Blind Snakes Among Madagascar's Oldest Species


Image credit: Frank Glaw
150 million years ago, a supercontinent—comprised of most of the landmass that now makes up the southern hemisphere—known as Gondwana began to split apart. Along the way, Madagascar broke free from India and, according to new genetic research, ancient blind snakes hopped aboard for the ride.Blind snakes are an often-overlooked infraorder called scolecophidians. The small burrowing snakes are found on every continent except Antarctica, but are primarily distributed across the southern hemisphere. The earthworm-like snakes use a specially adapted mouth to eat eggs and larvae and may spend all of their lives under ground. Blair Hedges, professor of biology at Penn State University, explained:

These blind snakes eat very small things, and they eat a lot of them...they'll go into a termite mound and just gobble up dozens and dozens of eggs and larvae.

There is almost no known evidence of blind snakes in the fossil record. Furthermore, researchers have struggled—because of it's almost exclusively subterranean lifestyle—to explain the elusive snake's geographic distribution. By mapping genetic mutations, a slow and challenging process, Hedges and her team were able to determine that the snakes predate the separation of Madagascar from the larger landmass.

The finding supports the widely-accepted concept of plate tectonics. Hedges commented that:

Plate tectonics has only been widely accepted since the 1960s, and so since then biologists have been looking for examples exactly like this that follow the breakup of Gondwana, and we've been having a hard time finding them..This is an unusual group that has been in Madagascar from the beginning.

Other species in Madagascar, like the famous lemurs, likely floated to the island long after it split from the continental masses.

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Tags: Animals