95-Million-Year-Old Skull Fossil Points to 'Biblical Snake' with Hind Legs

The snake species may have evolved from bigger lizards, and not from small burrowing worm-like lizards as was previously believed.
Fabienne Lang

A team of paleontologists discovered a wonderfully well-preserved snake skull in Argentina, shedding new light on the origin of the species. 

From their findings, the team has deduced the snake had rear limbs and possibly evolved from giant lizards. This goes against the well-known belief that snakes come from small worm-like burrowing lizards. 

The discovery and details of the fossil were published in the journal Science Advances.


Snakes and their evolution

The fossils were discovered in Argentina's Río Negro Province, and are named najash rionegrina — after the biblical snake Nahash (the Hebrew word for snake), and the region where they were found.

Najash fossils are around 95 million years old and from them, it's been discovered that these snakes had hind legs.

95-Million-Year-Old Skull Fossil Points to 'Biblical Snake' with Hind Legs
The scientists in the process of removing sediment in order to extract fossils contained in the rock at La Buitrera, Source: Sebastián Apesteguía/Universidad Maimónides

The information from Najash's fossils relied on a very fragmented skull, which meant that many scholars were left to guess what these ancient snakes must have looked like. 

From their clear shared anatomy, it's been known that snakes have evolved from lizards. Furthermore, as snakes' skulls help us understand their feeding patterns, we rely on Najash skull fossils to determine snakes' evolution.

The new discovery

Fernando Garberoglio from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and paleontologists Sebastián Apesteguía from the Universidad Maimónides, and Guillermo Rougier from the University of Louisville discovered the fossil in 2013 at the La Buitrera Paleontological Area in northern Patagonia, Argentina.

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It was Garberoglio who first saw the almost-complete snake skull fossil buried in the earth.

Thanks to their discovery, the long-standing theory that snakes evolved from a small, blind, burrowing lizard can be discounted.

95-Million-Year-Old Skull Fossil Points to 'Biblical Snake' with Hind Legs
Source: Fernando Garberoglio/LiveScience

Because the skull fossil was almost intact, the team was able to closely see that these snakes had large mouths with sharp teeth — nothing like the burrowing small lizards — and had mobile skull joints like many modern era snakes. 

It looks more certain that they fed on larger prey than previously believed, and that they were very similar to our current day big-bodied, and big-headed lizards, such as the Komodo dragons. 

Quite a different comparison from the small, blind, worm-like lizards scientists previously thought snakes evolved from.