The oldest ever python fossil was discovered in Germany and dates back 48 million years. The python, which has been named Messelopython freyi, was unearthed close to an ancient lake.
The fossil was located at Messel Fossil Pit which is near Frankfurt. It was once an oil shale mine where numerous historic fossils have been recovered from the Eocene Epoch which dates back to between 57 million and 36 million years ago. Some interesting fossils that were found there included shimmering beetles, mating turtles, and a pregnant mare. The location was named a UNESCO site in 1995.
The fact that it was discovered in Germany is incredibly exciting and very surprising as it was previously unclear whether pythons originated in the Southern Hemisphere (where they are currently living) or in the Northern Hemisphere (where their closest relatives – the sunbeam snakes of Southeast Asia and the Mexican burrowing pythons – are located). The newly discovered Messelopython freyi fossil indicates that it originated in Europe – so the hypothesis of it evolving in the Northern Hemisphere seems correct.
In an email to Live Science, Krister Smith, who is a vertebrate paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, and a co-researcher of the study, wrote in part, “So far, there have been no early fossils that would help decide between a Northern and Southern Hemisphere origin.” “Our new fossils are by far the oldest records of pythons, and (being in Europe) they support an origin in the Northern Hemisphere.”
The size of the Messelopython freyi would have been about 1 meter in length (3.2 feet) and had approximately 275 vertebrae. It would have lived alongside boa constrictors which is absolutely shocking since boas and pythons don’t live anywhere close to each other today – pythons live in Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia, while boas inhabit South and Central America, Madagascar, and the northern part of Oceania.
It’s incredible to think that these two snakes lived alongside each other in ancient times. The question of whether or not they competed for food may hopefully be answered someday when/if more python and boa fossils are found, hopefully with the remnants still in their stomachs so that researchers can find out what each of them ate – did they eat different prey or did they end up competing for food? (Pictures of the Messelopython freyi fossil can be seen here.)
Until then, at least we know for sure that pythons and boas co-existed in Europe many millions of years ago. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters where it can be read in full.