Snakes have been slithering through forest for nearly a hundred million years. That’s one of the revelations found in Myanmar, where a baby snaked has been discovered trapped in amber and aged back to the Cretaceous period 99 million years ago.
It’s the oldest baby snake ever found, the first ever fossilized. The international team of scientists, who have published their results in Science Advances, also describe finding “a fragment of shed skin interpreted as a snake.” The joint discovery, which is a newly discovered species as well, is a significant addition into the understanding of both the history of southeast Asia and snakes as a whole.
“It’s spectacular to have a baby snake in the fossil record because, of course, they’d be such tiny, delicate things,” says co-author Michael Caldwell, a biology professor at the University of Alberta, to the CBC. Caldwell joined other scientists from Canada, as well as China and Australia, in the study.
On the forest floor 99 million years ago, a baby snake got trapped in a blob of sap that fell from a tree. Somewhere in there it lost its head, and the sap gathered other items, detritus of the forest including “bugs and plants and cockroach poop,” according to Caldwell. But the snake remained, and eventually became trapped and protected within sandstone deposits inside a state that first became known as Burma and is now known as Myanmar.
“There are literally tens of thousands of these little amber blobs. They collect together like plastic debris, I guess, on the edge of a beach and they get covered up by beach sands,” Caldwell says to the CBC.
Flash forward to 2016 when Chinese paleontologist Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences got a phone call from a group of Chinese fossil hunters with an extraordinary promise: a baby snake perfectly preserved within amber. By a stroke of luck, when Xing got the call was on his way to Canada to collaborate with Caldwell on an already-in-progress study of reptiles.
Named Xiaophis myanmarensis, the new snake’s name means “dawn snake of Myanmar” and is also a tribute to Xiao Jia, an amber specialist who was part of the initial team of fossil hunters. Her donation of the specimen to the Dexu Institute of Paleontology in Chaozhou, China, allowed for the scientists to study it.
At 1.8 inches, sans head for reasons unknown, it’s not too different from baby snakes seen today in the region. The discovery shows “greater ecological diversity among early snakes than previously thought,” the study says.
The mechanisms of snakes have fascinated humanity for thousands of years, few animals are as interwoven into the fabric of culture across the globe. Most recently, a teenager asked if they farted and spawned the best-selling book on Amazon.
Previously published by: Popular Mechanics USA