What’s the News: Most poisonous snakes don’t inject their prey with venom; instead, they bite the prey and venom insidiously trickles down a groove on their fangs into the wound. A new study in Physical Review Letters investigated the physics behind how venom travels down the grooves: It turns out that snake venom has unusual viscosity properties that keep it cohering together until it’s time to flow down the fangs and into the snake’s soon-to-be-snack—the same properties that account for how ketchup seems stuck in the bottle, then flows freely onto your fries.
Ask a group of snake researchers whether our modern snakes evolved from land-loving or ocean-loving lizards, and you’re likely to start a heated argument. But the days of snake-origin squabbles may be coming to a close–researchers have created the first 3-D images of snake fossils and have discovered that their legs are more akin to the legs of land-dwelling lizards than they are to the ocean-dwelling kind.
The researchers studied a 95-million-year-old fossilized snake called Eupodophis descouensi that was found in present-day Lebanon. Published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the scientists used a novel 3-D imaging technique called synchrotron-radiation computed laminography:
“Synchrotrons are enormous machines and allow us to see microscopic details in fossils invisible to any other techniques without damage to these invaluable specimens,” said co-author Paul Tafforeau from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. [Discovery News]
A tiny fraction of vertebrate species have ever been seen reproducing through parthenogenesis, the fatherless birth of offspring in which the embryo develops without fertilization by a male. Now you can add boa constrictors to that short list: A study in Biology Letters documents the case of a boa that gave birth to 22 offspring over the last two years, all of whom are female and born this unusual way.
“Only with the development and application of molecular tools have we truly begun to understand how common this form of reproduction may be,” lead author Warren Booth [says]. Booth, a research associate at North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology, and his team first suspected something was up when the mother boa constrictor gave birth, twice, to a total of 22 caramel-colored females. The males housed with the female did not carry the gene for this recessive color trait. [Discovery News]
When Booth’s team analyzed the DNA of the young snakes, they found no evidence of paternity by any of the males who’d mated with their mother previously. Furthermore, the chromosomes of the 22 young gave them away.
The turn of the millennium was not kind to the snakes.
Herpetologist Chris Reading and his team have been counting snakes through their own surveys and looking at population data going back to 1987 to see what’s happening to snake populations. The alarming findings, to be published soon in Biology Letters, indicate that most of the species studied saw a great decrease in population, with the greatest loss between 1998 and 2002.
Reading’s team monitored 17 different species in different climates—including snakes from Europe, Africa, and Australia—to try to get a global picture. Eleven of the 17 declined sharply over the study’s two-decade-plus period, with some declining as much as 90 percent. Five remained more or less stable. Only one saw a population increase, and a very slight one at that.
“All the declines occurred during the same relatively short period of time and over a wide geographical area that included temperate, Mediterranean and tropical climates,” write the authors. “We suggest that, for these reasons alone, there is likely to be a common cause at the root of the declines and that this indicates a more widespread phenomenon” [Guardian].
Some of the weird wildlife on Madagascar—its mammals especially—probably arrived there by rafting from mainland Africa, we reported back in January. But not its blind snakes. According to a study out now in Biology Letters, these funny-looking creatures date back 150 million years to the Gondwana landmass, and have lived on Madagascar since before it broke off from India and drifted away. And, the researchers say, their story of spreading around the world carries many more twists.
Growing to about a foot long, blind snakes act a lot like worms, burrowing under the surface of every continent except Antarctica. Unlike worms, though, blind snakes have backbones and tiny scales [National Geographic]. They earned their moniker by having blurry vision and sensing chemicals through their skin to find their way around. But despite having backbones, there are few blind snakes in the fossil record, making it hard for researchers to study their evolutionary history. So lead researchers Blair Hedges and Nicolas Vidal had to rely on living species. They extracted five nuclear genes, which code for proteins, from 96 different species of worm-like snakes to reconstruct the branching pattern of their evolution, allowing the team to estimate the times of divergence of different lineages using molecular clocks [UPI].
Take a good look: according to a new study in PLoS Biology, what you see in this image is a snake about to prey on dinosaur eggs, a 67-million-year-old scene frozen in time and finally discovered. It’s the first time that a snake has been seen eating a dinosaur. The snake is that bit of bones on the left, lead researcher Jeff Wilson says. The egg in the top right contains a tiny titanosaur, one of largest dinosaur groups to ever walk the Earth.
“The snake (Sanajeh indicus) probably lived around the nesting ground and preyed upon hatchlings. They all died instantly when they were covered by a big pulse of sediment from a nearby hill loosened by a storm,” says Wilson [New Scientist]. Wilson guesses that a storm or some other malady might have led the enormous adult dinos to leave the nest, opening the door for the snake to slither in, wait for the baby dinos to hatch, and snack on them. But it never got the chance.
This week federal officials said they want to ban the importation of nine large and exotic snake species. The move is designed to quell the spread of those slithering reptiles that have gotten loose and thrived in Florida and especially in the Everglades, and that threaten to spread further across the country.
More than a million of these snakes—including the giant Burmese python, boa constrictors, and several kinds of anaconda—have come to the United States in the last 30 years as pets. But invariably, over the years, some slithered loose — or were released by owners who found their reptile[s] more than they could handle. Today, many thousands nest wild in Florida’s suburban yards, parks and the Everglades [Science News]. At least one of the species, the northern African rock python, is considered dangerous to humans.
Earlier this month DISCOVER covered the 213-million-year-old fossils of the theropod Tawa hallae, a dinosaur ancestor that could show how early dinos spread around the world. Now, in a study (in press) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, another research team has uncovered a surprise in the bones of a theropod from almost 100 million years later. By that time, these creatures may have adopted a clever new weapon: venom.
Sinornithosaurus lived 125 million years ago in what’s now China, and while it might have been covered in feathers (and the size of a turkey), the researchers say it attacked like modern rear-fanged snakes. Rear-fanged snakes don’t inject venom. Instead, the toxin flows down a telltale groove in a fang’s surface and into the bite wound, inducing a state of shock [National Geographic].
What’s worse than having one gigantic-but-relatively-docile python species invading Florida? Finding out that an extremely aggressive python species is moving in as well, and learning that the two species could theoretically interbreed to create a hybrid monster.
Florida wildlife officials have been concerned for some time about the 20-foot-long Burmese pythons that are thought to have been released by irresponsible pet owners and have established a thriving colony in Everglades National Park. But over the past year, four African rock pythons have also been sighted or captured in Miami-Dade county, giving biologists new cause for concern. Says herpetologist Kenneth Krysko: “They are just mean, vicious snakes…. You couldn’t get a worse python to become established. A Burmese python is just a docile snake. These things will lunge at you” [Miami Herald].