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Fossil snake preserving three trophic levels and evidence for an ontogenetic dietary shift

Abstract

We report a fossil snake from the middle Eocene (48 Ma) Messel Pit, in whose stomach is a lizard, in whose stomach is an insect. This is the second known vertebrate fossil containing direct evidence of three trophic levels. The snake is identified as a juvenile of Palaeopython fischeri on the basis of new characters of the skull; the lizard is identified as Geiseltaliellus maarius, a stem-basilisk; and the insect, despite preserved structural colouration, could not be identified more precisely. G. maarius is thought to have been an arboreal species, but like its extant relatives may have foraged occasionally on the ground. Another, larger specimen of G. maarius preserves plant remains in the digestive tract, suggesting that omnivory in this species may have been common in larger individuals, as in extant Basiliscus and Polychrus. A general picture of the trophic ecology of P. fischeri is not yet possible, although the presence of a lizard in the stomach of a juvenile individual suggests that this snake could have undergone a dietary shift, as in many extant boines.

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Acknowledgements

The specimen was prepared by Bruno Behr (SMF) and photographed by Anika Vogel (SMF). Peter Hornberger (Technische Hochschule Deggendorf) conducted the CT scans of SMF ME 11332, and Wieland Binczik and Heike Scherf (University of Tübingen) of SMF ME 11398. Gotthard Richter (SMF) helped with the SEMs. Juliane Eberhart (SMF) inked the drawings of the snake. Anika Vogel (SMF) assembled the drawings and other figures. Volker Wilde and Dieter Uhl (SMF) helped with the interpretation of the plant remains, and Sonja Wedmann (SMF) with the insect. We are grateful to them all, and to Stephan Schaal (SMF) for discussion. Finally, we thank Jean-Claude Rage (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris) and Annelise Folie (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels) for their helpful reviews, which improved this paper.

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Smith, K.T., Scanferla, A. Fossil snake preserving three trophic levels and evidence for an ontogenetic dietary shift. Palaeobio Palaeoenv 96, 589–599 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12549-016-0244-1

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Keywords

  • Messel
  • Middle Eocene
  • Palaeopython fischeri
  • Geiseltaliellus maarius
  • Gut contents
  • Food chain