How Did the Snake Lose Its Legs?

We weren’t going to mention this until we had a good creationist reaction to it, but that may never come, and it’s something we ought to discuss anyway. The news is at the Nature website: Four-legged fossil snake is a world first. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The first four-legged fossil snake ever found is forcing scientists to rethink how snakes evolved from lizards. Although it has four legs, Tetrapodophis amplectus has other features that clearly mark it as a snake, says Nick Longrich, a palaeontologist at the University of Bath, UK, and one of the authors of a paper describing the animal in Science.

This is the paper they’re talking about: A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. The abstract is all you can see without a subscription, so we’ll stay with the article in Nature:

The creature’s limbs were probably not used for locomotion, the researchers say, but rather for grasping prey, or perhaps for holding on to mating partners. Such speculation inspired the snake’s name, which loosely translates as ‘four-legged hugging snake’.

Awwwww — that’s cute. Let’s read on:

Tetrapodophis was originally found in the fossil-rich Crato Formation in northeastern Brazil several decades ago. But its legs can be difficult to see at first glance, and it languished in a private collection after its discovery, assumed to be unremarkable.

That was a well-written sentence. We continue:

“I was confident it might be a snake,” says David Martill, a palaeobiologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who came across the find in 2012. “It was only after getting the specimen under the microscope and looking at it in detail that my confidence grew. We had gone to see Archaeopteryx, the missing link between birds and dinosaurs, and discovered Tetrapodophis, the missing link between snakes and lizards.”

As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” That’s why creationists will never stumble into anything of scientific value. Here’s more:

Scientists have long argued over whether snakes evolved from land or marine animals. Tetrapodophis lacks adaptations for marine life, such as a tail useful for swimming. But its skull and body proportions are consistent with adaptations for burrowing. Longrich says that the finding unequivocally shows that snakes originated in the Southern Hemisphere and strongly supports a terrestrial origin.

This is an outrage! Every creationist knows the snake lost its legs after tempting Eve in the Garden. Moving along:

The discovery comes in a major year for snake evolution research, [Martin Cohn, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville] says. In January, the snake fossil record was pushed back by some 70 million years to the Middle Jurassic, around 160 million years ago, with the report of the oldest snake ever found. Although Tetrapodophis is not the oldest snake, Cohn says, “from a developmental perspective, this could be one of the most important fossils ever found. The combination of a snake-like body with complete forelimbs and hindlimbs is like a snake version of Archaeopteryx.”

As you know, Archaeopteryx is the transitional link between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. By the way, although it’s a favorite tactic of creationists, Archaeopteryx shouldn’t be confused with Archaeoraptor, a Chinese fake that somehow found its way into National Geographic.

We don’t know how this new discovery fits in with Eupodophis, a legged snake fossil we wrote about more than four years ago in Another Transitional Fossil — Lizard to Snake. We’ll let the snake specialists work it out. Meanwhile, we’re eager to see what the creationist reaction will be.

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18 responses to “How Did the Snake Lose Its Legs?

  1. It’s certainly has been a particularly poor week for our creationist brethren, firstly with discovery by Kepler of “earth 2.0” and now with another one of those pesky transitional fossils being uncovered.
    Of course all this will be seen as some form of secular scientific conspiracy, brought about to undermine Ham & Co.

  2. There are some DOUBTS about this fossil (not YEC DENIAL but REAL doubts).

  3. It’s pretty clear what the creationist reaction will be: either “It’s a fake! The snake lost its legs from being cursed by God in the Garden of Eden!” or “This fossil is really 6,000 years old and proves the truth of Genesis, which says the snake originally had legs.”

  4. Holding The Line In Florida

    @ Porter. Read the comment section. Such comedy is rarely found outside Cheech and Chong!

  5. “Chance favors the prepared mind.” That’s why creationists will never stumble into anything of scientific value.”

    I actually lol’d when I read that. 🙂

  6. If creationists are going to claim that this is the serpent from the Garden of Eden, how will they explain it’s Brazilian origins? Oh, well. That’s not our problem to solve.

