Editorial: Dinosaur-eating snake

Published in The Hindu on March 9, 2010

If well-preserved snake fossils are rare, the recovery of the nearly complete remains of a 3.5-metre long snake offering insights into its feeding behaviour is exciting news. The 67-million-year-old snake, Sanajeh indicus, unearthed from Dholi Dungri village in Panchmahal district, Gujarat, is an extraordinary specimen. It was found in the nest of a sauropod dinosaur and lay coiled around broken pieces of a just-hatched egg adjacent to two unbroken eggs and a sauropod dinosaur hatchling fossil. S. indicus shares many features with today’s derived macrostomatans, notably pythons. The coiled position and its association with the dinosaur hatchling indicate that the snake preyed on just-hatched dinosaurs by tightly coiling around them. The findings are reported in the latest issue of PLoS Biology. Unlike in basal snakes, the 12 cm-long jaw of S. indicus can move laterally as well. The jaw mobility from lateral movement along with the size of the jaw provided a gape of 16 cm; this enabled the snake to prey on bigger animals. The derived macrostomatans have a very wide gape, going up to 60 cm., for a fully grown python. S. indicus is a primitive snake with some advanced morphological features. It cannot be considered a transitional fossil between basal snake and today’s derived macrostomatans. With its jaw adaptations relatively well developed, it will occupy an intermediate position in the snake phylogeny.

Interestingly, a scientist working with the Geological Survey of India discovered the specimen in 1984. But while the juvenile dinosaur and the eggs were identified and the finding reported, the fossil remains of the snake went largely unnoticed. The import of the excellent specimen came to light only in 2001 when Jeffrey A. Wilson from the University of Michigan examined it. Detailed investigation was delayed by more than a year as government policy insisted that a memorandum of understanding be signed with the University of Michigan. This is a classic case of bureaucracy going to extraordinary lengths to slow down, if not block, research enterprise by scientists working in government institutions. At a time when countries like China are pulling out all the stops to promote research and encourage their scientists to collaborate with their peers in scientifically advanced countries, unimaginative policies in India stifle research and leave talented scientists de-motivated and frustrated. When will Indian officialdom realise that facilitating, and not policing, is the way to encourage science and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake?