The burrowing origin of modern snakes

Science Advances  27 Nov 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 10, e1500743
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500743

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Modern snakes probably originated as habitat specialists, but it controversial unclear whether they were ancestrally terrestrial burrowers or marine swimmers. We used x-ray virtual models of the inner ear to predict the habit of Dinilysia patagonica, a stem snake closely related to the origin of modern snakes. Previous work has shown that modern snakes perceive substrate vibrations via their inner ear. Our data show that D. patagonica and modern burrowing squamates share a unique spherical vestibule in the inner ear, as compared with swimmers and habitat generalists. We built predictive models for snake habit based on their vestibular shape, which estimated D. patagonica and the hypothetical ancestor of crown snakes as burrowers with high probabilities. This study provides an extensive comparative data set to test fossoriality quantitatively in stem snakes, and it shows that burrowing was predominant in the lineages leading to modern crown snakes.

  • crown snake origin
  • HRCT
  • inner ear
  • bony labyrinth
  • virtual model building
  • geometric morphometrics
  • functional morphology
  • ancestral state reconstructions

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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