World’s Oldest Python Found in Messel Pit

The newly described python species Messelopython freyi is the world’s oldest known fossil record of a python.
Credit: Senckenberg

Fossils suggest that the constrictors’ origin lies in Europe.

Together with his colleague Hussam Zaher of the University in São Paulo, Senckenberg scientist Krister Smith described the world’s oldest known fossils of a python. The almost completely preserved snakes with a length around one meter were discovered in the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Messel Pit” and are about 47 million years old. The new python species, Messelopython freyi, was named in honor of paleontologist Eberhard “Dino” Frey of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe. The study was published today in the scientific journal Biology Letters.

Reaching a length of more than six meters, pythons are among the world’s largest snakes. Today, various species of these constrictors are found primarily in Africa, Southern and Southeast Asia, and Australia. “The geographic origin of pythons is still not clear. The discovery of a new python species in the Messel Pit is therefore a major leap forward in understanding these snakes’ evolutionary history,” explains Dr. Krister Smith of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt.

The new python species Messelopython freyi described by Smith and his Brazilian colleague, Dr. Hussam Zaher, is the oldest known fossil record of a python anywhere in the world. “According to our findings, these snakes already occurred in Europe at the time of the Eocene, over 47 million years ago. Our analyses trace their evolutionary history to Europe!” adds Zaher.

However, the large constrictor snakes subsequently disappeared from the European continent for quite some time. Fossils of this snake family did not appear again until the Miocene – between 23 and 5 million years ago. “As the global climate began to cool again after the Miocene, the pythons once again disappeared from Europe,” says Smith.

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