Ancient snakes both like eels, burrowed like worms

Canberra: Ancient snakes may have been more adept at moving through water and living underground than their contemporary counterparts, research published by Australian scientists said on Wednesday.

Researchers from South Australia’s Flinders University collaborated with Canadian colleagues at the University of Alberta in comparing CT scans of the inner ear of more than 80 snake and lizard species with remains of a primitive snake species called Dinilysia, Xinhua news agency reported.

Alessandro Palci from the university’s biological sciences department said the scientists discovered that ancient snakes may have been both adept swimmers much like eels and fearsome burrowers like worms.

“The origin of snakes attracts a lot of controversy and this research helps us have a better understanding of how evolution works,” Palci said.

“Their very flexible skulls and extremely elongated bodies are strikingly different from their closest relatives, lizards.”

Over a century, researchers have vigorously argued whether snakes evolved their long bodies to be better at burrowing like worms or at swimming like eels.

“Our new study suggests that both camps might have been partly right. There are striking resemblances between the inner ear region of the primitive snake Dinilysia and some semi-aquatic snakes, as well as certain burrowing forms,” Palci said.

Palci’s colleague, Professor Mike Lee from Flinders University, said the research confirmed that snakes evolved from being both land-dwelling and sea-dwelling creatures.

“The most primitive snake known, a tiny four-legged creature called Tetrapodophis, seems to have a combination of swimming and burrowing adaptations,” Lee said.

“If the ancestral snake was an amphibious burrower, this would explain why so many ancient snakes are aquatic, fossorial or both.”