Science

Diet change for snakes

Like mammals and birds, snakes experienced a spectacular boom after the disaster that ended the age of dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Not won – only 6 lines seem to have survived! But these snakes have known how to adapt to the new conditions of their environment and take advantage of them to proliferate.

New prey for surviving snakes

This adaptation of reptiles is marked by success: today there are about 4,000 species of snakes that occupy a wide range of ecosystems. To understand the reasons for this success, scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Michigan studied the diets of 882 of these species and used sophisticated mathematical models to reconstruct how the diet of their ancestors has changed and changed. diversified since extinction. of the dinosaurs.

Scientists discovered that the most recent common ancestor of living snakes was insectivores, but just after the end of the Cretaceous, the diet of these animals expanded rapidly. In this way they integrated vertebrates into their menu, which also proliferated during the same period, including birds, fish and small mammals. This food enlargement allowed an explosive radiation (accelerated evolution) of the snakes that led to the diversity of modern species, summarizes the study published in the journal PLOS Biology. After this stage, their preferences stabilized, but changes continued to occur in certain groups: they were the occasion for new surges in development.

A non-linear evolution

“Much of the astonishing ecological diversity of snakes appears to be the result of evolutionary explosions triggered by ecological opportunities,” says Michael Grundler, lead author of the study. “We’re seeing a huge explosion in snake diet diversification after the extinction of the dinosaurs, and we also find that when snakes arrive in new places, they often experience similar bursts in diet diversification.”

This was the case with the colubroids (a group that includes all poisonous snakes): they experienced a new momentum after having arrived in the New World and discovering new prey. However, the adventure of the snakes has not been linear since then and they even came close to extinction at the beginning of the Oligocene (-33.9 to -23.03 million years ago) when temperatures around the globe dropped sharply. It was probably at this time that most of them adopted a daytime lifestyle to take advantage of the warmer temperatures of the sun.

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