A Food Chain in a Fossil: A snake skeleton with its prey still inside!

The relationship between predator and prey is a primal one, and one that fires the curiosity of many fossil fans. We love paintings of Tyrannosaurus battling Triceratops or saber-toothed cats leaping onto the backs of ground sloths. And we can be pretty sure that those interactions happened based on TRACE FOSSILS, like tooth marks in Triceratops bones that match closely with tyrannosaur teeth. However, it’s very rare to run across fossils that preserve an animal’s meal still in its rib cage. It’s far rarer for that meal to still have IT’S last meal in IT’S STOMACH!

But that’s just the kind of fossil I talk about on Past Time today: a snake skeleton with a lizard in its stomach region, and that lizard with a partial insect still inside! I couldn’t believe the pictures when I saw them, but paleontologists Krister Smith and Augustín Scanferla have a slam-dunk case that the boa-like snake Palaeopython ate a basilisk lizard Geiseltaliellus. And, before being eaten, that lizard ate a tiny insect. That’s a whole lot of ecosystem preserved in a single fossil!

The original fossil with all three links in the food chain illustrated.
The original fossil with all three links in the food chain illustrated.

Hailing from the Messel Pit fossil site in Germany, this nearly complete snake skeleton suggests that Palaeopython ate its prey in very much the same way as modern snakes. Spectacular fossils like this can reveal amazing truths about ancient ecosystems and just how different they were from the world today!

Dig Deeper (Links and References):

For more on this discovery, check out the original research paper by Krister Smith of the Department of Palaeoanthropology and Messel Research at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany and Augustín Scanferla of the Instituto de Bio y Geociencias del NOA (IBIGEO) in Salta, Argentina. Read it at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12549-016-0244-1.

Past Time covered the Messel fossil site in a classic episode with Matt and Adam! Check it out at http://www.pasttime.org/2013/08/episode-6-field-guide-tiny-horses-galloping-crocs-and-fossilized-jungles/.

The Guardian newspaper reported on some of the spectacular fossils of Messel, and published some amazing photos of the crocs, birds, mammals, and insects at https://www.theguardian.com/science/gallery/2009/may/19/fossil-ida-missing-link.

And check out a much older case of a three-level trophic interaction involving a shark, amphibians, and an ancient fish at this link: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/275/1631/181.short

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Filed under: Germany, Messel, ecosystem, food chain, insect, invertebrate, lizard, predator, snake

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