Snakes have a long, vibrant, and somewhat terrifying history. Unfortunately, their history is not as well-recorded as other species because their bodies and skeletons aren’t great for fossil-making. However, scientists have unearthed enough specimens to provide a good approximation of their evolutionary lineage as well as the oldest snake fossils.
Take a look at how long creatures from the Serpentes suborder have been slithering around!
When Did the Earliest Ancestors of Snakes First Appear?
Like all other animals, snakes did not suddenly appear from nowhere in a form familiar to humans today. Instead, modern snakes underwent millions upon millions of years of evolution to take on their current appearance. The earliest snakes appeared about 100 million years ago. Before then, though, they developed from other animals.
One of the oldest ancestors of snakes ever found was called Megachirella wachtleri. This reptile lived about 242 million years ago, and fossils of the creature were found in Italy. The most interesting thing about this fossil discovery and subsequent research is that scientists discovered it was a true stem-squamate.
In other words, this was the oldest member of the Squamata, a giant order of scaly reptiles. This species could be the oldest ancestor of snakes and lizards. At the very least, this creature and modern snakes and lizards had a common ancestor that lived about 240 million years ago.
Scientists used a new process called microfocus X-ray computed tomography to look inside the fossil specimen to learn about its anatomy. As a result, they determined that Megachirella had several hallmarks consistent with other squamates, confirming its classification.
So, the earliest ancestors of snakes appeared about 240 to 260 million years ago, and scientists have found evidence as far back as 242 million years ago.
When Did True Snakes First Appear?
The first true snakes may have appeared as long ago as 167 to 143 million years ago. However, they were not quite like the snakes we know today. Eophis Underwoodi lived in the Bathonian stage of the Middle Jurassic period, roughly 143 to 167 million years ago. The fossils of this creature were located in England. The snake was noteworthy because it still had four legs.
However, three other snakes were found in the same sediment. They were Parviraptor estesi, Diablophis gilmorei, and Portugalophis lignites. The discovery of these snakes was significant because the oldest snake known before this discovery was about 70 million years younger based on the highest estimate of 167 million years.
Najash rionegrina was a two-legged snake-like creature that lived about 90 million years ago. Fossils of this creature were found in Argentina. Although this reptile lived 90 million years ago, scientists have revealed that it most likely was an early departure from the snake family rather than the oldest snake. This species may not have used its legs to move but to help it reproduce. Thus, it was rather close to modern snakes in that it didn’t use its legs for locomotion.
Finally, Dinilysia patagonica is the first snake in the fossil record that did not have legs. This reptile lived about 85 million years ago, millions of years before the dinosaurs were wiped out. These snakes were especially interesting because they had no legs or residual internal structures that would have supported limbs.
As a result, they were probably the oldest snakes that bore a resemblance to modern snakes.
How Old Was the Oldest Snake Fossil Ever Found?
The oldest snake fossils ever found were 167 million years old. The snake fossils belonged to four different species that were found in similar layers of sediment. The reptiles included Eophis Underwoodi, Parviraptor estesi, Diablophis gilmorei, and Portugalophis lignites.
Eophis Underwoodi was likely the oldest of them all, up to 167 million years old, and it was found in Oxfordshire, England. Parviraptor estesi was also found in England as well. Meanwhile, Diablophis gilmorei was found in Colorado, United States. Portugalophis lignites lived about 157 and 152 years ago, and this snake was found in Portugal.
The remains of Eophis Underwoodi were fragmentary, but they were still enough to help scientists contextualize the age of the snake compared to other creatures.
What Did the Oldest Snake Fossil Teach Us?
The oldest snake fossils ever found taught scientists quite a bit. For one thing, they helped close the knowledge gap on the evolution of certain anatomical features present in snakes. After all, the oldest snake ever found, Eophis Underwoodi, had four legs.
Snakes that appeared later had vestigial leg structures, like Megachirella wachtleri. However, these were not used for moving, but they may have been used for aiding reproduction. Meanwhile, Dinilysia patagonica had no legs or support structures for limbs.
Those evolutionary changes solidified in the fossil record are extremely important for understanding the processes of evolution, tracking the progress of certain types of creatures, and ensuring proper phylogenetic organization. Identifying the oldest snake fossils helped in all those ways.
What’s the Oldest Snake to Ever Live?
The oldest snake to ever live was a 42-year-old Columbian boa named Ben. This creature lived from May 31, 1974, until June 6, 2016. This snake was recognized by Guinness World Records for its achievement.
The oldest snake currently living in captivity is a green anaconda from South Africa. This anaconda had lived for 37 years and 317 days by the time it was named the longest-living snake ever in May 2021. The snake was originally owned by a man named Paul Swires. He kept the snake from 1989 until 2004.
At that point, he turned it over to the care of Montecasino Bird Gardens in Johannesburg, South Africa. The snake is easygoing and measures about 16 feet long!
Several other unconfirmed contenders have emerged for the title of the oldest snake. Two ball pythons that were 47 and 62 are even older than the current record-holders, but they have not been authenticated yet.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/pumppump
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