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Snakes have an evolutionary leg up, researchers say

A sneaky grass snake.
Darius Bauzys / Wikimedia Commons
A sneaky grass snake.

Why did it have to be snakes? Because evolution puts snakes on a plain advantage, according to a new study co-authored by a Stony Brook University researcher.

According to a new study, snakes are experts at evolving to fit their surroundings — and they’ve benefitted in many ways from their ability to adapt.

Stony Brook University researcher Pascal Title co-authored the study, which was led by the University of Michigan. He said scientists went to museums and looked at hundreds of specimens to discover what makes snakes special.

“In some cases, they were opening up their stomachs to see if they could figure out what those species had been eating," he says.

Snakes are descended from lizards. But they don’t have legs. And they evolve way faster.

“So in a way, what we have here is an incredibly weird group of lizards, which are the snakes, that have undergone dramatic transformations some time back, deep back in time," Title said.

That opened the door to a huge range of ways for snakes to live — and they’ve thrived.

“So for example, snakes have overall a more mobile skull than the rest of lizards," Title said. "And it could be that more mobile skull allowed snakes to more easily adapt to different diets, because different parts of their skull could evolve in different ways. It allows snakes to be able to consume prey that is often bigger than the size of their head, for example.”

Snakes live pretty much everywhere in the world that isn’t too cold or certain islands — like, famously, Ireland. They can be venomous; they can kill animals by constricting them; and some can even catch bats out of mid-air.

“We have snakes that go up into the trees and will, you know, catch birds and eat bird eggs," Title said. "We have snakes that are going into the water and catching frogs and fish. Snakes have evolved the ability to eat just about everything that's around. Whereas lizards, by and large, are mostly just doing the same thing that they've always been doing.”

What scientists don’t know yet is why. Whatever sent snakes down this path is buried in the past — maybe a hundred million years ago or more. But Title said as scientists study more museum specimens, there’s a hope that they’ll learn all kinds of things about snakes in the future.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.