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Ancient fossils from India on display in 'U' museum

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Tom McBrien, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 16, 2014

A young dinosaur pokes out from its shell, only to be met by an 11.5-foot-long snake rearing back to devour it. Just at the climax, both are almost instantaneously covered by a mudslide, preserving them for millions of years. This may sound like a B-movie plot summary, but thanks to a University paleontologist’s discovery, researchers now know it was an actual event that happened 67 million years ago.

Jeffrey Wilson, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, delivered the William R. Farrand Memorial Lecture, this year titled “India before the Himalayas: When snakes ate dinosaurs” about his fossil discovery, which is now a permanent exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit includes a life-size model of the scene by artist Tyler Keillor, who reconstructs paleontological items, and a touchable cast of the fossil slab.

The fossil’s journey to the University was a long one. Wilson’s colleague, Dhananjay Mohabey, discovered the fossil in western India in 1981 but did not realize that snake bones were present. Decades later, Wilson heard about the piece and, upon examining it in 2001, was the first to notice the distinctive snake spine bones.

“From this time in history, we only have about five examples of snakes with bodies, and this is the sixth,” Wilson said, explaining the rarity of the fossil.

Wilson and Mohabey named the snake Sanajeh indicus, meaning “ancient gape from India.” This name comes from the fact that the snake had its jaw hinge in front of its neck, instead of behind the head as many modern snakes do. As a result, it could not open its mouth as wide.

Wilson added that not many people realize that dinosaurs could be prey for other types of animals. This specific dinosaur, a sauropod, would likely have grown to be about 70 feet in length. However, at the time of its death, it was only 19.6 inches long.

This research fits into Wilson’s larger question about how India’s migration across the world affected its biodiversity. At the time that this fossil was created, India was likely a solitary island just north of the equator.

By studying fossils from different time periods, Wilson and other paleontologists can compare the animals to their counterparts in Asia and North America, among other continents, to infer evolutionary relationships hundreds of millions of years ago.

The new exhibit comes as part of the current LSA theme semester, “India in the World.” The Museum of Natural history will have another exhibit opening March 15 called “Wild India.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misattributed one of Jeffery Wilson’s quotations to another source, who was not named in the article.