There is an old cliché amongst journalists, which I am sure you have heard before, “If it bleeds, it leads.” There is a slightly less familiar version: “If it ate baby dinosaurs it…well I can’t think of a rhyme but trust me, people go crazy for this stuff.”
Okay, so maybe nobody has ever actually said that, but it’s true. Witness the widely celebrated accusations of dino infanticide recently leveled against the corpulent Jabba the Hutt wannabe Beelzebufo, those protarded Azhdarchoids, and some middling theropod I cannot seem to remember the name of right now. Each of these charges is built more or less on sound scientific inference, based on comparisons with living animals, but they aren’t exactly trial-worthy. Even more compelling is the case against the dino-munching Mesozoic mammal Repenomamus, discovered with a chewed up and partially digested juvenile Psittacosaurus (sort of a low-rent Triceratops knockoff) in its gut.
And then there’s Oviraptor, whose very name transliterates to “egg-thief”, branded for half a century as a heartless baby killer when it was discovered near a clutch of dinosaur eggs, until scientists worked out that the eggs were actually its own. This PR transformation is nicely, uh, summed up by this YouTube Tribute:
Which, now that we have veered so radically off track, is a good enough time as any to drop the news about this un-FREAKING-believable fossil described today in PLoS Biology:
In 1984(!) this fossil was first uncovered in the Indian state of Gujarat. In 2007, the Geological Survey of India announced the discovery. Three short years, and who knows how many hours of preparation and study, later this new paper finally presents a full description of the fossil and gives it a name: Sanajeh indicus. The genus name is derived from Sanskrit for “giant gape” for those of you keeping score at home. In fact, by the strict rules of zo0logical nomenclature, electronic publications don’t count at valid descriptions to establish a new name. Following a lesson learned during the Darwinius debacle, PLoS is selling a limited run of print copies of the paper: $10 a pop if you want to invest in a little paleophiliogical memorabilia.
While certainly not the oldest snake fossil yet discovered as erroneously claimed in the 2007 report (we’ll see if any enterprising journalists pick up this non-fact), Sanajeh indicus does have important implications for the early evolutionary history and paleobiogeographic origins of snakes. Snakes evolved from lizard ancestors some time in the Mesozoic, but precisely where, when, how and from whom has been a matter of some debate. Sanajeh probably won’t settle any of these questions, but it certainly will allow us to push them a bit further.
But, who cares really, because, oh yeah did I mention? IT ATE BABY DINOSAURS! Expect to hear plenty on this elsewhere so I won’t belabor the issue but, something to think about the next time you reach for the carton of cage-free AA dinosaur eggs in your fridge:
We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey. – some dude.