The origin of snake feeding

Abstract

Snakes are renowned for their ability to engulf extremely large prey, and their highly flexible skulls and extremely wide gape are among the most striking adaptations found in vertebrates1,2,3,4,5. However, the evolutionary transition from the relatively inflexible lizard skull to the highly mobile snake skull remains poorly understood, as they appear to be fundamentally different and no obvious intermediate stages have been identified4,5. Here we present evidence that mosasaurs — large, extinct marine lizards related to snakes — represent a crucial intermediate stage. Mosasaurs, uniquely among lizards, possessed long, snake-like palatal teeth for holding prey. Also, although they retained the rigid upper jaws typical of lizards, they possessed highly flexible lower jaws that were not only morphologically similar to those of snakes, but also functionally similar. The highly flexible lower jaw is thus inferred to have evolved before the highly flexible upper jaw — in the macrophagous common ancestor of mosasaurs and snakes — for accommodating large prey. The mobile upper jaw evolved later — in snakes — for dragging prey into the oesophagus. Snakes also have more rigid braincases than lizards, and the partially fused meso- and metakinetic joints of mosasaurs are transitional between the loose joints of lizards and the rigid joints of snakes. Thus, intermediate morphologies in snake skull evolution should perhaps be sought not in small burrowing lizards, as commonly assumed, but in large marine forms.

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Figure 1: The evolution of the highly flexible snake jaw system, superimposed on a simplified cladogram of snake relationships.4,5,6,14
Figure 2: The lower jaw of a mosasaur, Platecarpus.

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Acknowledgements

We thank V. Wallach, G. Underwood, K. Karding, N. Kley, J. Scanlon and A. Greer for discussion and comments on the manuscript; J. Rosado and J. Cadle (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University), O. Rieppel and A. Resatar (Field Museum of Natural History), C. Holton, T.Trombone and L. Ford (American Museum of Natural History), S. Chapman and C. McCarthy (British Museum of Natural History) and B.Purdy and K. de Queiroz (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution) for access to materials under their care; and the Australian Research Council, Fulbright Foundation and NERC (Canada) for funding.

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Lee, M., Bell, G. & Caldwell, M. The origin of snake feeding. Nature 400, 655–659 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/23236

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