One Order of Snake Legs, Please

The mystery of where Earth’s first snakes lived as they were evolving into limbless creatures from their lizard ancestors has intrigued scientists for centuries. Now, the first study ever to analyze genes from all the living families of lizards has revealed that snakes made their debut on the land, not in the ocean. The discovery resolves a long-smoldering debate among biologists about whether snakes had a terrestrial or a marine origin roughly 150 million years ago–a debate rekindled recently by controversial research in favor of the marine hypothesis.

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"… some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etc…", Charles Darwin, on the origins of life in tidal pools
Credit:Smithsonian

In a paper to be published in the 7 May 2004 issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Nicolas Vidal, a postdoctoral fellow, and S. Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State, describe how they put the two theories to the test. They collected the largest genetic data set for snakes and lizards ever used to address this question. Their collection includes two genes from 64 species representing all 19 families of living lizards and 17 of the 25 families of living snakes.

Genetic material from some of the lizards was difficult to obtain because some species live only on certain small islands or in remote parts of the world. "We felt it was important to analyze genes from all the lizard groups because almost every lizard family has been suggested as being the one most closely related to snakes. If we had failed to include genes from even one of the lizard families, we could have missed getting the right answer," Hedges explains.

"For the marine hypothesis to be correct, snakes must be the closest relative of the only lizards known to have lived in the ocean when snakes evolved–the giant, extinct mosasaur lizards," Vidal says. "While we can’t analyze the genes of the extinct mosasaurs, we can use the genes of their closest living cousins, monitor lizards like the giant Komodo Dragon," he explains.

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Round Island Boa (Bolyeria Mutocarinata) extinct
Credit:Smithsonian

The team analyzed gene sequences from each of the species, using several statistical methods to determine how the species are related. "Although these genes have the same function in each species–and so, by definition, are the same gene–their structure in each species is slightly different because of mutations that have developed over time," Vidal explains. When the genetic comparisons were complete, Vidal and Hedges had a family tree showing the relationships of the species.

"Our results show clearly that snakes are not closely related to monitor lizards like the giant Komodo Dragon, which are the closest living relatives of the mosasaurs–the only known marine lizard living at the time that snakes evolved," Vidal says. "Because all the other lizards at that time lived on the land, our study provides strong evidence that snakes evolved on the land, not in the ocean."

The research suggests an answer to another long-debated question: why snakes lost their limbs. Their land-based lifestyle, including burrowing underground at least some of the time, may be the reason. "Having limbs is a real problem if you need to fit through small openings underground, as anybody who has tried exploring in caves knows," Hedges says. "Your body could fit through much smaller openings if you did not have the wide shoulders and pelvis that support your limbs." The researchers note that the burrowing lifestyle of many other species, including legless lizards, is correlated with the complete loss of limbs or the evolution of very small limbs.


This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation.

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