Sauropod babies for breakfast
A fossilized snake has been discovered inside a titanosaur nest in India, leading researchers to conclude that the snake fed on newly-hatched dinosaur babies, rather than their eggs like modern snakes.
Paleontologist and snake expert Jason Head says that the snake, known as Sanajeh indicus, lacked the wipe-jaws needed to swallow eggs, but just-hatched baby titanosaurs would have been perfect prey for the 3.5 meter (nearly 12 feet) long serpent. Titanosaurs belong to the sauropods, long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs which includes the world’s largest animals to ever walk the land.
“Living primitive snakes are small animals whose diet is limited by their jaw size, but the evolution of a large body size in Sanajeh would have allowed it to eat a wide range of prey, including dinosaur hatchlings,” Head explains. “This is the first direct evidence of feeding behavior in a fossil primitive snake, and shows us that the ecology and early evolutionary history of snakes were much more complex than we would think just by looking at modern snakes today.”
When the fossils were first discovered in Gujarat (a state in western India) in 1987, the fossilized snake was missed.. It was Jeff Wilson in 2001 who first discovered that not only was the nest full of fossilized baby sauropods, but also a snake in the midst of a meal.
“I saw the characteristic vertebrae of a snake beside the dinosaur eggshell and larger bones, and I knew it was an extraordinary specimen … even if I couldn’t put the whole story together at that point. I just knew we needed to examine it further,” Wilson says of the discovery.
“The eggs were laid in loose sands and covered by a thin layer of sediment. We think that the hatchling had just exited its egg, and its movement attracted the snake,” explains Dhananjay Mohabey from the Geological Survey of India who originally discovered the fossils.
Head adds that “it would have been a smorgasbord. Hundreds or thousands of defenseless baby sauropods could have supported an ecosystem of predators during the hatching season.”
The researchers speculate that the snake was devouring babies when it was fatally interrupted.
“Burial was rapid and deep,” says geologist Shanan Peters who also studied the nest. “Probably a pulse of slushy sand and mud released during a storm caught them in the act.”
Life-size reconstruction of the moment captured by the fossils. Sculpture by Tyler Keillor and original photography by Ximena Erickson; image modified by Bonnie Miljour.
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