Prehistoric Snake Pictures and Profiles

01
of 12

Meet the Snakes of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras

Titanoboa
Titanoboa. Wikimedia Commons

Snakes, like other reptiles, have been around for tens of millions of years--but tracing their evolutionary lineage has been a huge challenge for paleontologists. On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of various prehistoric snakes, ranging from Dinylisia to Titanoboa.

02
of 12

Dinylisia

dinylisia
Dinylisia. Nobu Tamura

Name

Dinylisia (Greek for "terrible Ilysia," after another prehistoric snake genus); pronounced DIE-nih-LEE-zha

Habitat

Woodlands of South America

Historical Period

Late Cretaceous (90-85 million years ago)

Size and Weight

About 6-10 feet long and 10-20 pounds

Diet

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics

Moderate size; blunt skull

 

The producers of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs were pretty good at getting their facts straight, which is why it's sad that the final episode, Death of a Dynasty, from 1999, featured such a huge blunder involving Dinylisia. This prehistoric snake was depicted as menacing a couple of Tyrannosaurus Rex juveniles, even though a) Dinylisia lived at least 10 million years before T. Rex, and b) this snake was native to South America, whereas T. Rex lived in North America. TV documentaries aside, Dinylisia was a moderately sized snake by late Cretaceous standards ("only" about 10 feet long from head to tail), and its round skull indicates that it was an aggressive hunter rather than a timid burrower.

 

03
of 12

Eupodophis

eupodophis
Eupodophis. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Eupodophis (Greek for "original-footed snake"); pronounced you-POD-oh-fiss

Habitat:

Woodlands of the Middle East

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (90 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and a few pounds

Diet:

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; tiny hind legs

 

Creationists are always carrying on about the lack of "transitional" forms in the fossil record, conveniently ignoring the ones that happen to exist. Eupodophis is as classic a transitional form as anyone could ever hope to find: a snake-like reptile of the late Cretaceous period possessing tiny (less than an inch long) hind legs, complete with characteristic bones like fibulas, tibias and femurs. Oddly enough, Eupodophis and two other genera of prehistoric snakes equipped with vestigial legs--Pachyrhachis and Haasiophis--were all discovered in the Middle East, clearly a hotbed of serpent activity a hundred million years ago.

 

04
of 12

Gigantophis

gigantophis
Gigantophis. South American Reptiles

At about 33 feet long and up to half a ton, the prehistoric snake Gigantophis ruled the proverbial swamp until the discovery of the much, much bigger Titanoboa (up to 50 feet long and one ton) in South America. See an in-depth profile of Gigantophis

05
of 12

Haasiophis

haasiophis
Haasiophis. Paleopolis

Name:

Haasiophis (Greek for "Haas' snake"); pronounced ha-SEE-oh-fiss

Habitat:

Woodlands of the Middle East

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (100-90 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and a few pounds

Diet:

Small marine animals

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Moderate size; tiny hind limbs

 

One doesn't normally associate the West Bank of Israel with major fossil finds, but all bets are off when it comes to prehistoric snakes: this area has yielded no less than three genera of these long, sleek, stunt-legged reptiles. Some paleontologists believe Haasiophis was a juvenile of the better-known basal snake Pachyrhachis, but the bulk of the evidence (mainly having to do with this snake's distinctive skull and tooth structure) places it in its own genus, alongside yet another Middle Eastern specimen, Eupodophis. All three of these genera are characterized by their tiny, stubby hind legs, bearing hints of the characteristic skeletal structure (femur, fibula, tibia) of the land-dwelling reptiles from which they evolved. Like Pachyrhachis, Haasiophis seems to have led a mostly aquatic lifestyle, nibbling on the small creatures of its lake and river habitat.

