All Living Snakes Evolved From a Few Survivors of Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs

Modern Snakes Evolved From Few Survivors

All living snakes evolved from a handful of species that survived the giant asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other living things at the end of the Cretaceous. Credit: Joschua Knüppe

Research from the Milner Center for Evolution suggests modern snakes evolved from a handful of ancestors that survived the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

A new study suggests that all living snakes evolved from a handful of species that survived the giant asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other living things at the end of the Cretaceous. The authors say that this devastating extinction event was a form of ‘creative destruction’ that allowed snakes to diversify into new niches, previously filled by their competitors.

The research, published in Nature Communications, shows that snakes, today including almost 4000 living species, started to diversify around the time that an extra-terrestrial impact wiped out the dinosaurs and most other species on the planet.

The study, led by scientists at the University of Bath and including collaborators from Bristol, Cambridge, and Germany, used fossils and analyzed genetic differences between modern snakes to reconstruct snake evolution. The analyses helped to pinpoint the time that modern snakes evolved.

Their results show that all living snakes trace back to just a handful of species that survived the asteroid impact 66 million years ago, the same extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The authors argue that the ability of snakes to shelter underground and go for long periods without food helped them survive the destructive effects of the impact. In the aftermath, the extinction of their competitors — including Cretaceous snakes and the dinosaurs themselves — allowed snakes to move into new niches, new habitats, and new continents.

Snakes then began to diversify, producing lineages like vipers, cobras, garter snakes, pythons, and boas, exploiting new habitats, and new prey. Modern snake diversity — including tree snakes, sea snakes, venomous vipers and cobras, and huge constrictors like boas and pythons — emerged only after the dinosaur extinction.

Fossils also show a change in the shape of snake vertebrae in the aftermath, resulting from the extinction of Cretaceous lineages and the appearance of new groups, including giant sea snakes up to 10 meters long.

“It’s remarkable, because not only are they surviving an extinction that wipes out so many other animals, but within a few million years they are innovating, using their habitats in new ways,” said lead author and recent Bath graduate Dr. Catherine Klein, who now works at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in Germany.

The study also suggests that snakes began to spread across the globe around this time. Although the ancestor of living snakes probably lived somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, snakes first appear to have spread to Asia after the extinction.

Dr. Nick Longrich, from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath and the corresponding author, said: “Our research suggests that extinction acted as a form of ‘creative destruction’- by wiping out old species, it allowed survivors to exploit the gaps in the ecosystem, experimenting with new lifestyles and habitats.

“This seems to be a general feature of evolution — it’s the periods immediately after major extinctions where we see evolution at its most wildly experimental and innovative.

“The destruction of biodiversity makes room for new things to emerge and colonize new landmasses. Ultimately life becomes even more diverse than before.”

The study also found evidence for a second major diversification event around the time that the world shifted from a warm ‘Greenhouse Earth’ into a cold ‘Icehouse’ climate, which saw the formation of polar icecaps and the start of the Ice Ages.

The patterns seen in snakes hint at a key role for catastrophes — severe, rapid, and global environmental disruptions — in driving evolutionary change.

Reference: “Evolution and dispersal of snakes across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction” by Catherine G. Klein, Davide Pisani, Daniel J. Field, Rebecca Lakin, Matthew A. Wills and Nicholas R. Longrich, 14 September 2021, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25136-y

11 Comments on "All Living Snakes Evolved From a Few Survivors of Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs"

  1. Not all but a lot of you science people think you’re so smart that you don’t believe in God or don’t need to or don’t think God is real deal just cuz a lot of you don’t believe what you can’t see. Well that’s why it’s called Faith people and God is real. Put your ego aside it’s really easy to believe in He that created all the Good Beautiful things in Earth. God Doesn’t make Mistakes.
    Mans decisions made the Good Beautiful bad n ugly. Man brought on all the suffering cuz of his greed and love of earthly things. Man makes mistakes. God will always forgive you of your mistakes. If you take the mark of the beast He will not forgive you for that You have to believe n have to go through Jesus to be to Be with God To Enter into His Kingdom and live forever instead of the fires of hell and eternal damnation and suffering

  2. Way to ruin the moment, Ed. Not everything has to fit inside your book.

  3. Philip Merrihew | September 16, 2021 at 6:36 pm | Reply

    Nothing like staying on topic.

  4. Very cool article. It’s crazy what fantasic evolution can come from such a catastrophic event. I love reading about evolutionary circumstances that push species into new habitats and niches.

  5. Jeremiah Daniel | September 16, 2021 at 8:26 pm | Reply

    Amen Ed.

  6. Science is Gods Law. I follow Jesus and Science. How? If The God of Science isn’t also The God of Religion(s) then there will be no overcoming the utter ignorance involved in taking ancient traditional allegory as literal modern fact. I was raised religious and anti-evolution. I became an atheist due to that very hypocrisy. Later on, I found the allegories in the Bible to be beautiful renditions from the human mind as an explanation for our physical reality. The teachings attributed to Jesus to be in line with Loving-Kindness for all. His teachings to be sound in moral judgment when applied appropriately. I now see no conflict. I am an agnostic follower of Jesus Christ and believe that science further explains The Gods’ Laws for our existence. The Baghavad Gita offers many beautiful interpretations of such scientific and spiritual laws. Both are one and the same. Science is Spiritual. The Creation accounts in Genesis cannot and no longer should be understood as literal. It is as sensible as saying that the world is flat because The Bible says “to the ends of the Earth” and “as far as East is from West” -assuming that there must be an inferred and exact measurement defining such distances Biblically. Remember that people were murdered for proposing the idea of a Heliocentric System!!! I say “No more!”. You evolved from a cell in the womb. You evolved from a child into an adult…( and if the rest of us are lucky)… your mind has hopefully joined in these stages. Evolution is in your body. Humans are evolving additional arteries in the arm- into adulthood now…it is observable. Ignorance of The Gods’ Scientific/Spiritual Law IS NO EXCUSE. Science is Gods Law. Thank you.

  7. God is a matter of faith. Science is just a formalised way of describing the world as it is. There is no contradiction in accepting science and belief in God. Personally, I am an atheist but I respect those of faith. It disturbs me when some if those who profess religion are unable to respect those who don’t share their perspective.

  8. Omg stop with the long winded fiction fairy stories. I am trying to enjoy factual real world science here!

  9. Gator is last living dinosaur.meterorite did not kill the dinosaur .modern crocodilian is just a better dinosaur .spinosauridae is the crown group of dinosaur it’s a tyrannosaur which make tyrannosaur crown group of dinosaur .superior weaponry spinosauridaemesoeucrocodylia Makes them king of dinosaur I see no different from the gator to other animal were the better won make it and are alive today by the evolution model

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