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Temporal range: Early Cenomanian-Late Pleistocene
~98–0.012 Ma
Madtsoia bai.JPG
Fossil specimen of Madtsoia bai
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Infraorder: Alethinophidia
Family: Madtsoiidae
Hoffstetter, 1961

Madtsoiidae is an extinct family of mostly Gondwanan snakes with a fossil record extending from early Cenomanian (Upper Cretaceous) to late Pleistocene strata located in South America, Africa, India, Australia and Southern Europe. Madtsoiid snakes include very primitive snakes, which like extant boas and pythons would likely dispatch their prey by constriction, such as Gigantophis, one of the longest snakes known at an estimated 10.7 metres (35 ft), and the Australian Wonambi and Yurlunggur. As a grouping of basal forms the composition and even the validity of Madtsoiidae is in a state of flux as new pertinent finds are described.


Diagram of the fossil of Sanajeh

Madtsoiidae was first classified as a subfamily of Boidae, Madtsoiinae, in Hoffstetter (1961). Further study and new finds allowed ranking the group as a distinct family in Linnaean systems. With the recent use of cladistics to unravel phylogeny, various analyses have posited Madtsoiidae as a likely clade within Serpentes, or possible paraphyletic stem group outside Serpentes and within a more inclusive Ophidia. Madtsoiid snakes ranged in size from less than 1 metre (3.3 ft) (estimated total length) to over 9 metres (30 ft), and are thought to have been constrictors analogous to modern pythons and boas, but with more primitive jaw structures less highly adapted for swallowing large prey. There are specific anatomical features that diagnose members of this family, such as the presence of hypapophyses only in anterior trunk, that the middle and posterior trunk vertebrae possess a moderately or well-developed haemal keel, except for a few near the cloacal region, often with short laterally paired projections on the posterior part of the keel. Also, all trunk and caudal vertebrae have at least a parazygantral foramen, sometimes several of them, located in a more or less distinct fossa that is lateral to each zygantral facet. Additional features are the prezygapophyseal processes' absence while the paracotylar foramina are present and that the diapophyses are relatively wide, exceeding width across prezygapophyses at least in the posterior trunk vertebrae. (Scanlon 2005)

Like most fossil snakes the majority of madtsoiids are known only from isolated vertebrae, but several (Madtsoia bai, M. camposi, Wonambi naracoortensis, Nanowana spp., unnamed Yurlunggur spp., Najash rionegrina) have associated or articulated parts of skeletons. Of the genera listed below, all have been referred to Madtsoiidae in all recent classifications except Najash rionegrina, which is included here based on diagnostic vertebral characters described by Apesteguía and Zaher (2006). These authors didn't include Najash among madtsoiids because they consider that madtsoiids are a paraphyletic assemblage of basal macrostomatans related to Madtsoia bai and consequently, not related to the Cretaceous alethinophidians from southern continents.

Wonambi naracoortensis and Thylacoleo

Rieppel et al. (2002) classified Wonambi naracoortensis within the extant radiation, (crown group), of snakes as Macrostomata incertae sedis, but many of their character state attributions for this species have been criticised or refuted by Scanlon (2005) and the better-preserved skulls of Yurlunggur sp./spp. have numerous characters apparently more plesiomorphic than any macrostomatans (Scanlon 2006). The partial skull attributed to Najash rionegrina (Apesteguía and Zaher 2006) resembles that of the non-madtsoiid Dinilysia patagonica, and vertebrae support that they are related. The type material of Najash is the only possible madtsoiid specimen retaining evidence of pelvic and hindlimb elements, which are claimed to be more plesiomorphic than other Cretaceous limbed snakes, such as Pachyrhachis, Haasiophis or Eupodophis, in retaining a sacro-iliac contact and well-developed limbs, with a huge and well-defined trochanter. The sacro iliac contact is perhaps misleadingly described by Apesteguía and Zaher as unique possession of a sacrum, whereas it has rarely been questioned that the cloacal vertebrae in snakes are homologous to the sacrals of limbed squamates (i.e. the sacrum is present but has lost contact with the reduced ilia in other taxa). It would be unsurprising if other madtsoiids also possessed hindlimbs as complete as those of Najash.

Several madtsoiid genera have been named using indigenous words for legendary Rainbow Serpents or dragons, including Wonambi (Pitjantjatjara), Yurlunggur (Yolngu) and Nanowana (Ancient Greek nano-, 'dwarf' + Warlpiri Wana) in Australia, and Herensugea (Basque) in Europe. G.G. Simpson (1933) apparently started this trend by compounding Madtsoia from indigenous roots. In this particular case these originated from the Tehuelche language, although the reference made was geographic rather than mythological, the derivation being from that language's terms mad, "valley" and tsoi, "cow" as a rough translation from Spanish name of the type locality, Cañadón Vaca.


