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Prehistoric Snake Found In New Zealand

10 July 2002

The fossilised remains of a snake have been found by scientists at a site in Central Otago. The find is the first evidence of a land snake existing in this country, and proves that these reptiles once lived here. This is particularly significant because it has long been thought that New Zealand did not have snakes. Preliminary examination suggests that the snake found was similar to a python.

Scientists from Te Papa, the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Palaeofaunal Surveys, and the South Australia Museum carried out the first major excavation of the fossil site, which is estimated to be between 15 and 20 million years old. It is a rich fossil site containing remains of all the major animal classes including mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.

The age of the find is also significant. 'New Zealand has many land fossils dating back over the last 2 million years, says Trevor Worthy of Palaeofaunal Surveys, 'and there have been dinosaur finds which date back 70 million years. However, there has been a lack of material discovered that dates from between these two time periods. This find places many animals in New Zealand soil either for the first time or much earlier than was first thought. All species are new to science'.

The site is located in an area where a river used to flow into an enormous lake the size of Lake Taupo. New Zealand has experienced significant geological changes in its history and much of it is thought to have fallen below sea level on several occasions. One reason why finds like these are so rare in New Zealand is that many fossil deposits may have been destroyed by erosion at some point in the past.

The find also included three teeth and two scutes (bony scales) from a crocodilian - a member of the crocodile family - which would have been from 1.5 to 2 metres long.

Several fragments from eggshells were found, including what could be moa eggshells. If this is confirmed, it indicates that the ancestors of the moa were large and flightless during this time.

Teeth of a tuatara ancestor were also found. Tuatara-like reptiles lived in other parts of the world, including Europe, until about 65 million years ago when they disappeared - around the same time as the dinosaurs. The tuatara group survived only in New Zealand. Until this discovery, the oldest fossils of New Zealand tuatara were only 20 to 30,000 years old.

Many bird and fish, and even a bat bones were also discovered, all of which come from species that do not exist in New Zealand today. As to why New Zealand no longer has snakes and crocodilians - temperature changes could be responsible for their demise, though theories are still being formulated.

The scientists involved currently are Trevor Worthy, Palaeofaunal Surveys, Alan Tennyson, Te Papa, Craig Jones, IGNS and James McNamara, South Australia Museum.


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