Tech & Science

100 Million-year-old Baby Snake Preserved in Amber Is Oldest Ever Discovered

Two small chunks of amber contain the first known fossil snakes ever found trapped in the glassy substance, scientists have revealed. Estimated to be almost 100 million years old, one of the honey-colored hunks contains the oldest known baby snake ever discovered.

These gleaming globs of amber, scientists reported in the journal Science Advances, can unlock the secrets of the ancient creatures: their evolutionary history and the environment they lived in.

7_18_Amber snake Skeletal remains from the Xiaophis myanmarensis snake hatchling are trapped in Burmese amber. Ming BAI/Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Workers unearthed the amber in Myanmar quarries located near the Chinese border. People have collected amber in the country for more than a century, study author Michael Caldwell told Newsweek, but the quarries have only recently started to yield significant numbers of ancient biological treasures.

Amber deposits—as anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park knows—can preserve fossils in excellent condition for millions of years (although not well enough to extract any dino DNA). In this case, one piece of the glassy gold held a shard of shed skin and the other some 97 vertebrae and ribs from the skeleton of a baby snake.

“Amber is an excellent ‘super glue’ and grabs whatever gets stuck it in,” said Caldwell, who works at the University of Alberta. “The forest including the snakes, plants, twigs, bugs, and bug [droppings] and dirt, all got caught up in the amber.”

These bits and pieces trapped alongside the snake specimens revealed the snakes were living in a forested ecosystem, he added.

7_18_Snake babies Amber drips towards baby Xiaophis myanmarensis snakes as they emerge from their eggs in this artist's impression. Cheung Chung Tat

A team of specialists, including five snake paleontologists and five imaging scientists, set to work examining the unique critters, Caldwell said.

Researchers used microscopes, CT scans and even particle accelerator technology to create highly detailed images of the specimens. Taking a look inside the baby snake’s bones showed it wasn’t just a small adult.

The team classified the baby reptile as Xiaophis myanmarensis. Its bones are not unlike those of some of today’s infant snakes, suggesting they haven’t changed all that much in the last 100 million years.

Read more: Scorpion-tailed spider chimera found in amber is missing link between ancient arachnids and modern spiders

The remains also reveal “critical” clues about the evolutionary journey of ancient snakes across the globe. The team does not know exactly how this type of snake ended up in Myanmar, but they suspect it peppered an ancient island arc. “This snake is from an ancient lineage living in the southern hemisphere continents of Gondwana,” Caldwell explained.

These snakes might have lived on the Australian chunk of what was once Gondwana—a supercontinent that slowly broke up into today's Antarctica, Australia and South America—to Laurasia, which once included North America, Europe and Asia. Further research is needed to better understand the history of the slithery critters, the scientists wrote.

Read more: Ancient sea monster discovered in Antarctica

Unfortunately for the researchers, the baby snake is missing its skull. “This would provide a great many answers to a great many questions,” Caldwell said. “However, I am sure one will be found one day.”

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