Written by Lola Gayle

Snakes are incredibly diverse creatures. There are over 3,400 living species and can be found in a wide range of habitats, such as land, water and in trees. However, we know very little about their origins, evolution and early behavior. That is, until today.

Researchers, led by Yale University paleontologists, conducted a comprehensive analysis of fossils, genes and anatomy from 73 snake and lizard species and found that the original snake ancestor preferred stealth-hunting at night and had tiny hindlimbs with ankles and toes.

“We infer that the most recent common ancestor of all snakes was a nocturnal, stealth-hunting predator targeting relatively large prey, and most likely would have lived in forested ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere,” said lead author Allison Hsiang, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics.

“Our analyses suggest that the most recent common ancestor of all living snakes would have already lost its forelimbs, but would still have had tiny hind limbs, with complete ankles and toes. It would have first evolved on land, instead of in the sea,” added co-author Daniel Field, a Yale Ph.D. candidate. “Both of those insights resolve longstanding debates on the origin of snakes.”

“Primate brains, including those of humans, are hard-wired to attend to serpents, and with good reason,” said Jacques Gauthier, senior author of the study, a Yale professor of geology and geophysics, and curator of fossil vertebrates at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. “Our natural and adaptive attention to snakes makes the question of their evolutionary origin especially intriguing.”

The findings are published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Support for the research came from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

What does this have to do with STEM and STEAM education?

By teaching kids about snakes, you are teaching them about science and nature. Formal and home classrooms can benefit greatly from the study of animals. Kids always love animals, from soft and fluffy to icky and sticky. Use the animal kingdom to bring out that childlike sense of wonder. They’ll learn from it and so will you!

Herpetology is a branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians (including frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts) and reptiles (including snakes, lizards, turtles, terrapins, tortoises, crocodilians). Batrachology is a further subdiscipline of herpetology concerned with the study of amphibians alone.

Zoology, or animal biology, is the branch of biology that relates to the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems.

Based on materials provided by Yale University and BioMed Central.

Image Above: This is an artist’s rendering of an ancient snake, with tiny hind limbs. Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi

This post is also available at STEAMRegister.com.