First Baby Snake From Dinosaur Era Found in Amber

The delicate fossil is also the oldest known snake that lived in a forested ecosystem.


A delicate baby snake with a remarkably well-preserved skeletal structure is the first of its kind ever found fossilized in amber. At 99 million years old, the fossil is also the oldest snake known from a forested environment, paleontologists revealed today in the journal Science Advances.

The authors named the new species of snake Xiaophis myanmarensis. It’s likely related to some modern groups of snakes found in Southeast Asia, including nonvenomous Asian pipe snakes and sunbeam snakes, says study leader and National Geographic Explorer Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences.

“No one has ever seen a fossilized baby snake of any kind whatsoever. And having this one be nearly a hundred million old is really quite amazing,” says coauthor Michael Caldwell, a fossil reptile expert at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

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July 18, 2018 – A 99-million-year-old baby snake fossil was found preserved in amber—the first of its kind. The fossil is about 2 inches in length, and has 97 preserved vertebrae. It’s the first baby snake fossil ever discovered, and the first snake found in amber. Researchers also believe they found a piece of skin from an adult snake in a separate piece.

“Whether or not these early snakes were giving live birth, which is common in modern snakes, or whether they were hatching from eggs, is unclear. But based on size and developmental stage, this thing was a [newborn],” he adds.

“I can’t say if it was still in the egg, and it broke and the little guy was caught up in a blob of amber, or if it had just hatched.” (Also see the first fossil evidence that ancient snakes ate dinosaurs.)

Another piece of amber, also recovered from mines in Myanmar (Burma), holds a piece of probable snake skin with light and dark banding on its scales, which may have come from an adult Xiaophis or from another contemporary serpentine species.

The researchers can’t absolutely confirm that it’s snake skin, but the size, shape, and arrangement of the scales suggest that it is. If that proves to be the case, this will be the first piece of snake skin ever discovered in amber, too.

“The scales are organized as one would expect in a snake or a lizard, in diagonal rows. In this particular specimen, part of what makes it more snake-like is the diamond shape of the scales,” Caldwell says. “Most lizards don’t show that same kind of diamond shape and pattern of overlap in the scales.”

Serpentine Scanning

The rich amber deposits from Myanmar’s northern province of Kachin have previously offered up well-preserved fossils of birds, the oldest known rain forest frogs, ancient blood-sucking ticks, and even a feathered dinosaur tail.

Xing says he acquired the new skin specimen in early 2016 for the Dexu Institute of Paleontology in Chaozhou, China, from a Burmese fossil dealer who believed it was crocodile skin.

The second specimen came to his attention in the summer of that year, and was initially thought to be a centipede or millipede. Its true identity was confirmed using advanced x-ray scans made at the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility, which helped the team create very detailed 3D models of the internal anatomy of the fossil.

At less than two inches long, the snake is very tiny and difficult to see clearly with the naked eye, but the x-ray scans allowed the team to carefully study the shape and position of its bones, including a remarkable 97 vertebrae or backbones. (Here’s how x-ray scans also revealed the flight style of a famous birdlike dinosaur.)

Based on that data, it seems the ancient snake is similar to other snakes known from the southern supercontinent of Gondwana, which existed in the late Cretaceous. That may indicate the chunk of land that became Myanmar had previously broken off from the other southern continents, such as Australia, Africa, and India, before colliding with modern-day Asia, Caldwell says.

The tiny fossil also bears some features that are no longer present in living species, he says, such as V-shaped spurs of bone on the bottom of the tail vertebrae. The spurs likely protected an artery along the length of the tail, and may also have been useful for stability when snakes initially became limbless.

“There are no adequately preserved snakes that are significantly older, anywhere,” comments paleontologist John Scanlon at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Furthermore, while lizard fossils are abundant in the northern continents that once made up the supercontinent of Laurasia, snake fossils are very rare.

“There are a number of other well-preserved fossil snakes around the same age, but they are from marine deposits around the Mediterranean and are thought to represent aquatic species. Xiaophis is clearly from a terrestrial environment and resembles terrestrial, mostly burrowing snakes,” he says.

The baby snake is missing its skull, which would have provided much more information about the animal’s ecology, feeding habitats, and relationships to other snakes, Scanlon notes. However, finding one snake in Burmese amber suggests that there are probably more waiting to be discovered and studied, he adds.

