How Old Are Snakes Really?

Feb 1, 2015 By Deepa Gopal
Deepa Gopal's picture

Paleontologist Michael Caldwell was poking through the drawers of lizard fossils at a London museum. He saw a specimen marked as an ancient lizard – but everything about it screamed snake!

On closer examination, Caldwell noticed that this “ancient lizard” had backward-curved teeth and strong jawbones. These characteristics allow snakes to keep their prey from escaping from their mouths. But there was yet another surprise in store…

Until now, paleontologists had believed that snakes appeared 100 million years ago during the middle of the Cretaceous period. However, dating this newly-discovered fossil revealed that snakes had been around for 167 million years – starting in the Jurassic era.

In fact, four snake fossils dating from 140-167 million years have been uncovered in England, Portugal, and North America. These snakes lived in swampy coastal areas of ancient Europe, or in the river beds of Colorado.

Where Did Snakes Come From?

Snakes are believed to have originated from four-legged lizard-like reptiles – either land lizards, or marine lizards known as “mosasaurus”.  Over time, these reptiles evolved to where their fore and hind limbs shortened and eventually disappeared. Scientists attribute this pivotal change to survival -- perhaps this ancient snake needed to burrow underground or swim in the water, in which case it did not need to use its limbs.

Are all legless reptiles snakes? No. There are many legless lizards that spend their lives underground - they have tiny limbs that distinguish them from snakes. Other distinguishing features of snakes include the absence of eyelids and external ears and longer bodies with a short tail. 

The New Discovery

What makes the study of snakes difficult is that the bones of these fragile creatures do not preserve well over time. Paleontologists have very little to go by – fossil fragments of vertebrae or jawbones.  It is up to artists to visualize the animals based on scientific data.

The question of whether a snake’s head evolved first or its body, has been a matter of debate in the scientific community. Previously, researchers had suggested that the snake ancestor evolved to become limb-less and then its cranium (skull bone) developed into its now distinctive shape. However, Caldwell claims the opposite is true. The earliest snakes were four-legged creatures with a snake-like head.

The recent discovery has set the clock back on when these slithering snakes first appeared, and scientists will be looking to fill in the gaps. However, one thing is certain – snakes continue to evoke fear and disgust in many. It is no wonder that ancient civilizations worshipped them, and modern authors such as J.K Rowling have created characters such as Nagina – a loyal servant to the evil Voldemort in the Harry Potter series!

Courtesy CSMonitor, BBC, LiveScience

Comments

banananaman's picture
banananaman May 31, 2016 - 12:42pm

cool.

perlenek's picture
perlenek April 1, 2015 - 3:39pm

I'm very glad that I live in the current time. Imagine how big these snakes could of been. The Earth at the time of the dinosaurs had higher oxygen concentration, meaning all living things had to ability to grow to enormous sizes. This snake could be a good 40ft in length, until we find more fossil evidence.

haleyh2's picture
haleyh2 April 1, 2015 - 12:05pm

I think this is very interesting How this article tells how long ago snakes lived. Also it explains explicitly explains how the snakes shape and form evolved. However I am not a big fan of snakes and therefore am not extremely fond of them.

estherp's picture
estherp February 17, 2015 - 6:37am

Good morning editor how long have you been studying snakes?

Deepa Gopal's picture
Deepa Gopal February 17, 2015 - 10:46am

Hi estherp - Good Morning! I love reading about all animals and the role they each play in our ecosystem. But, truth be told, that is one animal I would not want to encounter :-)

liamb3's picture
liamb3 February 16, 2015 - 8:54am

that video looks creepy so I did not want to watch it and plus I once did a report about snakes and I saw a video about a snake giving birth it was creepy but the n I went to the National Geographic site and the snake birth video got off of my head

liamb3's picture
liamb3 February 16, 2015 - 8:50am

I really like reading about snakes but I don't like to see them in real life

nutsag's picture
nutsag February 16, 2015 - 12:10am

that looks freaky and both awsomne
cool book

King awesome's picture
King awesome February 13, 2015 - 10:49am
I HATE SNAKES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
julietter's picture
julietter February 11, 2015 - 4:23am

yah but I don't really like snakes

awesomeguy2014's picture
awesomeguy2014 February 4, 2015 - 8:51pm
Cool snakes evolving, how does a snake lose its eyes??
cbrown1703's picture
cbrown1703 February 4, 2015 - 7:12pm
I went to my camp and I almost stepped on a snake. It was a LONGGGGG King Snake!!!!!
sammy138's picture
sammy138 February 4, 2015 - 6:07pm
ok
ammak's picture
ammak February 4, 2015 - 9:41am
WOW!!! I never knew that snake were around for about 100 million years!!! This is so cool!!
benjamind3's picture
benjamind3 February 3, 2015 - 11:26am

Cool

danielh4's picture
danielh4 February 2, 2015 - 7:13am

cool

Jacqueline_V's picture
Jacqueline_V February 2, 2015 - 6:33am

Ewwwwwwww I don't like snakes but that's cool

cassiew's picture
cassiew February 2, 2015 - 4:45am

WOW

Flash's picture
Flash February 2, 2015 - 1:20am
please can you not right so much about evolution 'cause even though some scientists say that that is how the Earth formed(only 60% of the scientists believe in evolution, the rest believe in creation and the bible), it is all a fake and if you want to know what really happened then read genesis in the bible. again I ask you to please NOT wright about evolution. Thank you!

ps. if you want to know why I am saying this then watch Dr Kent hoven's seminar on evolution.:) ;) :D

perlenek's picture
perlenek April 1, 2015 - 3:32pm

I don't agree with you. 1. There is no evidence to disprove the theory of evolution. 2. Saying that God made the Earth is not a valid response to one because there is also no evidence to support the existence of God. 3. Saying that faith is the only evidence to believe in God is invalid. I respect your own beliefs, but I also have mine. Don't call something fake before you have to correct and valid evidence to prove ones point right.

haleyh2's picture
haleyh2 April 1, 2015 - 12:07pm

I do not agree with you. These article editors took a long time and a lot of effort to make this article. If you don't have something nice to say why did you say it. However I do agree on the evolution theory.

Deepa Gopal's picture
Deepa Gopal February 3, 2015 - 10:26pm

Dear Flash - This has come up every now and them from our young readers who believe in creationism and the Bible. We respect your opinion. However, as we have responded to others in the past, Youngzine is a science and current events magazine for children.

We have readers from many religions and cultures around the world- so we cannot take a religious position. We write about science, and we encourage those who do not agree with a specific article because of their religious beliefs, to simply ignore it. 

Thanks for understanding :-)