Evolution and dispersal of snakes across the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction

Catherine Klein, Davide Pisani, Daniel Field, Rebecca Lakin, Matthew Wills, Nick Longrich

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14 Citations (SciVal)


Mass extinctions have repeatedly shaped global biodiversity. The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction caused the demise of numerous vertebrate groups, and its aftermath saw the rapid diversification of surviving mammals, birds, frogs, and teleost fishes. However, the effects of the K-Pg extinction on the evolution of snakes—a major clade of predators comprising over 3,700 living species—remains poorly understood. Here, we combine an extensive molecular dataset with phylogenetically and stratigraphically constrained fossil calibrations to infer an evolutionary timescale for Serpentes. We reveal a potential diversification among crown snakes associated with the K-Pg mass extinction, led by the successful colonisation of Asia by the major extant clade Afrophidia. Vertebral morphometrics suggest increasing morphological specialisation among marine snakes through the Paleogene. The dispersal patterns of snakes following the K-Pg underscore the importance of this mass extinction event in shaping Earth’s extant vertebrate faunas.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5335 (2021)
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Early online date14 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project was funded by the Fonds National de la Recherche Luxembourg (AFR grant 10142968 to C.G.K.) and the National Environment Research Council (NE/L002434/1 to R.J.L. and NE/K014951/1 to M.A.W.). D.J.F. is supported by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship (MR/S032177/1). M.A.W. is supported by John Templeton Foundation grant 61408. We thank Jakob Vinther and Jason Head for helpful discussions during the conceptualization of this project. We also thank Mark Puttick and Aubrey Roberts for support with analyses.

Data availability
Input and output files for molecular clock and disparity analyses are deposited at https://
doi.org/10.5061/dryad.tv055. Information on extant taxon ranges was gathered from the
Reptile Database https://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/. Gene sequences from Zheng and
Wiens32,77 can be found at https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.tv055. All other data can be
found in the Supplementary Information. Different formats can be requested from
corresponding authors.


  • snake
  • extinction
  • adaptive radiation
  • biogeography
  • Cretaceous
  • Paleogene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • General Chemistry
  • General Biochemistry,Genetics and Molecular Biology


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