 

06
of 12

Madtsoia

madtsoia
A Madtsoia vertebra. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Madtsoia (Greek derivation uncertain); pronounced mat-SOY-ah

Habitat:

Woodlands of South America, Western Europe, Africa and Madagascar

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous-Pleistocene (90-2 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10-30 feet long and 5-50 pounds

Diet:

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Moderate to large size; characteristic vertebrae

 

As prehistoric snakes go, Madtsoia is less important as an individual genus than as the eponymous representative of the family of snake ancestors known as "madtsoiidea," which had a worldwide distribution from the late Cretaceous period all the way up to the Pleistocene epoch, about two million years ago. However, as you can surmise from this snake's unusually wide geographic and temporal distribution (its various species span about 90 million years)--not to mention the fact that it's represented in the fossil record almost exclusively by vertebrae--paleontologists are far from sorting out the evolutionary relationships of Madtsoia (and the madtsoiidae) and modern snakes. Other madtsoid snakes, at least provisionally, include Gigantophis, Sanajeh, and (most controversially) the two-legged snake ancestor Najash.

 

07
of 12

Najash

najash
Najash. Jorge Gonzalez

Name:

Najash (after the snake in the book of Genesis); pronounced NAH-josh

Habitat:

Woodlands of South America

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (90 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and a few pounds

Diet:

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Moderate size; stunted hind limbs

 

It's one of the ironies of paleontology that the only genus of stunt-legged prehistoric snake to be discovered outside the Middle East is named after the evil serpent of the book of Genesis, while the others (Eupodophis, Pachyrhachis and Haasiophis) all have boring, correct, Greek monikers. But Najash differs from these other "missing links" in another, more important way: all the evidence points to this South American snake having led an exclusively terrestrial existence, while the near-contemporary Eupodophis, Pachyrhachis and Haasiophis spent most of their lives in the water.

Why is this important? Well, until the discovery of Najash, paleontologists toyed with the notion that Eupodophis et al. evolved from the family of late Cretaceous marine reptiles known as mosasaurs. A two-legged, land-dwelling snake from the other side of the world is inconsistent with this hypothesis, and has prompted some hand-wringing among evolutionary biologists, who now have to seek a terrestrial origin for modern snakes. (As special as it is, though, the five-foot Najash was no match for another South American snake that lived millions of years later, the 60-foot-long Titanoboa.)

 

08
of 12

Pachyrhachis

pachyrhachis
Pachyrhachis. Karen Carr

Name:

Pachyrhachis (Greek for "thick ribs"); pronounced PACK-ee-RAKE-iss

Habitat:

Rivers and lakes of the Middle East

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (130-120 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 1-2 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, snake-like body; small hind legs

 

There wasn't one single, identifiable moment when the first prehistoric lizard evolved into the first prehistoric snake; the best paleontologists can do is identify intermediate forms. And as far as intermediate forms go, Pachyrhachis is a doozy: this marine reptile possessed an unmistakably snake-like body, complete with scales, as well as a python-like head, the only giveaway being the pair of nearly vestigial hind limbs a few inches from the end of its tail. The early Cretaceous Pachyrhachis seems to have led an exclusively marine lifestyle; unusually, its fossil remains were discovered in the Ramallah region of modern-day Israel. (Oddly enough, the two other genera of prehistoric snakes possessing vestigial hind limbs--Eupodophis and Haasiophis--were also discovered in the Middle East.)

 

09
of 12

Sanajeh

sanajeh
Sanajeh. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Sanajeh (Sanskrit for "ancient gape"); pronounced SAN-ah-jeh

Habitat:

Woodlands of India

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (70-65 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 11 feet long and 25-50 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Moderate size; limited articulation of jaws

 

In March of 2010, paleontologists in India announced a stunning discovery: the remains of an 11-foot-long prehistoric snake found coiled around the newly hatched egg of an unidentified genus of titanosaur, the giant, elephant-legged dinosaurs that occupied all of the earth's continents during the late Cretaceous period. Sanajeh was far from the biggest prehistoric snake of all time--that honor, for now, belongs to the 50-foot long, one-ton Titanoboa, which lived ten million years later later--but it's the first snake conclusively demonstrated to have preyed on dinosaurs, albeit wee, baby ones measuring no more than a foot or two from head to tail.

