– Today there are many animals that can produce deadly venom, but which animal was the first one to use venom for protection or hunting?
Scientists have discovered first evidence of the oldest venomous vertebrate ever found, and what is even more surprising is that it is not in a species that we expected it to be.
It turns out that therapsid Euchambersia, a pre-mammalian reptile that lived about 260 million years ago in the Karoo, near Colesberg in South Africa was the first animal to produce deadly venomous.
The conditions and environment in South Africa were very hard and you had to extremely tough to fend off gigantic predators like sabre-toothed carnivores in order to survive.
A small a small, dog-sized pre-mammalian reptile, like therapsid Euchambersia had to protect itself against these monsters and it did so by turning saliva into a deadly venomous cocktail.
“Today, snakes are notorious for their venomous bite, but their fossil record vanishes in the depth of geological times at about 167 million years ago, so, at 260 million years ago, the Euchambersia evolved venom more than a 100 million years before the very first snake was even born,” Dr Julien Benoit, researcher at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa said.
Unlike snakes like vipers or cobras, which actively inject their prey with venom through needle-like grooves in their teeth, the Euchambersia’s venom flowed directly into its mouth, and the venom was passively introduced into its victim through ridges on the outside of its canine teeth.
“Echambersia could have used its venom for either protection or hunting. Most venomous species today use their venom for hunting, so this is a much more probable option. Added to that, not all animals at the times were insectovorous, particularly therapsids, which was very diverse,” Dr Julien Benoit said.
Scientists studied two Euchambersia fossils were both found on the farm Vanwyksfontein, near Colesberg in the Eastern Cape, and while they were found more than 34 years apart from each other, for millions of years, they were lying only a few metres apart.
According to measurements of the two fossils, the Euchambersia was a small dog-like pre-mammalian reptile that grew between 40 and 50cm long, and lived well before the first dinosaur even appeared.
What is intriguing is that Euchambersia is related to early mammals, not snakes. More and more venom producing mammals are discovered every year, including shrews and primates like the Loris of South East Asia. Researchers believe that mammals that lived millions of years ago used to be venomous, but lost this ability in time. However, in some mammals, the genes responsible for venom production were activated again at a later stage.
The first evidence of snakes date back to 167 million years ago. There are two hypotheses as to how and when snakes became venomous. The first suggests that snakes like cobras and vipers became venomous independently about 20 million years ago.
However, other researchers suggest that the common ancestors of snakes and lizards became venomous about 250 million years ago, which means the Euchambersia became venomous about 100 million years before snakes did.