Julius T Cstonyi
Julius T Cstonyi

Is This Leggy Creature a Snake Ancestor? Scientists Disagree

Julius T Cstonyi
Julius T Cstonyi

Did snakes once possess legs? If a fossil analysis published in Science magazine last week is correct, an early snake ancestor may have had four legs used not for walking, but for grasping. However, not all scientists are willing to believe that snakes might have evolved from burrowing ancestors rather than from marine ones. 

Researchers from universities in the UK and Germany argue that Tetrapodophis amplectus, a fossilized species dating back to the Early Cretaceous period 100 to 146 million years ago, belongs on the snake’s family tree. The animal had several snake-like features, like a long body, a long braincase, a short snout, scales, fangs, and a flexible jaw. Its fossil also indicates that the animal had four limbs with five digits on each. They would have been short and probably used for holding onto either prey or mates, rather than for walking. It would have looked like a long snake somehow acquired stubby T. rex arms, basically (as the artist's conception above shows). 

This supports the notion that modern-day snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine reptiles. The fossil didn’t show any aquatic adaptations, like flippers or a tail that could aid in swimming, but does show low spines on its vertebrae and a long trunk, which are typically associated with burrowing animals. 

However, it’s still pretty early to rethink our conception of snake evolution. It’s possible that the animal is not a snake, as University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell told New Scientist. Finding more fossils of burrowing snake ancestors would be necessary before scientists could fully settle the ocean versus land debate over snakes’ origins. 

[h/t: New Scientist]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
iStock
iStock

Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
iStock
iStock

Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios