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Finicky no more: ancient snakes ate their way to success

A yellow blunt-headed tree snake eating red-eyed tree frog eggs

A yellow blunt-headed tree snake (Imantodes inornatus) dines on frog eggs, one of the many epicurean delights of modern snakes. Credit: John David Curlis (CC BY 4.0)

After the devastating mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, snakes quickly developed a taste for a bountiful array of creatures — helping to give rise to the nearly 4,000 modern-day snake species1.

Sixty-six million years ago, a cataclysm killed off roughly 75% of all Earth’s species. But snakes survived, and their diversity soon soared. Scientists credit this success partly to snakes’ expanding palates.

To find out more about the reptiles’ dietary shifts, Michael Grundler at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Daniel Rabosky at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor compiled data from dissections of museum specimens’ gut contents and field observations of 882 modern snake species. The authors merged those data with information about the evolutionary history of snakes.

Their results suggest that the most recent common ancestor of living snakes dined exclusively on insects and other invertebrates. But shortly after the mass extinction, snakes developed the striking variety of dietary preferences that they have today, although some of these — such as a fondness for earthworms — evolved independently in multiple lineages of snakes.

Nature 598, 389 (2021)



  1. 1.

    Grundler, M. C. & Rabosky, D. L. PLoS Biol. 19, e3001414 (2021).

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

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