World's Oldest Python Fossil Discovered In Europe

The newly described python species Messelopython freyi is the world’s oldest known fossil record of a python. Courtesy of Senckenberg

This is the world’s oldest known fossil of a python. Oddly enough, the coiled fossil of this prehistoric beast was discovered in Europe, where no such animals can be found today. 

As per a new study in the journal Biology Letters, scientists at Senckenberg Research Institute and from the University of São Paulo in Brazil have recently described the 47-million-year-old fossil of a near-complete python that measures around 1 meter (over 3 feet) in length. The new species was named Messelopython freyi in homage to the paleontologist Eberhard “Dino” Frey from the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany. 

The stunningly well-preserved specimen was discovered at the Messel Pit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and disused quarry in Germany that has revealed a treasure trove of fossilized discoveries in recent decades, including an array of prehistoric mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. 

Courtesy of Senckenberg

Nowadays, dozens of species of python are found primarily in Africa, Southern and Southeast Asia, and Australia, but none are found in Europe (other than zoos and pet collections, obviously). Since this new discovery is the oldest python fossil ever discovered, the researchers argue that this indicates that pythons might have some strong evolutionary ties to chunks of land that are now in Europe.

“The geographic origin of pythons is still not clear. The discovery of a new python species in the Messel Pit is therefore a major leap forward in understanding these snakes’ evolutionary history,” Dr Krister Smith of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt said in a statement.

“According to our findings, these snakes already occurred in Europe at the time of the Eocene, over 47 million years ago. Our analyses trace their evolutionary history to Europe!” added Dr Hussam Zaher, study author from the University of São Paulo.

The head and body of the Messel python are almost completely preserved. Courtesy of Hessian State Museum Darmstadt

Modern-day pythons live in totally different parts of the world to their anatomically very similar relatives, such as boas. But when Messelopython freyi slithered the Earth, they were likely to be in direct competition with a very similar species, such as the primitive boa Eoconstrictor fischeri. 

When this python was alive, however, the world was a very different place. Forty-seven million years ago, Europe was part of an ancient supercontinent known as Laurasia, which also included North America and much of Asia. The reign of pythons in what is now Europe was not constant either. Fossils of this snake family did not appear again until the Miocene, a period between 23 million and 5 million years ago. When temperatures in Europe started to drop after the Miocene, the snakes once again disappeared from the continent's fossil record.

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