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Yet more fun with squamate phylogeny



John D. Scanlon: Skull of the large non-macrostomatan snake *Yurlunggur* from the Australian Oligo-Miocene, Nature 439, 839 -- 842 (16 February 2006)

Abstract (refs removed):
"Understanding the origin and early evolution of snakes from lizards depends on accurate morphological knowledge of the skull in basal lineages, but fossil specimens of archaic snakes have been rare, and either fragmentary or difficult to study as a result of compression by enclosing sediments. A number of Cenozoic fossil snakes from Australia have vertebral morphology diagnostic of an extinct group, Madtsoiidae, that was widespread in Gondwana from mid-Cretaceous (Cenomanian) to Eocene times, and also reached Europe in the late Cretaceous period. Despite this long history, only about half the skull is known from the best-known species *Wonambi naracoortensis*, and the few known cranial elements of other species have added little further evidence for phylogenetic relationships. Conflicting hypotheses have been proposed for their relationships and evolutionary significance, either as basal ophidians with many ancestral (varanoid- or mosasaur-like) features, or advanced (macrostomatan) alethinophidians of little relevance to snake origins. Here I report two partial skeletons referred to *Yurlunggur*, from the late Oligocene and early Miocene of northern Australia, which together represent almost the complete skull and mandible. The exceptionally preserved skulls provide new evidence linking *Yurlunggur* with *Wonambi* and other madtsoiids, falsifying predictions of the macrostomatan hypothesis, and supporting the exclusion of Madtsoiidae from the clade including all extant snakes."


In total practically the complete skull is now known -- and full of plesiomorphies, many of them relating to limited (but not absent) kinesis. The teeth look like a boa's. Riversleigh fossils are preserved in 3D, usually undistorted, and can be acid-prepared, as the specimens mentioned here were.

*Yurlunggur* and *Wonambi* each have a few different convergences on Macrostomata!

Madtsoiidae is mentioned to be "presumed to be constrictors ecologically analogous to living pythons and boas", followed by a long string of references. Don't ask me why they co-occurred with pythons, then...

Bremer decay index left, bootstrap support right:

--+--composite "varanoid" outgroup
 `--+--*Pachyrhachis*
    `--3,86--*Haasiophis*
          `--3,67--4,82--*Yurlunggur*
                |       `--*Wonambi*
                `--5,72--*Dinilysia*
                     `--11,98--34,100,Scolecophidia (3 OTUs)
                           `--3,62--3,48,Anilioidea (4 OTUs)
                                `--14,99,Macrostomata (10 OTUs)

The last three lines are the ophidian crown-group (Serpentes), the last two are called Alethinophidia. The character matrix comes from Lee & Scanlon 2002 (abstract: http://www.journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=120939).