50 YEARS AGO
The first known fossil remains of a baby
snake have turned up in a hunk of amber
found in Myanmar. The critter, a new
species named Xiaophis myanmarensis,
met its untimely demise about 99 million
years ago during the Cretaceous Period, an
international team of researchers reports
July 18 in Science Advances.
The fossil is tiny, the first hint that it
was a baby snake. The skeleton, which is
missing its skull, is about 5 centimeters
long. In total, the snake was probably less
than 8 centimeters long. Its incomplete
bone formation matches what’s seen today
in neonatal snakes.
This find is exciting because the fossil
record for snakes has been notoriously
UPDATE: The goal of the
U. S. government’s Project
Stormfury, which began in the
1960s, was to knock the wind
out of tropical cyclones. By
injecting clouds with particles
of ice-forming silver iodide,
researchers hoped they could
disrupt the destructive eye wall
of such storms. Meteorologists
tested only a few hurricanes
with this cloud-seeding approach because of strict rules
and fickle hurricane seasons.
The project shut down in 1983.
Although it failed to meet its
goal, Stormfury helped scientists improve hurricane forecasting (SN Online: 9/21/17).
Researchers have proposed
other hurricane-busting methods, such as dispersing sulfate
aerosols into the stratosphere
to try to cool the planet and reduce the number of hurricanes.
Excerpt from the
August 17, 1968
issue of Science News
This walnut-sized chunk of amber contains the
first known baby snake fossil.
Baby snake preserved in Myanmar amber
Since man cannot muster
anything approaching the
energy of a hurricane, and
so has no hope of overcoming the storm by force,
Stormfury attempts to
use the giant’s own energy
against it…. Last week,
Project Stormfury began its
sparse until about the last 20 years, says
paleontologist Michael Caldwell of the
University of Alberta in Edmonton,
Canada, an author of the study. Snakes
don’t preserve well in general. And
this baby is especially delicate, with
97 wafer-thin vertebrae packed into just
4.75 centimeters of skeleton.
“Even if something that small was
preserved in the fossil record, in normal
fossil preservation styles, you’d never
find it,” Caldwell says. Sedimentary
rock would crush the fragile remains
and separate vertebrae, which individually would be nearly impossible to identify. It’s only because this snake had the
misfortune to get caught up in sticky
tree resin that its skeleton has been so
exceptionally preserved in 3-D.
This fossil along with preserved skin
from a larger snake of a different species offer the first evidence that some
Cretaceous snakes lived in forests.
That’s not necessarily a surprise,
Caldwell says. By 99 million years
ago, snakes were distributed broadly
around the world. But other snake
fossils don’t always provide enough
clues for scientists to ID the animals’
habitats. Because resin oozes from a
tree, anything preserved inside it must
have lived nearby. — Laurel Hamers
The details of a baby snake skeleton, without a
skull, became clearer when high-energy X-rays
revealed what was hidden inside murky amber.