    ———————————-

    SC: In order to help you achieve perfection (which your blog richly deserves) — here’s a little typo to correct:
    “This is an outrage! Every creationists knows the snake lost its legs…”

    “Creationists” should be singular.

  7. Dave Luckett

    Bet: “Here’s proof that snakes originally were not cursed to crawl on their bellies and eat dust. The Bible is again proven right!”

    Pretty obvious, really. But there is the problem that this concedes to an evilooshunist atheist (prolly commie) scientist (few words lend themselves so well to hissing and spitting) the expertise to identify a snake as a snake, even if this one has legs that it didn’t actually walk on. That means that you’re actually saying that the scientist might be right. Can’t have that.

    So, possible each-way bet: “That ain’t nothing but another lizard! Godless scientists (see above) will say anything to deny the Word! Why, they done said that a pig’s tooth was an ape-man’s oncet. Fact.”

    Let’s see. Ten on number one, field odds, covering bet on two.

  8. “…and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:”

    So snakes must eat just dust if the bible is to be taken literally.

  9. retiredsciguy says: “here’s a little typo to correct …”

    Global warming did it! But I fixed it.

  10. So snakes must eat just dust if the bible is to be taken literally.

    No. But it does serve as yet another reminder of how the words “literal” and “literally” are constantly misunderstood the texts are biblical. Even the most rigid “Bible literalist” does not deny the existence of idioms in the Biblical languages. Young Earth Creationists are guilty of all sorts of hermeneutical atrocities but denying idiomatic language should not be assumed among them. (Anyone struggling with this fact should Google “Biblical inerrancy” and/or “Statement of Faith” and especially the founding documents associated with fundamentalist and evangelical schools will often clarify the fact that a literalist-hermeneutic does not mean a total disregard for literary genre and the use of idioms and generalizations along with estimates/rounding when it comes to numbers.)

    For example, even the most literalistic fundamentalists recognize that ancient Hebrew uses various euphemistic idioms: e.g., And X slept with his fathers. No, even the most strict “literalists” don’t claim that this idiom refers to some sort of communal sleeping quarters. Instead, it serves the same euphemistic function as our English idiom “X passed away last Tuesday.” Yes, it means that X died. Semitic culture in such contexts referred to death as a kind of sleep–even though that didn’t necessarily mean a belief in an afterlife.

    Ancient languages used all sorts of figures of speech and idioms very similar to our own. Of course, many of our English language idioms came directly from the Bible because for so many centuries the Bible has been by far the most popular book, the most printed book, the most memorized book, and was so often used as a textbook, in part because even on the frontier the only book found in many of the homes was a Bible. [And, yes, because the Bible is arguably among the most polarizing of books, someone reading the previous sentence will probably protest one or more of those declarations.]

    Lots of ancient Greek and Hebrew figures of speech and Bible quotations came to modern English by means of Shakespearean passages. Failures to grasp the nature of figures of speech leads many Bible readers to err in their interpretations even when our own language uses the very same kinds of figures of speech without similar confusion. Sure to be among them is …and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:”

    Did the Psalmist’s words “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. mean that the ancient Hebrews denied the existence of earthquakes? No. Likewise, when an English language speaker says, “…..as solid as the ground we walk on”, we don’t assume that the speaker thinks soft mud and quicksand don’t exist.

    [Of course, a major complication with any Bible passage with the word “earth” in it is that modern English tends to assume “earth” means “planet earth” rather than ERETZ=”land”, “country”, “region” and sometimes even “soil”. This semantic range becomes very important when translating Genesis 1 and 2, where Genesis 1 applies ERETZ quite generically as the opposite of “sky”/”heavens” but Genesis 2 describes a particular ERETZ=”land” where the specific region is identified (in “Eden” where four rivers provide plenty of water for a garden but humans must tend it) and even the climate is noted. (The text appears to say that nothing grows there without human assistance due to the lack of natural rainfall. But with humans to tend the garden, they can set up irrigation and perhaps the appropriate placement of plants to take advantage of a natural mist. (?) The Hebrew wording is difficult.) Thus, Genesis 1-2:4a has an obvious 3+3 chiasmic structure (with a chorus after each “verse”/YOM) while Genesis 2:4ff is not a contradictory “creation account” but simply a second narrative focusing on HAADAM’s life in the garden in the Eden region.]

