Researchers discover oldest ancestors of Egyptian snakes in Fayoum

Mohammed El-Said
3 Min Read

A team of Egyptian researchers has discovered the oldest fossil of the ancestors of the Egyptian cobra snakes “clade Amphisbaenia” dating back to 37 million years. The fossil was found in the lowest upper Eocene locality at Birket Qarun Locality 2 (BQ-2) in Fayoum Depression. 

In a paper published on Wednesday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Marwa El-Hares, the researcher at the Department of Zoology, Alexandria University – the lead author of the paper– and her colleagues at the Mansoura University’s Sallam Lab for Vertebrate Paleontology, also recorded -for the first time- a species of legless lizards of the same age and region. 

Due to the scarcity of Paleogene fossil squamates from Africa, little is known about their early evolution in the continent, despite that the Eocene was a key interval for the diversification of these species worldwide.

El-Hares, dubbed “Queen of snakes”, told Daily News Egypt that the legless lizards do not exist in Egypt now, but they lived in Egypt 37 million years ago. “We record the oldest presence of these creatures in the Egyptian fossils record, and the biggest worldwide.” 

She explained that the research revealed the routes of immigration of this kind of snake until it reached Egypt, and it also corrects the paleontological record of Namibia where scientists believed -for a while- that the oldest fossil of this kind was found.  

Studying the tiny pieces of fossil under the microscope, El-Hares corrected this mistake dating the Namibia’s fossil back to 23 million years, which means that it is newer than the Egyptian fossil.  

El-Hares is specifically interested in the relation between animals -snakes in particular- and the climatic history to the planet. Unlike most people who do not like or at least fear being afraid of snakes, El-Hares defended them as they are “kind creatures” but people misunderstand them.   

“This research documents the oldest record of the Egypt snakes and the legless lizards. But the most important part is reporting the fact that their ancestors came from Asia,” says senior author of the research, Hesham Sallam, the director of Vertebrate Paleontology Center at Mansoura University.  

He explained to DNE that the results provided evidence for terrestrial faunal exchange between Asia and northern Africa during the early/middle Eocene along the southern margin of the Tethyan Sea.  

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Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor for the Daily News Egypt with over 8 years of experience as a journalist. His work appeared in the Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other regional and international media outlets. El-Said graduated with a bachelor's degree and MSc in Human Geography, and he is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Cairo University. He also had a diploma in media translation from the American University in Cairo.