A team from Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center (MUVP) has found the oldest fossils of Egyptian cobra ancestors dating back 37 million years to the Eocene Epoch. The team, which included international researchers, also discovered a fossil of the largest legless lizard of the same vintage, reports Al-Monitor. The research was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology .
The Eocene Epoch lasted from about 56 to 33.9 million years ago and was the second epoch of the Paleogene Period in the modern Cenzoic Era. It was a period of diversification for squamates or scaled reptiles. Squamata is the largest order of reptiles comprising snakes, lizards and amphisbaenians, or legless lizards. However, fossil records from Africa for squamates are sparse for this period, leading to a gap in understanding their early evolution here.
Wadi Al-Hitan (or the Valley of the Whales) in Egypt is home to invaluable fossil remains. Here tourists can visit the Wadi al-Hitan Fossil & Climate Change Museum, in the Fayoum Depression which includes an 18-meter-long whale skeleton in the desert. ( Holger T.K. / Adobe Stock)
The Fayoum Depression in Egypt, a large basin in the limestone plateau of the Western Desert southwest of Cairo, has provided the richest Eocene vertebrate fossil records for the brown continent. Once covered in tropical rainforest, several dinosaur fossils , and those of mammals such as ancestors of monkeys and large whales, have previously been found, but few snake and lizard fossils have been reported.
Now, the first Paleogene amphisbaenian fossil has been found here from the lowest upper Eocene Birket Qarun Locality 2 (BQ-2). Seven vertebrae belonging to colobroid snakes (ancestors of modern snakes) were also found from the same level, reports Pledge Times .
Apep, or Aphophis, was the god of chaos, depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a giant serpent as can be seen in this example from the tomb of Ramses I. ( Public domain )
Cobra Snakes in Ancient Egypt
It is fitting that the oldest snake fossil in Africa, a cobra ancestor, has now been found in Egypt, given that serpents occupied a special place in ancient Egyptian mythology. Believed to be the first offspring of the earth, the snake was identified with the gods Apopis and Seth. Apopis, the diety of chaos and evil assumed the form of a snake and was at perpetual war with Ra, the sun god.
The Uraeus snake symbol, on the other hand, the stylized upright form of the Egyptian cobra, was worn on the forehead by Egyptian pharaohs to signify sovereignty. In this form the serpent was identified with the protective diety known as Wadjet.
The mask of the Tutankhamun mummy features an Uraeus, a symbol for the goddess Wadjet, a stylized depiction of the Egyptian cobra. ( Argus / Adobe Stock)
Are the Fossils Really of the Egyptian Cobra’s Ancestors?
What has been discovered are seven snake vertebrae from the torso and tail regions, ranging in size from 2 millimeters (0.08 inches) to 1 centimeter (0.4 inches). Talking to Al-Monitor, Marwa el-Hares, the lead author of the study, explained that “snakes decompose and turn into small fragments, so we rarely find a complete fossil of a snake.” She said that the fragments belonged to Procerophis, the great ancestor of modern snakes such as the cobra and tarita.
El-Hares added that it was the adaptability of snakes to climate change and new environments that helped them survive the mass extinction wave that hit the Earth in the Cretaceous period. This is the time dinosaurs went extinct. However, snakes being smaller can hide in the event of climatic changes even as severe as an ice age. They can also survive for long periods without food thanks to their muscle mass.
The discovery also corrected a misconception in the paleontological record of Namibia, where the oldest snake fossils were believed to have been found, reports Daily News Egypt . Until now dated to 41 million years ago, el-Hares’s study showed them to be an evolution of the Egyptian samples and only 23 million years old.
Representational image of a legless lizard. (Tim Vickers / Public domain )
Limbless Lizard a First for Egypt
The researchers are even more excited about the rare limbless lizard fossil. “We were very surprised by the lizard’s sample, and it aroused suspicions because it was a first in Egypt,” el-Hares told Al-Monitor. “There are large protrusions in the vertebrae, and these protrusions are joined by large and strong muscles that enable the lizard to move easily in the absence of limbs.”
She also said that the fossil was the largest ever found of a limbless lizard . “By comparing the size of its vertebrae with the largest limbless lizards that live on Earth, we found out that the Egyptian Fayum lizard was the largest, with a vertebra length of 4 millimeters [0.15 inches], while the vertebra of the largest lizard known today that currently lives in both Africa and Asia is 2 millimeters [0.07 inches] long.”
Apart from the sheer rarity of the discovery which included fossils of reptiles that were scarce at that time in Africa, it is also important because, according to Shorouk al-Ashqar, who is in charge of excavations at Mansoura University, it reveals patterns of animal migration in that time period.
“Add to this that the discovery broke new ground in the formation of the map of animal migration in ancient times.” This striking find provides evidence of animal migration between Asia and North Africa during the early and mid-Eocene Epoch along the southern edge of the Tethys Sea, the ancient sea that separated the continents.
Although limbless lizards still exist in Asia and southern Africa, they have disappeared from Egypt. El-Hares means to continue her work in the Fayoum basin to unravel the story of how it came there and then vanished in the blink of an eye—in an evolutionary, millions of years, manner of speaking that is. But snakes, whom she feels are kind but misunderstood creatures, will always remain her first love.
Top image: Representational image of an Egyptian Cobra. Source: Ghorayr / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Sahir Pandey