One of the great mysteries of reptile evolution has been solved this week. Paleontologists and herpetologists have believed for years that modern legless snakes must have had four legs at some time in the past. They had found several transitional fossil snake specimens with two legs, but had yet to find the four-legged snake “missing link”.
The 120-million-year-old snake has been named Tetrapodophis amplectus, but probably didn’t actually use its feet to walk. Gioven the morphology of the feet, they might have helped Tetrapodophis hold onto a partner while mating or grip struggling prey, explained study researcher David Martill, a professor of paleobiology at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
Prior paleontological research has described several two-legged snake fossils, but this is the first known snake ancestor with four legs. Martill added that the four-legged snake fossil evolved from land-based-burrowing creatures, and is a transitional organism representing the evolution from prehistoric lizards to modern snakes.
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The study on the snake missing link was published in the July 24th edition of the academic journal Science.
Statement from lead researcher
“We’ve found the ancestor of all snakes,” Martill enthused in a recent interview with Live Science. “We have found the missing link between four-legged lizards and snakes.”
Martill was leading a group of students on a field trip with his students to the Solnhofen Museum, when he saw a new fossil specimen on display. “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, it’s got back legs!'” Martill said. “It had front legs. Nobody had ever seen a snake before with four legs, and yet evolutionary theory predicts that there should be an animal that is transitional between four-legged lizards and snakes, and here it was.”
He then explained his discovery to the museum and requested a study of the fossil. He brought in Helmut Tischlinger, a German paleontologist, and Nicholas Longrich, a senior lecturer in evolutionary biology at the Unive