Baby Snake Preserved In Amber Is Unprecedented Find

By Gemma Tarlach | July 18, 2018 1:00 pm
Remains of the earliest snake hatchling known to science were preserved in amber for 100 million years. (Credit: Ming BAI, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS))

Remains of the earliest snake hatchling known to science were preserved in amber for nearly 100 million years. (Credit: Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Snakes alive! Preserved in a piece of amber about the size of a small potato, a tiny snake hatchling — less than two inches long — is unprecedented in the fossil record. At nearly 100 million years old, the baby snake’s remains provide researchers with significant new information about the animals’ development and global distribution. But wait, there’s more…

The early Late Cretaceous hatchling, from Myanmar’s northern Kachin province, was donated to researchers along with a second piece of amber that preserves part of what appears to be the shed skin of a much larger snake, with its pigmentation pattern intact. Together the two specimens open a new chapter in the study of snake evolution and ontogeny — the study of how an individual organism develops from birth to maturity.

CAPTIOn (Credit: Ryan McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum)

Along with the baby snake, researchers studied a second piece of amber with what appears to be a fragment of shed skin from a larger snake. The degree of preservation allowed the team to model the pigmentation pattern of the animal in life. (Credit: Ryan McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum)

Both pieces of amber were given to researchers after collection — a different route to the lab than, say, an official paleontological expedition discovering the amber in situ and digging it out directly. Other spectacular finds from Myanmar, including a feathered dinosaur tail and the first rainforest-dwelling frogs, have taken similar paths.

Based on dating of the volcanic rock in which the amber was preserved prior to collection, the team estimates the snake specimens are 98.8 million years old, give or take a couple hundred thousand years.

Holding Steady

The baby snake, classified as new species Xiaophis myanmarensis, was about 47.5 mm in length, or roughly 1.9 inches, though its head was not preserved. Based on the numerous anatomical features that are intact, including vertebrae and some soft tissue, the team describes it as either embryonic or newborn, and comparable in size to a modern southeast Asian pipe snake (Cylindrophis ruffus) of the same age.

Researchers used X-ray micro-CT imaging to render a detailed view of the the specimen's preserved skeleton and soft tissues. (Credit: Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Researchers used X-ray micro-CT imaging to render a detailed view of the preserved postcranial skeleton and soft tissues of X. myanmerensis. (Credit: Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The baby snake specimen is the first such fossil of that developmental age known to science. Based on its features, the team concluded it shows that many aspects of snake ontogeny have remained virtually unchanged for 100 million years.

Due to the fragmentary nature of the second specimen, the researchers were unable to determine whether the piece of shed skin belonged to an adult member of X. myanmarensis.

The snake hatchling's ribs and vertebrae were preserved and are clearly visible. (Credit: Lida XING, China University of Geosciences Beijing (CUGB))

The snake hatchling’s ribs and vertebrae were preserved and are clearly visible. (Credit: Lida Xing, China University of Geosciences Beijing)

Forest Dwellers

The pattern of pigmentation visible on the second specimen, however, hints at another significant discovery: Both pieces of fossilized plant resin appear to be “litter amber,” produced near a forest floor and full of insects, their feces and bits of vegetation. Based on the fragments present in the amber, the researchers concluded the snakes lived in a forest environment. This makes them the earliest forest-dwelling snakes — almost all other snakes known from the same period of the fossil record have adaptations for aquatic environments or were found in river sediments.

The pieces of amber also revise our understanding of the global distribution of snakes by the early Late Cretaceous. It appears the animals were more widely spread than previously thought, though the researchers caution more specimens are needed before they can determine routes of slithery migration across the Southern Hemisphere supercontinent of Gondwana.

The study appears today in Science Advances.

Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchlings shown emerging from their eggs on the forest floor 100 million years ago. (Credit Yi Liu)

Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchlings shown emerging from their eggs on the forest floor 100 million years ago. Gobs of tree resin foreshadow their fate. (Credit Yi Liu)

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  • Barabbus

    My ex wife should be wearing that piece of amber around her neck. The shed skin should be returned to her lawyer.

    • John C

      They also found some 100 million year old preserved sour grapes next to it. LOL

  • Herrnhut

    No one was here to prove 100 millions. And it is amazing resin can last a million years with no loss of degradation let alone 100 millions. The brains of those “scientists” are so huge they cannot live to 100 years.

    • Chartreuxe

      Some people demonstrate perfectly the center of the bell curve.

      • Saint_Augustine

        More like the middle of the 2nd quartile.

      • Herrnhut

        “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10)

        That is the average of man in all countries according to World Health Organization. But I thank Jesus I live eternal.

        • Kamran Rowshandel

          Christianity lost the core of its doctrine. Unsurprisingly, it’s just a regurgitation of previously existing “religions”. Read the Papyrus of Ani. Quoting the New Testament to make a point is analogous to finding one of Trump’s McDonald’s receipts and trying to make conclusions based off of it. Interestingly, each of the “gods” in that “religion” are dynastic ethnicities.

          • Herrnhut

            In the narration of the Joseph story (Jesus prophecy) in Genesis, Joseph married a Egyptian bride (gentile church).

            Just one chapter of Genesis was about Judah who went off to marry a Canaanite (the world) woman named Shuah (wealth). They had three sons. Two of them died (slewed by God). In the end time even their family will be saved by heavenly Joseph when they recognize him the long lost brother was dead now lives while Jacob (Israel) suffer ALL his life. This IS the picture of the history of the nation of twelve tribes and the church still happening. All the other gods from 4000 years ago are in the museums.

            All religions are men’s work and devil’s dusts. But the ones who believe in Christ Jesus has life everlasting.

          • Kamran Rowshandel

            Usually monotheistic religions are about announcing ethnic superiority by saying only some families can be worshiped. Christianity isn’t big on who the descendants of Jesus are today. That makes it a unique monotheism. I went back in time a bit to see if I could “get a whiff of” the ethnopolitical essence at the time and place of Mary’s hometown. I only concluded the most obvious things must be true.

            Osiris was reborn. Horus was basically reborn. Jesus was resurrected. Same thing. Nearly every other aspect of Christianity is found in the Papyrus of Ani, which is known as the book of the dead. It’s absolutely not an obscure book–it’s actually super mainstream.

            A good thing to remember when studying polytheistic religion is that when someone wrote that such-and-such gods had children, it doesn’t mean that the people being represented by the parent gods are related to the people represented by their children. It just means that equally as some ethnicities live, other ethnicities live as well.

            Polytheism, including Buddhism, isn’t rocket science. Instead it’s more about self-evident truths. These are things that are almost embarrassing to say because they’re so obvious.

            In 5,000 years when someone wants to study the ethnopolitical essence of 2016, they aren’t going to be able to get very far if they only have Trump’s McDonald’s receipts. Unfortunately, that’s what Christianity does.

            It even SOUNDS like Papyrus of Ani: Christi*ANI*ty

          • Herrnhut

            All these gods are in the museums and their people are gone and disappeared in the pages of histories. Only the seed of Abraham, the Messiah – Christ Jesus is resurrected and sat at the right hand of the Heavenly Father blessing and leading His kingdom.

    • Jonathan Swift

      No one here is forcing you to believe anything. They are not like the people who try to force everyone to believe there is an invisible sky man.

  • Thomas Adams

    So is there any DNA left to clone it?

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