Snakes owe their success on Earth, in part, to the asteroid that hit the planet 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of dinosaurs, according to a study published on Tuesday (14) in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
The impact of this collision caused earthquakes, tsunamis and wildfires, as well as a decade of darkness due to clouds of ash that blocked the sun. All of this led to the estimated demise of 76% of animals and plants.
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But, according to the authors of the recently published research, some surviving snakes were able to thrive in a post-apocalyptic world, sheltering underground and going long periods without food.
These resilient reptiles then managed to spread across the globe, and their evolution brought us to the 3,000 or so species known today.
Some mammals, birds, frogs and fish were also able to survive post-asteroid times.
“In this environment of collapsing food chains, snakes manage to survive and thrive, and are able to colonize new continents and interact with the environment in new ways,” explained research leader Catherine Klein, University of Bath, England.
“It’s likely that without the asteroid impact they wouldn’t have been where they are today.”
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When the asteroid hit what is now the territory of Mexico, the snakes were much like what we know today: without legs and with elongated jaws for swallowing prey.
With little food available, they could survive without food for up to a year and hunt in darkness. The species of snakes that survived were mainly those that lived underground, in the forest floor or in fresh water.
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Without many animals to compete with, they had an open path to evolve with diverse branches and reach new habitats and prey types. This allowed them to spread across the world, reaching Asia for the first time, and their diversity to increase.
Events that lead to the elimination of species in a short period of time, such as the fall of the asteroid, have occurred few times in the planet’s history.
Nick Longrich, also of the University of Bath, says that, in the periods just after the great extinctions, evolution reaches “its wildest, most experimental and most innovative form.”
The study also found evidence of a second peak in snake evolution, when the planet shifted from a hot greenhouse to a cooler climate, leading to the formation of ice caps and the beginning of the ice age.
The snakes’ success is important for the health of ecosystems as a whole, as they control prey populations and help humans with pest control. After so much prospering on Earth, however, coexistence with man is putting many species of snakes at risk of extinction.
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