|Skull reconstruction of Coniophis and a modern snake (modified from Longrich et al. 2012, and Pough et al. 2004)|
However, one other aspect of the new paper I find somewhat more problematic. There is a long-standing debate whether snakes evolved from aquatic or land-living ancestors, and, if the latter was the case, whether these animal were terrestrial, tree-living, or burrowing. On the basis of the environment that Coniophis was found in and the features of the vertebrae, Longrich and colleagues deduce that this was a land-living and most probably burrowing animal. So far so good, but the next step goes further: on the basis of these findings, the authors suggest that the ancestor of snakes was probably terrestrial and burrowing. However, Coniophis comes from the Maastrichtian stage of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago, whereas the oldest known certain snakes date back to the late Early Cretaceous, some 100-120 million years ago. Now, that leaves us with two possibilites: First, the apparently primitive morphology of Coniophis is actually secondarily derived and has evolved from a "typical" snake, which seems unlikely. Second, Coniophis is a member of a primitive lineage of snakes which, according to its relationship with more dervied snakes, must reach back to the late Early Cretaceous at the least and thus have a ghost lineage (an evolutionary lineage without fossil record) of at least 35 million years. Given the fallacies of the fossil record in general and the poor fossil record of snakes in particular, the second explanation seems much more likely, and is also the one favoured by Longrich and colleagues. However, 35 million years are a very long time; indeed, this is more than half the length of the entire Cenozoic, the "age of mammals". The interpretation that a randmom member of such a long-lived evolutionary lineage that lived such a long time after its origin represents the original ecology of the clade is maybe not impossible, but nevertheless rather questionable. Assuming we would not have any good fossil record for either group, would you assume that elephants originated from marine animals, because their closest relatives, the Sirena, are marine today? Thus, although Coniophis provides exciting new insights into the evolutionary history of snake anatomy, I would be careful in interpreting its importance for the question of the ecological origin of snakes.
Longrich, N.R., Bhullar, B.-A.S. & Gauthier, J.A. 2012. A transitional snake from the Late Cretaceous period of North America. Nature, published online.