02:06 PM ET 03/16/00

Snake With Legs Fossil Found

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - A team of researchers has reached into a dusty drawer and pulled out a snake with legs.

The discovery could upset at least some theories about the evolution of snakes.

The fossil had been sitting in the museum drawer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem since the death in the early 1980s of researcher Georg Haas, said Olivier Rieppel of the Field Museum in Chicago.

A team of researchers led by Rieppel rediscovered the fossil and gave it a scientific description and official name Haasiophis terrasanctus in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The snake's legs aren't much to brag about. They are too small in relation to the animal's body to have any function in moving the snake, Rieppel said.

Modern pythons have a rudimentary hind limb, usually little more than a claw of cartilage tipped with bone that they use during mating and occasional fighting, and it is possible that Haasiophis' leg served a similar purpose, he said.

Found in the West Bank area of Israel, Haasiophis was a marine snake, Rieppel said. He said it appears to have been able to widen its jaw like boas and pythons, enabling it to eat prey larger than its body.

Haasiophis is the second limbed snake to come from the same site.

The first, Pachyrhachis problematicus, had been thought by some researchers to be at the base of the snake family tree, indicating a marine origin for snakes. Others speculate that snakes evolved from small land lizards.

Rieppel said the new find appears to be closely related to Pachyrhachis.

But his team's analysis also indicates that these two snakes were not primitive ancestors, but advanced snakes similar to modern boas and pythons. The new anatomical interpretation suggests that neither Pachyrhachis nor Haasiophis have anything to do with snake origins.