Messelopython freyi: Pythons Lived in Europe as Early as 48 Million Years Ago

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Messelopython freyi. Image credit: Senckenberg Research Institute.

A new genus and species of medium-sized python that lived during the early-middle Eocene Epoch has been identified from several nearly complete skeletons and partial skulls found in Germany.

The newly-identified python species lived in what is now Germany, approximately 47.6 million years ago (Eocene Epoch).

Named Messelopython freyi, the ancient snake is the earliest-known member of the superfamily Pythonoidea.

“The geographic origin of pythons is still not clear,” said co-author Dr. Krister Smith, a paleontologist in the Department of Messel Research and Mammalogy at the Senckenberg Research Institute and the Institute for Ecology, Diversity and Evolution at the Goethe University Frankfurt.

“According to our findings, these snakes already occurred in Europe at the time of the Eocene, over 47 million years ago,” said lead author Dr. Hussam Zaher, a paleontologist in the Museu de Zoologia at the Universidade de São Paulo.

“Our analyses trace their evolutionary history to Europe!”

“However, the large constrictor snakes subsequently disappeared from the European continent for quite some time,” he noted.

“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,” Dr. Smith added.

The fossilized remains of several Messelopython freyi individuals were recovered from the Middle Messel Formation.

“The discovery of a new python species in the Messel Pit is a major leap forward in understanding these snakes’ evolutionary history,” Dr. Smith said.

“Modern pythons live in complete spatial separation from their anatomically very similar relatives, the boas,” he added.

“However, in Messel, Messelopython freyi and primitive boas such as Eoconstrictor fischeri lived together in the same ecosystem.”

“We therefore have to revisit the thesis that these two groups of snakes competed with each other, making them unable to share the same habitats.”

The findings were published in the journal Biology Letters.


Hussam Zaher & Krister T. Smith. 2020. Pythons in the Eocene of Europe reveal a much older divergence of the group in sympatry with boas. Biol. Lett 16 (12): 20200735; doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2020.0735