The Year of the Snake

So we enter the year of the Snake according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar.  Of the twelve animals that make up the Chinese zodiac, two are reptiles, there is the Chinese dragon, the fossilised bones of long extinct dinosaurs, no doubt being identified by Chinese sages as proof of the dragon’s existence.  The second reptile of the zodiac is the snake and 2013 is the year of the snake according to the traditional Chinese calendar.

With the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (Beijing, China) having the world’s largest collection of vertebrate fossils, it seems fitting to consider the snake, or most certainly the Order Squamata (lizards and snakes) from a palaeontology perspective at the start of the Chinese year of the snake.

Snakes are not closely related to dinosaurs, but they did evolve in the Mesozoic just like the Dinosauria.  Today, snakes and lizards are the most abundant and diverse of all the reptiles. The Squamata  represent the scaled reptiles, the bodies of these animals are covered in horny, shield-like scales.  The Order Squamata is divided into a number of Sub-orders, snakes are within the Sub-order Serpentes.  The paucity of the known fossil record makes pinpointing the approximate evolution of the first members of the Squamata very difficult.  Fossils are known from the Mid Jurassic and as snakes evolved from lizards, the first fossils of lizard-like reptiles pre-date those of the true snakes (Serpentes).  Evidence relating to assessments of the molecular clocks of Squamata suggests that this Order may have had its origins in the Permian geological period.  However, since there has only been a handful of early snakes and ancestral snake fossils found to date, palaeontologists remain uncertain as to the phylogenetic relationship between snakes and other elements of the Squamata.

The earliest snakes were probably non-venomous constrictors, these probably evolved during the Late Cretaceous and with the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of this geological period, those groups of snakes that survived the mass extinction event rapidly diversified and became apex predators in a number of eco-systems.  For example, beautifully preserved snake fossils from the Messel shales (near to Frankfurt, Germany), dating from the early Tertiary show that a number of snake species hunted in the tropical forests of this part of the world.  Palaeopython was one of the largest species with some specimens measuring up to two metres in length.  The largest snake known from the fossil record is Titanoboa (T. cerrejonensis).  Fossils found in a Columbian coal mine and described in 2009 indicate a giant constrictor which may have measured more than fifteen metres in length and it would have had a body as thick as an oil drum.

To read an article on the discovery of Titanoboa: Titanoboa – Giant Snake of the Palaeocene

There have been a number of Cenozoic snake fossils found in China.  People born in the year of the snake in traditional Chinese culture are supposed to take on some characteristics of these reptiles.  Custom states that these people are not outwardly emotional and tend to value their privacy.  They are cunning, meticulous but not good communicators.  However, people born in the year of the snake are believed to be dedicated, goal orientated and good at working alone.  Some almanacs state that people born in the year of the snake make good scientists, even palaeontologists.

Happy Chinese New Year.

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