Scientists have discovered fossils of the oldest Python on record, a slippery beast that lived 48 million years ago in what is now Germany.
Found near an ancient lake, the snake’s remains help researchers discover where pythons came from. Previously, it was not clear whether pythons originated from continents in the Southern Hemisphere, where they now live, or from the Northern Hemisphere, where their closest living relatives (the sunburst snakes of Southeast Asia and the Mexican burrowing python) are found. But this newfound species – dubbed Messelopython freyi – suggests that pythons have evolved in Europe.
“There are no early ones so far fossils That would help choose between a Northern and Southern Hemisphere origin, “co-researcher Krister Smith, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, told Live Science in an email.” Our new fossils are by far the oldest records of pythons, and (because they are in Europe) they support an origin in the Northern Hemisphere. “
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The M. freyi fossils were found in the Messel Fossil Pit, near Frankfurt, Germany. This site used to be an oil shale mine, but almost became a garbage dump in the 1970s. (“A large hole in the ground is a precious commodity,” said Smith.) But by then the site was already known for its remarkable fossils dating back to the Eocene era (between 57 million and 36 million years ago). So in 1995 it became one Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) site. Fossils excavated there include one pregnant mare, mating turtles and glittering beetles.
M. freyi would be about the same size as today’s small pythons, nearly 1 meter long and have about 275 vertebrae, the researchers said. The ancient python also sheds light on its relationship with boa constrictors.
In fact, the discovery shows that this early European python lived alongside boa constrictors, a surprising find given that boas live nowhere near modern pythons. In general, boas live in South and Central America, Madagascar and North Oceania, while pythons live in Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia. “This is one of the most exciting and intriguing aspects of the discovery Messelopythonsaid co-researcher Hussam Zaher, professor and curator of vertebrates at the Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.
Researchers already knew that boas lived in Europe during the early Paleogene period, which lasted from 66 million to 23 million years ago. Now that it’s clear that pythons also lived there, it raises questions about how these “ direct ecological competitors, ” both of which squeeze prey to death, coexisted, Zaher told Live Science in an email.
This question can be answered by finding more early python and boa fossils, especially those with preserved stomach contents, he said. Additionally, researchers can look to southern Florida, where python (Python molurus bivittatus and P. sebae) and boa (Boa constrictor) species coexist as invasive species. It is not yet clear whether the P. molurus bivittatus and B. constrictor living in the Sunshine State “compete for resources or may use slightly different microhabitat and prey,” said Zaher. “A similar situation may have occurred in Europe during the Eocene.”
The study was published online Wednesday (Dec. 16) in the journal Biology Letters.
Originally published on Live Science.