Mid-Cretaceous northern Africa was a hotspot for early snakes

The last few years have revealed a number of early snakes and stem-snakes (the members of the snake evolutionary branch that lie outside the clade uniting all modern snakes). Naturally, all of these finds are very important as they shed light on the early evolution of the snake body plan.

A team of scientists led by Catherine G. Klein from the University of Bath described a new early snake (or stem-snake) from approximately 100 to 94 million years old strata of Begaa, Morocco. The strata belong to the popular Kem Kem beds that have yielded numerous fossil vertebrates, including large dinosaurs, pterosaurs, turtles, and crocodylomorphs.

The new animal was named Norisophis begaa. It is clearly a very early member of the snake branch as it shares many features with the Late Cretaceous species Najash rionegrinaSeismophis septentrionalis, and Coniophis precedens, and the members of Madtsoiidae, a large clade that existed from the mid-Cretaceous to the Pleistocene.

Although known based only on the vertebrae, the unique appearance of the fossil remains supplements our knowledge regarding the stem-to-modern snake fauna of the early phase of the Late Cretaceous of northern Africa. So far, the early snake and near-snake finds from this part of the world were noted from Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Niger, making northern Africa a true hotspot for these fascinating limbless vertebrates.

Featured image by Tyler Keillor (sculpture) and Ximena Erickson (original photography); modified by Bonnie Miljour. CC BY 2.5.

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