new things to eat.

"The destruction of biodiversity makes room for new things to emerge and colonize new landmasses. Ultimately life becomes even more diverse than before," Longrich said.

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