Fossil Friday: oldest python ever found suggests they’re originally from Europe

New research on fossilized snake remains unearthed in Germany points to our favorite constrictor snake having evolved in Europe. Today, the Pythonidae family is found mainly in Africa, Southern and Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Photographs and drawings of Messelopython freyi. Image credits Hussam Zaher and Krister T. Smith, (2020),  Biology Letters.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a species by its current range, it turns out. New research suggests the python family first evolved on the European peninsula at least 47 million years ago, going a long way towards uncovering the group’s evolutionary past.

Das Python

“The geographic origin of pythons is still not clear. The discovery of a new python species in the Messel Pit is therefore a major leap forward in understanding these snakes’ evolutionary history,” explains Dr. Krister Smith of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, a co-author of the paper describing the new specimen.

The new species — christened Messelopython freyi in honor of Eberhard Frey, a paleontologist and chief curator of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe — was discovered at the Messel Pit UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany, as a series of superbly-preserved specimens. They’re around 47 million years old and, reaching up to 6 meters in length, they’re among the largest snakes ever found.

It’s also the oldest species of python ever found. The team says these specimens show that pythons were already present in Europe during the Eocene, and that they likely evolved here to begin with.

But, locals may know, there are no pythons endemic to the European peninsula right now — which means that this group eventually spread from here before going extinct in the region, or migrated away entirely. The team explains that a drop in global temperatures during the Miocene (between 23 and 5 million years ago) made Europe too cold for pythons, who disappeared from the peninsula around this time.

However, there was another interesting tidbit to the findings. Today’s boas and pythons, although being very similar anatomically and closely related, live in complete geographical separation — they inhabit different ranges. This wasn’t the case in primeval Europe.

“In Messel, both Messelopython freyi as well as primitive boas such as Eoconstrictor fischeri lived together in the same ecosystem – we therefore have to revisit the thesis that these two groups of snakes competed with each other, making them unable to share the same habitats,” explains Smith.

The paper “Pythons in the Eocene of Europe reveal a much older divergence of the group in sympatry with boas” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

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