You might think a titanosaur-gobbling snake would be able to open its mouth unusually wide, but despite its name (Sanskrit for "ancient gape") that wasn't the case with Sanajeh, the jaws of which were much more limited in their range of motion than those of most modern snakes. (Some extant snakes, like the Sunbeam Snake of southeast Asia, have similarly limited bites.) However, other anatomical characteristics of Sanajeh's skull allowed it to efficiently use its "narrow gape" to swallow larger-than-usual prey, which probably included the eggs and hatchlings of prehistoric crocodiles and theropod dinosaurs, as well as titanosaurs.

Assuming that snakes like Sanajeh were thick on the ground of late Cretaceous India, how did titanosaurs, and their fellow egg-laying reptiles, manage to escape extinction? Well, evolution is much smarter than that: one common strategy in the animal kingdom is for females to lay multiple eggs at a time, so that at least two or three eggs escape predation and manage to hatch--and of these two or three newborn hatchlings, at least one, hopefully, can survive into adulthood and ensure the propagation of the species. So while Sanajeh certainly got its fill of titanosaur omelettes, nature's checks and balances ensured the continuing survival of these majestic dinosaurs.

 

10
of 12

Tetrapodophis

tetrapodophis
Tetrapodophis. Julius Csotonyi

Name

Tetrapodophis (Greek for "four-legged snake"); pronounced TET-rah-POD-oh-fiss

Habitat

Woodlands of South America

Historical Period

Early Cretaceous (120 million years ago)

Size and Weight

About one foot long and less than a pound

Diet

Probably insects

Distinguishing Characteristics

Small size; four vestigial limbs

 

Is Tetrapodophis really a four-legged snake of the early Cretaceous period, or an elaborate hoax perpetrated on scientists and the general public? The trouble is that this reptile's "type fossil" has a dubious provenance (it was supposedly discovered in Brazil, but no one can say exactly where and by whom, or how, exactly, the artifact wound up in Germany), and in any case it was excavated decades ago, meaning its original discoverers have long since receded into history. Suffice it to say that if Tetrapodophis proves to be a genuine snake, it will be the first four-limbed member of its breed ever identified, filling an important gap in the fossil record between the ultimate evolutionary precursor of snakes (which remains unidentified) and the two-legged snakes of the later Cretaceous period, like Eupodophis and Haasiophis.

 

11
of 12

Titanoboa

titanoboa
Titanoboa. WUFT

The biggest prehistoric snake that ever lived, Titanoboa measured 50 feet from head to tail and weighed in the neighborhood of 2,000 pounds. The only reason it didn't prey on dinosaurs is because it lived a few million years after the dinosaurs had gone extinct! See 10 Facts About Titanoboa

12
of 12

Wonambi

wonambi
Wonambi coiled around its prey. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Wonambi (after an Aboriginal deity); pronounced woe-NAHM-bee

Habitat:

Plains of Australia

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene (2 million-40,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

Up to 18 feet long and 100 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; muscular body; primitive head and jaws

 

For almost 90 million years--from the middle Cretaceous period to the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch--the prehistoric snakes known as "madtsoiids" enjoyed a global distribution. By about two million years ago, though, these constricting snakes were restricted to the far-off continent of Australia, Wonambi being the most prominent member of the breed. Although it wasn't directly related to modern pythons and boas, Wonambi hunted in the same way, throwing its muscular coils around unsuspecting victims and slowly strangling them to death. Unlike these modern snakes, though, Wonambi couldn't open its mouth particularly wide, so it probably had to settle for frequent snacks of small wallabies and kangaroos rather than swallowing Giant Wombats whole.

 

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Snake Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/prehistoric-snake-pictures-and-profiles-4049125. Strauss, Bob. (2017, March 3). Prehistoric Snake Pictures and Profiles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-snake-pictures-and-profiles-4049125 Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Snake Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-snake-pictures-and-profiles-4049125 (accessed November 19, 2017).