Last week, paleontologists published a study in the journal Science Advances revealing a possible habitat origin for modern snakes. This study was based on an exciting morphological discovery in a fossil snake that could help scientists understand why snakes developed limbless bodies and distinct sensory systems.
The habitat of ancestral snakes has been debated between several studies, pointing to either aquatic or terrestrial origins. Studying the habitat of fossil snakes is limited to inference based on qualitative morphological analyses of the fossils themselves, or by interpretation of the depositional environment of the fossil, which can be problematic if the fossils were potentially displaced post-death.
This new study, led by Hongyu Yi from the University of Edinburgh and Mark A. Norell from the American Museum of Natural History, produced a quantitative morphological analysis examining the inner ear across all lineages of snakes, including the Cretaceous snake Dinilysia patagonica, found in South American deposits. Yi and Norell concluded from their study that D. patagonica was a burrower, and that ancestral snakes likely occupied a fossorial (burrowing) ecological niche.