Snakes have been around on our planet for much longer than it was earlier believed. The oldest known snake fossils which have been unearthed from a quarry in England are believed to be 167 million years ago. This discovery has now pushed back the origin of snakes on Earth by tens of millions of years.

Scientists described in detail the four oldest known snake fossils on Tuesday. All four of them lived at the same time as dinosaurs with the oldest one of them, Eophis, being a swamp dweller that lived on tadpoles, insects and minnows.

The largest of the four was Portugalophis lignites. Discovered in a coal mine in central Portugal, this snake was nearly 4 feet (1.2 meters) long and is believed to be 155 million years old. It may have eaten small mammals, young dinosaurs, lizards, birds and frogs.

Diablophis gilmorei, which was found in western Colorado was slightly larger than Eophis and probably ate similar prey. It was from about 155 million years ago,

144 million year old Parviraptor estesi, found in sea cliffs near Swanage, England, was about 60 cm long.

The oldest known snake fossils till now were 102 million years old said Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist from the University of Alberta. Caldwell led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Snakes have generated fear and fascination since ancient times,” said paleontologist Sebastián Apesteguía of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and Universidad Maimonides, another of the researchers.

“However, we know very little about their very origins,” added Apesteguía, who speculated the first snakes may have appeared about 190 million years ago.

These fossils were earlier mistaken as ancient lizards, partly because the fossils were not complete. Being extremely old, all the palaeontologists had before them were pieces of skulls, pieces of their backbones, ribs and hips. Incomplete fossils made it impossible for the scientists working on them earlier to know how long these ancient creatures were or what they looked like.

To make matters even more complicated, lizards and snakes look quite similar. They’re both reptiles and they’re both scaly. Some lizards are even long and legless.

And ancient snakes were even harder to tell apart from lizards than modern snakes.

“I’m rather convinced that these animals would have had four legs,” Caldwell said. “If they in fact did, they would have looked remarkably like a lizard.”

Caldwell was finally able to point out that the fossils belonged to snakes and not lizards as earlier believed by studying the jaws of these animals.

 

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