Fossil Find Proves New Zealand Once Had Snakes

The Press
August 9, 2002
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Scientists struck a fossil bonanza in Central Otago—including the first proof New Zealand once had snakes.

That is, it had snakes 15 to 20 million years ago during the geological time period known as the Miocene age.

Tiny jaw and tooth fragments of a python-like snake have been excavated among new fossils of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals.

"The find is the first evidence of a land snake existing in this country and proves these reptiles once lived here," Museum of New Zealand Te Papa spokeswoman Vicki Connor said.

"This is significant because it had long been thought New Zealand did not have snakes."

Te Papa, Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, South Australia Museum, and moa expert Trevor Worthy combined forces in the project. Their findings were presented last month at the International Palaeontological Congress in Sydney.

Institute collections manager Craig Jones said that in Miocene-age New Zealand, freshwater deposits survived only in isolated pockets. The site—a rare occurrence of rock strata from the edge of a lake—is being kept secret.

"We don't want amateurs coming in and mining it, thinking they are going to find entire snakes," Jones said.

He predicted that the discovery was "going to open up a whole new story in New Zealand fossil history."

Among the new finds are three teeth and two scales of a crocodile-like reptile, thought to be 1.5 meters (five feet) to two meters (6.5 feet) long, and teeth of a tuatara-like reptile. Until now, the oldest fossil tuatara found in New Zealand are only 20,000 to 30,000 years old. Tuatara are large spiny four-legged reptiles found on islands off the coast of New Zealand.

The treasure trove included remains, only a few millimeters in size, of five species of pre-historic duck and goose, songbirds, a weka-like bird, a parrot, a bat, and fish species, Jones said.

A lot more work would be needed to build up pictures of what these animals looked like. All of them were new to science, he said.

Eggshell fragments included possible moa eggs, he said. If confirmed, they would show moa ancestors were large and flightless at that time.

Supplied by New Zealand Press Association; Copyright 2002 The Press

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