Baby snake in amber a golden find

Newly discovered prehistoric fossils are painting a colourful picture of the biodiversity of the former supercontinent called Gondwana.

Among these discoveries are a range of invertebrates, dinosaurs, pterosaurus and small lizards found in amber (fossilised tree resin) in the forests of Myanmar in Southeast Asia.

Now an international research team, led by Dr Lida Xing (China University of Geosciences, Beijing) and Professor Mike Caldwell (University of Alberta, Canada), have described the first-ever fossil snake found in amber.

The researchers, including Flinders University palaeontology researchers Dr Alessandro Palci and Professor Michael Lee based at the South Australian Museum, say the snake named Xiaophis myanmarensis is a vital link to the snakes that later evolved in Australia and elsewhere.

“At 100 million years old, it dates back to the age of the dinosaurs, well before snakes started to differentiate into modern groups”, says Flinders University biological sciences research associate Dr Palci.

“This Asian fossil helps shed light on how primitive snakes dispersed from the southern to the northern continents” says Dr Palci. “Although found in the northern hemisphere, it strongly resembles South American snakes that lived at the time.”

About 150 million years ago in the Upper Jurassic, Myanmar was joined to Australia, Antarctica, Africa and South America, forming the supercontinent Gondwana. Through continental drift, Myanmar eventually separated from Gondwana and drifted north, until it collided with Asia.

Photograph of the amber clast containing the baby snake, Xiaophis, and 3D digital reconstruction of its skeleton. Image by Ming Ba (Chinese Academy of Sciences).

 Xiaophis was part of the fauna that rode on this drifting landmass, which like a gigantic passenger ship transported all sorts of Gondwanan plants and animals to Asia, says Matthew Flinders research fellow Professor Lee.

“In fact, even though Xiaophis was found in the northern hemisphere it resembles Gondwanan snakes,” he says.

“Young reptiles have poorly formed bones and rarely preserve as fossils, so Xiaophis is very important,” says Professor Lee, adding the preserved backbone of Xiaophis shows the hallmarks of a baby snake.

“The tender age at which the snake died can be inferred by its small size (total estimated length less than 8cm) and features of its backbone elements (vertebrae).

“The space occupied by the spinal cord was relatively large, and the complex joints typical of adult snakes had barely started to form.”

The amber deposits of Myanmar, also known as Burma, are becoming increasingly famous for yielding amazingly preserved extinct organisms from the age of the dinosaurs.

Amber is a fossilised tree resin that was produced in abundance by some extinct species of plants, and thanks to its viscous and adhesive properties often trapped all sorts of small animals.

A mid-Cretaceous embryonic-to-neonate snake in amber from Myanmar (2018) by L Xing, MW Caldwell, R Chen (also Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing), RL Nydam (Midwestern University, US), A Palci, TR Simões (also University of Alberta), RC McKellar (Saskatchewan Museum and University of Regina, US), MSY Lee, Y Liu (also Chinese Academy of Sciences and Museum of Natural History, Beijing), H Shi (Beijing Forestry University), K Wang (Paleo-diary Museum of Natural History, Beijing) and M Bai (also Chinese Academy of Sciences) has been published in the US journal Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5042

Flinders University is launching the first and only palaeontology named degree in Australasia at the purpose-built Flinders Palaeontology Laboratory in 2019. 

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