“We should certainly keep looking, not only in amber, but also in Mongolia and other places that relatives of Xiaophis could have then reached overland.”


Exclusive: Dinosaur-Era Bird Found Trapped in Amber

The 99-million-year-old animal is the most complete bird fossil yet known to science from the amber deposits of Myanmar.
 By John Pickrell PUBLISHED

The squashed remains of a small bird that lived 99 million years ago have been found encased in a cloudy slab of amber from Myanmar (Burma). While previous birds found in Burmese amber have been more visually spectacular, none of them have contained as much of the skeleton as this juvenile, which features the back of the skull, most of the spine, the hips, and parts of one wing and leg. (Help us celebrate 2018 as the Year of the Bird.)

The newfound bird is also special because researchers can more clearly see the insides of the young prehistoric creature, says study co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada.

“The amber is turbid, with lots of little wood particulates. It looks like it was produced on or near the forest floor,” McKellar says. This means the external view of the bird isn’t great, but the interior is much more exciting.

The discovery adds to a remarkable collection of Cretaceous-period fossils from the amber deposits in northern Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley. In the past few years, the region has also yielded several beautiful bird wings, the spectacular feathered tail of a small carnivorous dinosaur, and the outline of an entire hatchling bird. In December, researchers even revealed ticks in amber that may have feasted on dinosaurs.

“This Myanmar fossil deposit is clearly game-changing. It’s arguably the more important breakthrough for understanding bird evolution right now,” says Julia Clarke, an expert on the evolution of birds and flight at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We used to think we’d never have a whole bird in Cretaceous amber, but now we have multiple examples.”

Foamy and Squashed

Lida Xing, lead author of the paper detailing the specimen in the journal Science Bulletin, says that when he first saw the newfound bird being sold for jewelry in Myanmar in 2015, his heart began to beat very fast.

The team was lucky to acquire the bird for the Dexu Institute of Paleontology in Chaozhou, China. Birds in amber can sometimes sell for up to $500,000, putting them beyond the reach of scientists, says Xing, a paleontologist at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing.

He estimates that this is only the second bird in Burmese amber that’s been described by scientists and published in a journal. But he thinks as many as six have been discovered so far, around half of which have disappeared into the hands of private collectors.

Based on their analysis, supported in part by National Geographic, the team says that the young bird fell into the Cretaceous tree resin either dead or alive, and moisture caused the resin to foam slightly, later creating the cloudy amber. Some of the bones and soft tissues were weathered away, and sediment got trapped inside the spaces.

“A subsequent resin flow sealed the remains to protect them from further weathering or dissolution, but the amber was later squished, shattering many of the bones,” says McKellar. “All of this is now trapped in a wafer of amber about as large as a belt buckle.”

The bird itself is around 2.4 inches long and is perhaps slightly older than the 1.8-inch hatchling bird described last year. The structure of its feathers and skeleton suggests it was an enantiornithine, a type of primitive bird that went extinct with the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. (Here’s what happened on the day the dinosaurs died.)

“Even though they are hatchlings, they already have a full set of flight feathers,” McKellar says. “They have a weakly developed rachis, or central shaft, so they may not have been excellent flyers.”

In life, the bird would have had teeth in its beak and would have been dark chestnut or walnut in color, with fuzzy feathers on its head and neck.

Nest Mates

“It’s always exciting when a vertebrate fossil is found in amber, especially Cretaceous amber,” says George Poinar, a paleobiologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, whose research on fossilized insects in amber inspired the plot of Jurassic Park.

Assigning it to the enantiornithine birds makes sense, he adds, as they were common at that time. But it’s a pity “that the two diagnostic features of that family are missing: the toothed beak and clawed fingers on the wings.”

Poinar speculates that the fledgling may have been attacked by a predator and knocked out of the nest into resin oozing from the same tree, and that some of the plant fragments and a cockroach also found trapped in the amber piece may have originated in the nest.

“Cockroaches are general scavengers, and finding them in nesting material would not be a surprise,” he says.

With time and luck, McKellar says, the team hopes to have a whole growth series of enantiornithine birds in Burmese amber. There’s certainly no shortage of raw material to comb through—in 2015 alone, an estimated 10 tons of amber were extracted from the Hukawng Valley.