Unnamed specimens[edit]

  • Madtsoiidae indet. (Rage 1987; Paleogene, Paleocene; Morocco)
  • Madtsoiidae indet. (Werner and Rage 1994, Rage and Werner 1999; Cretaceous, Cenomanian; Sudan)
  • ?Madtsoiid (Rage and Prasad 1992; Cretaceous, Maastrichtian; India)
  • ?Madtsoiid (Rage 1991; Paleogene, early Paleocene Santa Lucía Formation; Bolivia)
  • ?Madtsoiidae indet. cf. Madtsoia sp. (Scanlon 2005; Paleogene, early Eocene; Australia)
  • Madtsoiidae indet. (Folie and Codrea 2005; Cretaceous, Maastrichtian; Romania)
  • Madtsoiidae nov. (Gomez and Baez 2006; Cretaceous, late Campanian or early Maastrichtian; Argentina)


According to a cladistic analysis by Scanlon (2006), Wonambi and Yurlunggur as representative genera of Madtsoiidae form a monophyletic assembly. However, as Madtsoia is not included, its grouping in the same family is questionable.














  1. ^ Wilson, J.A.; Mohabey, D.M.; Peters, S.E.; Head, J.J. (2010). Benton, Michael J. (ed.). "Predation upon Hatchling Dinosaurs by a New Snake from the Late Cretaceous of India". PLOS Biology. 8 (3): e1000322. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000322. PMC 2830453. PMID 20209142.
  2. ^ Laduke, T.C., Krause, D.W., Scanlon, J.D. and Kley, N.J. (2010). "A Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) snake assemblage from the Maevarano Formation, Mahjanga Basin, Madagascar". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 30 (1): 109–138. doi:10.1080/02724630903409188.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

Bibliography and further reading[edit]

