Extinct snake devoured baby dinosaurs: scientists

The team of palaeontologists led by Jeff Wilson of the University of Michigan and Dhananjay Mohabey of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) found remains of a snake and dinosaur fossil in Dholi Dungri village, about 130 km from Ahmedabad. The palaeontologists believe that the snakes devoured baby sauropod (lizard-footed) dinosaurs just as they entered the world from fully hatched eggs.

"The new fossils provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, of snake predation on hatchling dinosaurs and a rare example of non-dinosaurian predation on dinosaurs," the scientists reported in a study published in PLoS Biology today.

The remains of a nearly complete snake were found preserved in the nest of a sauropod dinosaur, adults of which were the largest animals known to have walked the earth.

The snake was coiled around a recently hatched egg adjacent to a hatchling sauropod. Remains of other snake individuals associated with egg clutches at the same site indicate that the snake made its living feeding on young dinosaurs.

The new snake, which was named Sanajeh indicus or "ancient-gaped one from the Indian subcontinent" because of its lizard-like gape, adds critical information that helps resolve the early diversification of snakes.

The fossil discovered in Gujarat dates to the Late Cretaceous rocks and is 3.5-metre long and in a coiled position around a broken egg.

There are other broken pieces of eggs and two other unbroken eggs lying nearby, and fossil remains of a 0.5-metre-long hatchling dinosaur lying next to the snake. "It was such a thrill to discover such a portentous moment frozen in time," said Mohabey, who made the initial discovery in the early 1980s.

Modern large-mouthed snakes are able to eat large prey because they have mobile skulls and wide gapes. Sanajeh bears only some of the traits of modern large-mouthed snakes and provides insight into how they evolved.

"Sanajeh was capable of ingesting the half meter-long sauropod hatchling because it was quite large itself, almost 3.5 meters long," said snake expert Jason Head of the University of Toronto-Mississaugua.

"This points to an interesting evolutionary strategy for primitive snakes to eat large prey by increasing their body size," he said. Although the sauropod dinosaurs that Sanajeh preyed upon include the largest animals capable of walking on land, they began their life as small hatchlings that were about one-seventh the length of Sanajeh.

Sauropods appear to have achieved their enormous size by virtue of a fast-growth phase, which would have kept them out of danger from Sanajeh-sized predators by the end of their first year of life.

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