Around 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs died out. But it wasn’t a sad day for everyone, with mammal and bird evolution exploding, leading to a variety of new species.
But what about snakes?
Researchers have found that snakes also experienced rapid evolution following the demise of the dinos. This was primarily driven by a new item on their menu – fresh meat.
The team compared 882 living species of snakes, using sophisticated mathematical models, and found that their common ancestor only ate insects. However, the loss of dinosaurs allowed the snakes a much more diverse dinner filled with the birds, fish and small mammals that flourished at the same time.
This new diet likely pushed rapid snake diversification, resulting in more than 3400 species seen today.
Rapid snake evolution on other continents
This trend wasn’t unique to the mass extinction, either. Similar bursts of evolution were seen when snakes arrived on new continents because new diets became available.
“Much of the stunning ecological diversity in snakes seems to result from evolutionary explosions triggered by ecological opportunity,” says study author Michael Grundler of the University of California.
“We find a major burst of snake diet diversification after the dinosaur extinction, and we also find that, when snakes arrive in new places, they often undergo similar bursts of dietary diversification.”
The study was published in PLOS Biology.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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