  • Albino, A.M. 1986. Nuevos Boidae Madtsoiinae en el Cretacico tardio de Patagonia (Formacion Los Alamitos, Rio Negro, Argentina). pp. 15–21 in J.F. Bonaparte (ed.), Simposio Evolucion de los Vertebrados Mesozoicos. Actas IV Congreso Argentino de Paleontología y Bioestratigrafía, Mendoza.
  • Albino, A.M. (1994). "Una nueva serpiente (Reptilia) del Cretácico Superior de Patagonia, Argentina". Pesquisas. 21: 58–63.
  • Andrews, C.W. (1901). "Preliminary note on some recently discovered extinct vertebrates from Egypt (Part II)". Geological Magazine. 8 (10): 434–444. doi:10.1017/s0016756800179750.
  • Andrews, C.W. 1906. A descriptive catalogue of the Tertiary Vertebrata of the Fayum, Egypt. British Museum (Natural History), London.
  • Apesteguía, S.; Zaher, H. (2006). "A Cretaceous terrestrial snake with robust hindlimbs and a sacrum". Nature. 440 (7087): 1037–1040. doi:10.1038/nature04413. PMID 16625194. S2CID 4417196.
  • Astibia, H.; Buffetaut, E.; Buscalioni, A.D.; Cappetta, H.; Corral, C.; Estes, R.; Garcia-Garmilla, F.; Jaeger, J.J.; Jimenez-Fuentes, E.; Loeuff, J. Le; Mazin, J.M.; Orue-Extebarria, X.; Pereda-Suberbiola, J.; Powell, J.E.; Rage, J.-C.; Rodriguez-Lazaro, J.; Sanz, J.L.; Tong, H. (1991). "The fossil vertebrates from Laño (Basque Country, Spain); new evidence on the composition and affinities of the Late Cretaceous continental faunas of Europe". Terra Nova. 2 (5): 460–466. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3121.1990.tb00103.x.
  • de Broin, F.; Buffetaut, E.; Koeniguer, J.C.; Rage, J.-C.; Taquet, P.; Vergnaud-Grazzini, C.; Wenz, S. (1974). "La faune de Vertébrés continentaux du gisement d'In Beceten (Sénonien du Niger)". Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris. 279: 469–472.
  • Folie, A.; Codrea, V. (2005). "New lissamphibians and squamates from the Maastrichtian of Hateg Basin, Romania". Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 50: 57–71.
  • Gomez, R.O. and A.M. Baez. 2006. A new madtsoiid snake (Squamata, Ophidia) from the Upper Cretaceous of Patagonia. XXII Jornadas Argentinas de Paleontología de Vertebrados, San Juan, Argentina (2006): 21.
  • Hoffstetter, R (1960). "Un dentaire de Madtsoia (serpent géant du Paléocene de Patagonia)". Bulletin du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. 31: 379–386.
  • Hoffstetter, R (1961a). "Nouveaux restes d'un serpent boïdé (Madtsoia madagascariensis nov. sp.) dans le Crétacé supérieur de Madagascar". Bulletin du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. 33: 152–160.
  • Hoffstetter, R (1961b). "Nouvelles recoltes de serpents fossiles dans l'Eocene superieure de desert libyque". Bulletin du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. 33: 326–331.
  • Rage, J.-C. (1991). "Squamate reptiles from the early Paleocene of the Tiupampa area (Santa Lucia Formation), Bolivia. pp. 503–508 in R. Suarez-Soruco (ed.), Fosiles y Facies de Bolivia". Revista Tecnica de Yacimentos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos. 12: 503–508.
  • Rage, J.-C. (1996). "Les Madtsoiidae (Reptilia, Serpentes) du Crétacé supérieur d'Europe: témoins gondwaniens d'une dispersion transtéthysienne". Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris. 322: 603–608.
  • Rage, J.-C. (1998). "Fossil snakes from the Paleocene of São José de Itaboraí, Brazil. Part I. Madtsoiidae, Aniliidae". Palaeovertebrata. 27 (3–4): 109–144.
  • Rage, J.-C.; Prasad, G.V.R. (1992). "New snakes from the late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of Naskal, India". Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen. 187: 83–97.
  • Rage, J.-C.; Werner, C. (1999). "Mid-Cretaceous (Cenomanian) snakes from Wadi Abu Hashim, Sudan: The earliest snake assemblage". Palaeontologia Africana. 35: 85–110.
  • Rieppel, O.; Kluge, A.G.; Zaher, H. (2002). "Testing the phylogenetic relationships of the Pleistocene snake Wonambi naracoortensis Smith". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 22 (4): 812–829. doi:10.1671/0272-4634(2002)022[0812:ttprot];2.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (1992). "A new large madtsoiid snake from the Miocene of the Northern Territory". The Beagle, Records of the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences. 9: 49–60.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (1993). "Madtsoiid snakes from the Eocene Tingamarra Fauna of eastern Queensland". Kaupia: Darmstädter Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte. 3: 3–8.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (1997). "Nanowana gen. nov., small madtsoiid snakes from the Miocene of Riversleigh: sympatric species with divergently specialised dentition". Memoirs of the Queensland Museum. 41: 393–412.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (2003). "'2003. The basicranial morphology of madtsoiid snakes (Squamata, Ophidia) and the earliest Alethinophidia (Serpentes)". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 23 (4): 971–976. doi:10.1671/24. S2CID 129584280.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (2004). "First known axis vertebra of a madtsoiid snake (Yurlunggur camfieldensis) and remarks on the neck of snakes". The Beagle: Records of the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory. 20: 207–215.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (2005). "Cranial morphology of the Plio-Pleistocene giant madtsoiid snake Wonambi naracoortensis". Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 50: 139–180.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (2005). "Australia's oldest known snakes: Patagoniophis, Alamitophis, and cf. Madtsoia (Squamata: Madtsoiidae) from the Eocene of Queensland". Memoirs of the Queensland Museum. 51: 215–235.
  • Scanlon, J.D. (2006). "'2006. Skull of the large non-macrostomatan snake Yurlunggur from the Australian Oligo-Miocene". Nature. 439 (7078): 839–842. doi:10.1038/nature04137. PMID 16482156. S2CID 4415843.
  • Scanlon, J.D.; Lee, M.S.Y. (2000). "The Pleistocene serpent Wonambi and the early evolution of snakes". Nature. 403 (6768): 416–420. doi:10.1038/35000188. PMID 10667791. S2CID 4404799.
  • Simpson, G.G. (1933). "A new fossil snake from the Notostylops beds of Patagonia". Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 67: 1–22.
  • Simpson, G.G. (1935). "Early and middle Tertiary Geology of the Gaiman region, Chubut, Argentina". American Museum Novitates. 775: 1–29.
  • Smith, M.J. (1976). "Small fossil vertebrates from Victoria Cave, Naracoorte, South Australia. IV. Reptiles". Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. 100: 39–51.
  • Vasile, Ş.; Csiki-Sava, Z.; Venczel, M. (2013). "A new madtsoiid snake from the Upper Cretaceous of the Haţeg Basin, western Romania". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 33 (5): 1100–1119. doi:10.1080/02724634.2013.764882. S2CID 130202902.
  • Werner, C.; Rage, J.-C. (1994). "Mid-Cretaceous snakes from Sudan. A preliminary report on an unexpectedly diverse snake fauna". Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris. 319: 247–252.