This research was conducted in collaboration with the China University of Geosciences, the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Midwestern University, the South Australian Museum, Flinders University, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the University of Regina, the Paleo-Dairy Museum of Natural History and the Beijing Forestry University.
"No one has ever seen a fossilized baby snake of any kind whatsoever".
Scientists have discovered the first-ever fossilised snake embryo, preserved in a pebble-sized chunk of amber from 105 million years ago. The little hatchling measured less than two inches long, which matches up with some species of snake that we see today, but the fossil isn't totally complete.
"I've learned critical details about snake development". According to the researchers, it was luck this one was actually caught in amber.
A piece of amber recovered from Myanmar, a Cretaceous site in Southeast Asia famous for its wealth of fossils, has yielded the world's "first known fossilized snake embryo/neonate", reports a recent study.
They also discovered fragments of plants and insects found inside the amber that confirm the snake lived in forests during the Cretaceous period. "Most lizards don't show that same kind of diamond shape and pattern of overlap in the scales". "It's not easy for them to become fossils", Xing said, adding that most common fossils cannot preserve the soft tissues of ancient animals, but amber, formed by resin, can better conserve soft tissues and bones. Because the skull was missing, the people who found the fossil thought the tiny creature inside was either a centipede or millipede. A technique called synchrotron x-ray micro-computed tomography allowed the researchers to get a close look at the tiny specimens inside the amber without having to break them apart.
At less than two inches long, the snake is very tiny and hard to see clearly with the naked eye, but the x-ray scans allowed the team to carefully study the shape and position of its bones, including a remarkable 97 vertebrae or backbones.
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The tectonic rearrangement that followed the breakup of Gondwana helped early snakes migrate across the globe - across Africa, Madagascar, Australia, India and Myanmar.
"It's the super-glue of the fossil record", said Prof Caldwell.
Dubbed Xiaophis myanmarensis, after the Myanmar site from where it originated, the newfound fossil "fits into the base of the snake family tree, and into a group of snakes that appear to be very ancient", notes Caldwell.
"There are a number of other well-preserved fossil snakes around the same age, but they are from marine deposits around the Mediterranean and are thought to represent aquatic species". This means that snakes may have already been a part of more prehistoric ecosystems.
"We should certainly keep looking, not only in amber, but also in Mongolia and other places that relatives of Xiaophis could have then reached overland".