    Also, likewise, someone returning from a trip through Iowa may comment, “I’d never seen such a flat place. Totally flat as far as the eye can see.” Ignoring for the moment the fact that most of the state of Iowa is not flat at all, few English speakers would correct the traveler by means of a geophysical tutorial whereby the curvature of this spheroidal planet demands that even the “flattest” region curves at a rate of about 8 inches per mile. Yet, when the Bible is the topic we can expect to see all sorts of pedantry from all sorts of vantage points: from Bible-loving Young Earth Creationists who think they’ve found all sorts of “scientific discoveries” within it (yet, they’ve only generated more anachronism fallacies) and from Bible-hating detractors who insist upon their own anachronisms and claim that general statements and estimates defy both literalism and inerrancy (because they don’t understand either)–as well as from the Biblical scholars who must hone their pedantry to the maximum if tenure is to be achieved.

  11. “…and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:”

    This “snake eats dust” topic is a great example of how so many Bible-detractors and Bible-lovers nowadays err equally but oppositely.

    Bible-critics claim that “The Bible erroneously states that snakes subsist on dirt for their sustenance.” because they either don’t understand or they deny the fact that “eat dust” and an entire “family” of various cognate versions of the idiom in many languages. In ancient Hebrew literature one can even find such idioms applied to people as well as snakes.

    Meanwhile, “creation science” fundamentalists often try to squeeze “modern science foretold!” out of Biblical texts in any way they can. Thus, I’ve seen various Young Earth Creationists cite the function of “Jacobson’s organ” (the vomeronasal organ) whereby snakes “sample” dust particles with their tongue as a kind of “eating of dust” (because the dust is drawn into the mouth so that they can insert the two forks into the VNO and “smell” the particles for useful information.) Here’s a typical article on it:
    http://creation.com/snakes-do-eat-dust

    Both “sides” tend to have an ideological agenda and try to “score points” for their side. Some mention the linguistic reality and many do not.

    Of course, it can also be said that plants and animals “eat dust” when they consume their food. The ancients didn’t need supernatural assistance to figure out that “we come from dust and to the dust we shall return.” They saw living things decay and become soil again. They saw seeds convert dirt to food. So whether one calls that “science” or just “common sense”, the bottom line is that neither “side” manages to sound all that profound by trying to convert a simple idiomatic expression into some kind of ammunition for their ideological agenda.

  12. @Prof. Tertius
    In a light mood:
    “The land is flat as a pancake.” A pancake is not very flat.
    “We come from dust.” Then how come there is still dust?

  13. “As Louis Pasteur once said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ That’s why creationists will never stumble into anything of scientific value.” ~SC

    I know shelldigger already applauded that remark, but I can’t help myself. I love it, too. And I was tempted to type it out in all caps, so any creationists lurking here would be sure to notice it.

  14. michaelfugate

    Surreal quote of the day from Wesley J. Smith Discovery Institute’s head of the Center on Human Exceptionalism in his book “The War on Humans”:

    Anti-humanism is only part of the problem we face from the Green Misanthropes. This book will also explore the extent to which radical environmentalism is corrupting scientific rationalism – perhaps with malice aforethought. Indeed, is is very clear to me that ideology seeks to supplant the dispassionate scientific method of obtaining and applying facts and data – come what may – with an emotional fervor reminiscent of a quasi-religious movement seeking to impose dogma into policy and law.

    Has ny come across a better description of the DI’s agenda?

  15. Ashley Haworth-roberts
  16. Ashley Haworth-roberts

    Correction:
    http://crev.info/2015/07/four-footed-snake/

    YEC Coppedge was alleging fakery (in GREEN TYPE) re the latest Chinese feathery dinosaur, not the four footed snake.

    http://crev.info/2015/07/feathered-velociraptor/