After the extinction of the dinosaurs, snakes have taken the earth by storm. Today, the number of their species is almost equal to that of mammals. These little-known reptiles rule the world hidden from our view.
About 66 million years ago, a giant asteroid hit the Earththat contributed to the extinction of almost all non-avian dinosaurs. A paleontological moment has passed from the moment the dinosaurs disappeared to the appearance of a wealth of new organisms on our planet. Animals that have benefited from the extinction of the giant reptiles include warm-blooded vertebrates that feed their offspring with milk.
Never before have there been so many mammals on Earth as today† That is why the Cenozoic (in which we live) is often referred to as the mammalian age. After the Cretaceous extinction, mammals achieved tremendous evolutionary success and diversified greatly. It is estimated that our cluster has approximately 5.8 thousand inhabitants. types. But is it really that much, given that it also lives on Earth? even 4 thousand species of snakes†
Shouldn’t we call the Cenozoic the Age of the Serpents? How come we leave out these mysterious animals and recognize ourselves as the greatest beneficiaries of our time?
For a long time the snakes went undetected by scientists. This was mainly due to their secretive lifestyle. Few observations equal few results. Until recently, we also had little information about snakes’ evolutionary past. Only later finds – combined with new methods of genetic research – made it possible to get to know these reptiles better.
What is the result of the research by Catherine Klein and her team, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications? That all snakes alive today are descendants of a handful of survivors who survived the Cretaceous extinction† The cited studies show that by how much? snakes they had crawled around the world before, it was only the impact of a large asteroid that gave their evolution the momentum.
This is also confirmed by other models, including the latest developed by Michael Grundler and Daniel Rabosky and published in PLOS Biology. According to the authors of the quoted works, the most amazing thing is that in just a few million years, snakes were able to inhabit almost all possible environments and niches. These reptiles live in deserts, tropical forests and savannas. They are even found in the open waters of the ocean.
An idea of their extraordinary adaptability can be obtained from, for example, a two-colored tear (Hydrophis platurus† It can spend its entire life in the open ocean, and it gets fresh water by drinking it after abundant rainfall from the surface.
To understand why these legless animals were so successful, it is worth looking for an answer to a fundamental question. How did the snakes come to ‘give up’ their legs? These answers are sought, among other things, in exceptionally rare fossils of snake ancestors. For example, we know that about 90 million years ago the Earth was inhabited by a long slender reptile, which scientists gave the generic name Najash† This refers to the biblical serpent and its Hebrew name.
According to Fernando Garberoglio and his colleagues in an analysis published in Science Advances in 2019, this prehistoric snake was very similar in many ways to its modern descendants. With just one exception. He had two legs. The legs of this reptile were disproportionately small and were located at the very end of its beautiful body, 1.5 meters long.† What were these hind legs for? It seems to be useless, which is why his descendants lost them.
In an evolutionary arms race, it may seem like a dumber idea than losing your paws. After all, they make it possible to walk, run, grab branches and thus climb trees, as well as grab objects. This “choice” seems even more nonsensical in the case of a predator.
However, in favor of their absence, there are many arguments regarding: lifestyle of snakes† As Bartłomiej Gorzkowski – chairman of the Epicrates Foundation, which deals with exotic animals, and explains the head of the Exotarium of the Animal Shelter in Lublin – “without legs” does not mean worse, but different.
† The lack of limbs allows the snakes to approach the victim smoothly and silently† They do this in a thicket of branches, on a pile of rocks, in rock crevices, rodent burrows and other places inaccessible to most other predators. Additionally the ability to swallow relatively large prey whole does not require claw feetthat these reptiles should break food into smaller pieces – explains Gorzkowski.
Paradoxically enough then the lack of limbs gave the snakes an extraordinary adaptabilityj. Example? It may seem that sky is the last environment to expect a tall, narrow, legless creature. After all, all animals that fly (e.g. birds, bats) or glide (e.g. gliders or lotus cats) have limbs. And they are equipped with wide folds or planes that significantly increase their lift.
However, nothing is impossible for snakes. As evidenced by years of research by John Socha of the University of Chicago, the most famous legless aviators are snakes, that is, the reptiles of the genus Chrysopela† These remarkable snakes are admittedly incapable of active flight. However, they can use it very effectively gliding flight† Thanks to this, they can travel up to 16 meters.
Think it’s not a staggering distance? Imagine that, sitting in the bleachers of a basketball court, you suddenly feel a snake land on your shoulder, “lifting up” from the bleachers on the other side.
How is it possible that long slender snakes “fly”† Anush Krishnan and co-authors in a paper published in 2014 in “Physics of Fluids” argue that the snake takes the laws of physics to the extreme.
- First, he uses what is known as ballistic diving. The tail hooks firmly to a high branch and allows the rest of the body to fall down in a controlled manner.
- Then – within a split second – it releases its tail on the branch and pushes itself away from the branch. Once in the air, he arranges his body in a specific way. To be precise, so that the sliding angle is exactly 60 degrees.
- The snake gradually descends to the ground, lowers its head and arranges the body in an S-shape, increasing the sliding speed.
- To avoid falling to the ground, the snake enters the final stage of “flight,” which scientists call a shallow slide. The animal arranges the body in a shape that resembles a horizontally arranged sine wave, making each “wave” act like a wing and increasing the snake’s lift.
This allows it to reduce the slip angle by up to 15 degrees. It “flies” almost parallel to the ground, which increases the distance to be covered.
All snakes are predators† They hunt and catch their prey thanks to a quick, smooth jump. But how snakes living in dense and resisting water would surprise their victim?
Antennae snake (Erpeton tentaculatum) gets its name from two prominent “antennas”† These are special appendages on the head that allow with extreme precision feel even the smallest movements of the water† This is a key skill. This reptile lives in murky waters, and its food is small, very agile fish.
When encountering a fish-antenna snake, this first animal has virtually no chance. This is because – as Kenneth Catania writes in a 2010 work published in “PLOS One” – this reptile has the ability to predict the future†
Antennae snakes only hunt about 1.5 cm from their mouths. They know that they can only jump fast enough at such a short distance. The hunting tactic is therefore based on: ambush† The antenna snake stabilizes its body in an inverted J position by attaching its tail to a point in the bottom. When a fish is within reach of its mouth, the snake makes special, microvale-producing movements.
The fish realizes that something is wrong. However, he has no idea that the snake deliberately provoked her to flee. And then the most amazing thing happens. The snake dives upside down at a speed of 130 km/h. It doesn’t hit where the fish is currently, but where it will run away in a split second. In this way – escaping the whirlpools caused by the snake – the victim flies straight into the mouth of the predator.
Both the typical and lesser-known environments of snakes show that these reptiles don’t need legs to be deadly. Attempts to explain, dwhy, and when the snakes lost their legs, they led to a major problem. Where did these reptiles come from?
Some scientists, including Hongyu Yi and Mark Norell, authors of a 2015 paper in Science Advances, indicate that: Lizards, the ancestors of snakes, lived close to the ground. This means that they spent the night in burrows, burying themselves in the ground and chasing their prey between the nooks and crannies of the nest. These activities are easier for those with slim and narrow forms.
Another theory is being promoted by scientists led by Alessandro Palci, among others. In an article published in the “Royal Society Open Science” they state that: streamlined, devoid of protrusions and limbs, the body is ideal for moving in the water. Prehistoric water snakes, they say, could “swap” the curvature of the limbs and move in the water. Just as modern aquatic representatives of this group do.
So where do these mysterious reptiles come from? It’s still not clear, so we have to wait for more data and discoveries from scientists.