Insights into skull evolution in fossorial snakes, as revealed by the cranial morphology of Atractaspis irregularis (Serpentes: Colubroidea)

January 13, 2021

Catherine R. C. Strong (1), Alessandro Palci (2,3), Michael W. Caldwell (1,4)

Journal of Anatomy, 238, Issue 1, January 2021:146-172. DOI: 10.1111/joa.13295


Evolutionary development; Fossoriality; Heterochrony; Micro‐CT; Miniaturization; Paedomorphosis; Skull anatomy; Snake evolution


Comparative osteological analyses of extant organisms provide key insight into major evolutionary transitions and phylogenetic hypotheses. This is especially true for snakes, given their unique morphology relative to other squamates and the persistent controversy regarding their evolutionary origins. However, the osteology of several major snake groups remains undescribed, thus hindering efforts to accurately reconstruct the phylogeny of snakes. One such group is the Atractaspididae, a family of fossorial colubroids. We herein present the first detailed description of the atractaspidid skull, based on fully segmented micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scans of Atractaspis irregularis. The skull of Atractaspis presents a highly unique morphology influenced by both fossoriality and paedomorphosis. This paedomorphosis is especially evident in the jaws, palate, and suspensorium, the major elements associated with macrostomy (large-gaped feeding in snakes). Comparison to scolecophidians—a group of blind, fossorial, miniaturized snakes—in turn sheds light on current hypotheses of snake phylogeny. Features of both the naso-frontal joint and the morphofunctional system related to macrostomy refute the traditional notion that scolecophidians are fundamentally different from alethinophidians (all other extant snakes). Instead, these features support the controversial hypothesis of scolecophidians as "regressed alethinophidians," in contrast to their traditional placement as the earliest-diverging snake lineage. We propose that Atractaspis and scolecophidians fall along a morphological continuum, characterized by differing degrees of paedomorphosis. Altogether, a combination of heterochrony and miniaturization provides a mechanism for the derivation of the scolecophidian skull from an ancestral fossorial alethinophidian morphotype, exemplified by the nonminiaturized and less extreme paedomorph Atractaspis.

How Our Software Was Used

Dragonfly was used for the 3D visualization of HRXCT images.

Author Affiliation

(1) Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
(2) Earth Sciences Section, South Australian Museum, Adelaide, SA, Australia
(3) College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University, Bedford Park, SA, Australia
(4) Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada