LIFESTYLE

Fossil of four-legged snake sparks controversy in the science world

James Brown/University of Portsmouth

 (James Brown/University of Portsmouth)

To most researchers, it was just a slab of stone from Brazil sitting in an obscure British museum. Labeled "unknown fossil vertebrate," it had been overlooked for years and was collecting dust – until paleontologist David Martill saw it and knew exactly what it was.

"I thought, 'Blimey! That's a snake!' … Then I looked more closely and said, 'Bloody hell! It's got back legs!'" Martill, of Britain's University of Portsmouth, told USA Today. "I realized we'd actually got the missing link between lizards and snakes."

This missing link fossil, which dates back between 110 to 125 million years, is the first ever snake discovered with four legs and could to be the ancestor from which boa constrictors, rattlesnakes and all other snakes evolved from. It was called Tetrapodophis amplectus by the team.

"It is generally accepted that snakes evolved from lizards at some point in the distant past," Martill said. "What scientists don't know yet is when they evolved, why they evolved, and what type of lizard they evolved from. This fossil answers some very important questions. For example, it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards."

The fossil remains also allegedly shed light on how early snakes survived in the tough world of the Early Cretaceous period. A tiny creature – possibly a salamander or frog – was found in the four-legged snakes gut. The snake also had a hinged jaw and curved teeth for digging into big prey that indicate that this snake was munching on snacks bigger than insects from the very beginning.

"The fossil shows "snakes really early on, 100 million years ago, were already eating meat," study co-author Nicholas Longrich of Britain's University of Bath, told USA Today. "They were basically carnivores … from the get-go."

Besides its jaws and teeth, the snake's arms and legs – along with its long, slender neck – allowed it to squeeze its prey into submission, earning it its nickname.

"Huggy the Snake,"Longrich said, "because he hugged his prey."

Not all scientists, however, are sold on the snake theory because it goes against the ocean-origin hypothesis of snakes.

Longrich says that the lack of swimming aids argues against the idea that snakes evolved from marine creatures. Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta disputed this theory by saying that the Tetrapodophis lacks "key features" of the vertebrae that would identify it as a snake.

Caldwell told Science magazine that what it could be is part of a previously presumed “lost group.”

“I think this creature is far more exciting for what it might be than for what [the team] says it is,” Caldwell said.

Other scientists are still unsure.

“I’m trying to carefully sit on the fence as to whether this is actually a snake,” Susan Evans, a paleobiologist at University College of London, told Science magazine.

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