A fossil find in Argentina and studied by a Brazilian-Argentinean team of scientists has revealed a two-legged creature that is the most primitive snake known, a discovery that promises to fire up the scientific debate about whether snakes evolved on land or in the sea.
The snake’s anatomy and the location of the fossil show it lived on land, researchers said, adding evidence to the argument that snakes evolved on land.
Snakes are thought to have evolved from four-legged lizards, losing their legs over time. But scientists have long debated whether those ancestral lizards were land-based or marine creatures.
The newly found snake lived in Patagonia. Its size is unknown, but it wasn’t more than 3 feet long, said Hussam Zaher of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He and an Argentine colleague report the find in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.
It’s the first time scientists have found a snake with a sacrum, a bony feature supporting the pelvis, Zaher said. That feature was lost as snakes evolved from lizards, he said, and since this is the only known snake that hasn’t lost it, it must be the most primitive known.
The creature clearly lived on land, both because its anatomy suggests it lived in burrows and because the deposits where the fossils were found came from a terrestrial environment, said Zaher. So, if the earliest known snake lived on land, that suggests snakes evolved on land, he said.
There has been little new evidence in recent years in the land-versus-sea debate, and "we needed something new," said Zaher. "We needed a new start. And this snake is definitely a new start for this debate."
He said that although the creature had two small rear legs, it crawled like a modern-day snake and probably used its legs only on occasion, though for what purpose is unclear.
The creature, named Najash rionegrina, is "a fantastic animal," said Jack Conrad, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and co-curator of an upcoming exhibit on lizards and snakes.
"It’s really going to help put to rest some of the controversy that’s been going around snake evolution and origins," he said. Conrad said he never took sides in the land-versus-sea debate, but "but this is starting to convince me."
Olivier Rieppel, a fossil reptile expert at the Field Museum in Chicago, called the find important and said Najash is clearly the most primitive known snake.
If snakes did evolve on land rather than the sea, their fossil record might be less complete because early fossils would have been better preserved in a marine environment, he said.
That, in turn, suggests "we may not know all the lineages of early snake evolution," he said. Maybe several snake lineages lost the legs of their lizard ancestors independently, he said.
The creature’s name comes from a Hebrew word for snake and the Rio Negro province of Argentina, where the discovery was made.
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