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PRESS RELEASE - Bright Idea Sheds Light on Snake Legs

2/8/2011


 

Photograph of Eupodophis descouensi, a fossil snake from the Cretaceous (95 million-years-ago) of Lebannon with a 1cm scale bar. (Photograph by Alexandra Houssaye)

 

 

 

 

 

Image 1

DEERFIELD, IL (January 2011) - Novel three-dimensional (3D) imaging technology has provided an unparalleled view of the legs of an ancient snake. The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, suggests that snakes lost their legs by growing them more slowly or for a shorter period of time. The researchers hope the new data will help resolve a heated debate about the snake origins: whether they evolved from a lizard that burrowed on land or swam in the oceans.

The new imaging technique used in this study, called synchrotron-radiation computed laminography (SRCL), uses an intense, high-energy beam of X rays to deeply penetrate dense materials. The fossil snake, named Eupodophis descouensi, was rotated in this high-energy beam, resulting in thousands of two-dimensional images. These images were compiled into a high-resolution, three-dimensional model of the snake's hips and small (0.8 inch or 2 cm) legs, which are otherwise inaccessible.

3D model of the new Eupodophis leg previously hidden to researchers. The leg bones are colored to reveal the internal architecture of the bone to study how the snake's leg grows with a 0.5mm scale bar. (Image by Alexandra Houssaye)

Image 2

"Synchrotrons are enormous machines and allow us to see microscopic details in fossils invisible to any other techniques without damage to these invaluable specimens," says Paul Tafforeau from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and co-author of the study.

In the ten years since Eupodophis’ discovery in 95-million-year-old rocks of Lebanon, paleontologists have sought a way to study the fossil snake's growth. To do so, they collaborated with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, and physicists developing SRCL from the Ångströmquelle Karlsruhe (ANKA) in Germany. This imaging technique is similar to computed tomography known from medical x-ray imaging, but providing approximately 1,000 times higher spatial resolutions. Employing the much stronger x-ray source of a synchrotron accelerator, the technique is particularly adapted to 3D imaging of such flat plate-like specimens presented by fossils.

The new data reveal a Eupodophis leg that is bent at the knee and has four ankle bones but no foot or toe bones. More importantly, it reveals the internal architecture of the leg bones, which strongly resembles that of modern terrestrial lizard legs. It is this information that has been used to better understand growth in extinct snakes.

"The revelation of the inner structure of Eupodophis hind limbs enables us to investigate the process of limb regression in snake evolution." says Alexandra Houssaye of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, lead author of the study.

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About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now had more than 2,400 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators and others interested in vertebrate paleontology. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the objective of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.
 
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
The Journal of vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology.

For complimentary access to the full article beginning February 9, visit: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t917000010~db=all

The article appears in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(1), published by Taylor and Francis.

CITATION
Houssaye, A., F. Xu, L. Helfen, V. De Buffrenil, T. Baumbach, P. Tafforeau. 2011. Three-dimensional pelvis and limb anatomy of the Cenomanian hind-limbed snake Eupodophis descouensi (Squamata, Ophidia) revealed by synchrotron-radiation computed laminography. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(1):1-6.

Journal Web site: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology: http://vertpaleo.org


AUTHOR CONTACT INFORMATION

Alexandra Houssaye
Departement Histoire de la Terre, Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle
57 rue Cuvier CP 38
75005 Paris, France
houssaye@mnhn.fr

Feng Xu
Institute for Synchrotron Radiation
Ångströmquelle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
76021 Karlsruhe, Germany
Feng.Xu@kit.edu

Lukas Helfen
Institute for Synchrotron Radiation
Ångströmquelle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
76021 Karlsruhe, Germany
lukas.Helfen@kit.edu

Vivian De Buffrenil
Departement Histoire de la Terre, Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle
57 rue Cuvier CP 38
75005 Paris, France
vdebuff@mnhn.fr

Tilo Baumbach
Institute for Synchrotron Radiation
Ångströmquelle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
76021 Karlsruhe, Germany
tilo.baumbach@iss.fzk.de

Paul Tafforeau
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
BP220, 6 rue Jules Horowitz
38043 Grenoble Cedex, France
paul.tafforeau@esrf.fr

Other Experts Not Associated with the Study

Prof. Dr. Michael Caldwell
Department of Biological Science, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Canada
mw.caldwell@ualberta.ca (780) 492-3458

Prof. J.-C. Rage
Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle
Paris, France
jcrage@mnhn.fr


IMAGES

Image 1: Photograph of Eupodophis descouensi, a fossil snake from the Cretaceous (95 million-years-ago) of Lebannon with a 1cm scale bar. (Photograph by Alexandra Houssaye)

Image 2: 3D model of the new Eupodophis leg previously hidden to researchers. The leg bones are colored to reveal the internal architecture of the bone to study how the snake's leg grows with a 0.5mm scale bar. (Image by Alexandra Houssaye)


ANIMATIONS
Available for download at:
http://esatv-movies.e-vision.nl/videos/mp4/Image_Bank/EupodophysSD.avi

Film of the experiment available for download at:
http://esatv-movies.e-vision.nl/videos/mp4/Image_Bank/Eupodophys.dv


Animation #1: Movie illustrating the fossil Eupodophis descouensi and the 3D model of the snake leg reconstructed using synchrotron-radiation computed laminography.
Resolution:
HD: 1900*1080 – 29sec
-or-: 950*540 – 37sec
Credit: Paul Tafforeau

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