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Scientists discover where snakes lived when they evolved into limbless creatures

The mystery of where Earth's first snakes lived as they were evolving into limbless creatures from their lizard ancestors has intrigued scientists for centuries. Now, the first study ever to analyze genes from all the living families of lizards has revealed that snakes made their debut on the land, not in the ocean. The discovery resolves a long-smoldering debate among biologists about whether snakes had a terrestrial or a marine origin roughly 150 million years ago--a debate rekindled recently by controversial research in favor of the marine hypothesis.

In a paper to be published in the 7 May 2004 issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Nicolas Vidal, a postdoctoral fellow, and S. Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State, describe how they put the two theories to the test. They collected the largest genetic data set for snakes and lizards ever used to address this question. Their collection includes two genes from 64 species representing all 19 families of living lizards and 17 of the 25 families of living snakes.

Genetic material from some of the lizards was difficult to obtain because some species live only on certain small islands or in remote parts of the world. "We felt it was important to analyze genes from all the lizard groups because almost every lizard family has been suggested as being the one most closely related to snakes. If we had failed to include genes from even one of the lizard families, we could have missed getting the right answer," Hedges explains.

"For the marine hypothesis to be correct, snakes must be the closest relative of the only lizards known to have lived in the ocean when snakes evolved--the giant, extinct mosasaur lizards," Vidal says. "While we can't analyze the genes of the extinct mosasaurs, we can use the genes of their closest living cousins, monitor lizards like the giant Komodo Dragon," he explains.

The team analyzed gene sequences from each of the species,
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Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
science@psu.edu
814-863-4682
Penn State
30-Jan-2004


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