Ancient Mammalian Reptile Produced Venom Long Before Snakes

Posted: Feb 13 2017, 11:58pm CST | by , Updated: Feb 14 2017, 12:02am CST, in News | Latest Science News

 

Ancient Mammalian Reptile Produced Venom Long Before Snakes
he skull of the Euchambersia fossil shows the large space for the venom glands. Credit: Credit: Wits University
 

260-million-year-old fossil yields the evidence of oldest venomous vertebrate ever found

Snakes are known for their ability to kill prey using venom and researchers believe that snakes evolved this venom more than 150 years ago. But a new research suggests that snake were not the first animals to produce venom. A small mammalian reptile that lived in the toughest conditions of Africa used venom for hunting around 260 million years ago.

Living in the Karoo, near Colesberg in South Africa, the dog-sized mammal had a deep and circular cavity, just behind its canine teeth in the upper jaw, in which a deadly venomous cocktail was produced and delivered directly into the mouth through a highly developed and refined network of canals. The animal, now named therapsid Euchambersia, spit the deadly venomous cocktail in the form of saliva for either protection or hunting. 

“This is the first evidence of the oldest venomous vertebrate ever found, and what is even more surprising is that it is not in a species that we expected it to be, “said Dr Julien Benoit, researcher from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

“Today, snakes are notorious for their venomous bite, but their fossil record vanishes in the depth of geological times at about 167 million years ago, so, at 260 million years ago, the Euchambersia evolved venom more than a 100 million years before the very first snake was even born.”

Since venom glands are soft tissues and deteriorate over time, researchers could not find a direct evidence of the venom in the fossil. When researchers scanned the only two fossilized skulls of the Euchambersia ever found, they discovered a stunning anatomical adaption that was comparable to venom production.

“First, a wide, deep and circular fossa (a space in the skull) to accommodate a venom gland was present on the upper jaw and was connected to the canine and the mouth by a fine network of bony grooves and canals,” said Benoit. “Moreover, we discovered previously undescribed teeth hidden in the vicinity of the bones and rock: two incisors with preserved crowns and a pair of large canines, that all had a sharp ridge. Such a ridged dentition would have helped the injection of venom inside a prey. "

The first fossil bone was discovered in the farm of Van Wyks Fontein located in South Africa in 1932. The other bone was discovered in 1966 in the same place but more than 34 years apart from each other.

Euchambersia could grew between 40 and 50cm long and lived during the Permian period, long before the arrival of dinosaurs. 

 

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