Temporal range: Middle Jurassic - Holocene, 170–0 Ma
|Skull and jaws of Platecarpus, Peabody Museum of Natural History|
Pythonomorpha was originally proposed by paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1869) as a reptilian order comprising snakes and mosasaurs. The etymology of the term Pythonomorpha comes from the Greek Python (a monstrous snake from Greek mythology) and morphe ("form"), and refers to the generally serpentine body plan of members of the group. Cope wrote, "In the mosasauroids, we almost realize the fictions of snake-like dragons and sea-serpents, in which men have been ever prone to indulge. On account of the ophidian part of their affinities, I have called this order Pythonomorpha."
However, the category was rejected by most 20th-Century herpetologists and paleontologists, who sought, instead, to demonstrate a close relationship between mosasaurs and varanid (monitor) lizards and who generally considered snakes to have evolved from terrestrial, burrowing lizards (see, for example, Russell, 1967). Cope's Pythonomorpha was later resurrected by a number of paleontologists (Lee, 1997; Caldwell et Lee, 1997) who have conducted cladistic analyses that seem to show that snakes and mosasaurs may be more closely related to one another than either is to the varanid lizards, and that snakes more likely arose from aquatic ancestors. As redefined by Lee (1997), the monophyletic Pythonomorpha consists of "The most recent common ancestor of mosasauroids and snakes, and all its descendants." This would include the aigialosaurs, dolichosaurs, coniasaurs, mosasaurs, and all snakes. Lee (1997) was able to show no less than 38 synapomorphies supporting Pythonomorpha.
However, the validity of Pythonomorpha is still debated; indeed, there is no consensus about the relationships of snakes or mosasaurs to each other, or to the rest of the lizards. An analysis by Conrad (2008) placed mosasaurs with varanoid lizards, and snakes with skinks. The most recent analysis, by Gauthier et al. (2012), suggests that mosasaurs are more primitive than either snakes or varanoids.
- Caldwell, M. W., Carroll, R. L. et Kaiser, H. 1995: The pectoral girdle and forelimb of Carsosaurus marchesetti (Aegialosauridae), with a preliminary phylogenetic analysis of Mosasauroids and varanoids. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 15(3): 516-531.
- Caldwell, M. W. et Lee, M. S. Y. 1997. A snake with legs from the marine Cretaceous of the Middle East. Nature 386:705-709.
- Caldwell, M. W. 1999. Squamate phylogeny and the relationships of snakes and mosasauroids. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 125:115-147.
- Cope, E. D. 1869. On the reptilian orders Pythonomorpha and Streptosauria. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History 12:250–266.
- Lee, M. S. Y. 1997. The phylogeny of varanoid lizards and the affinities of snakes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 352:53-91.
- Lee, M. S. Y. et Caldwell, M. W.. 2000. Adriosaurus and the affinities of mosasaurs, dolichosaurs, and snakes. Journal of Paleontology 74(5):915-937.
- Russell, D. A., 1967. Systematics and morphology of American mosasaurs. Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, Bulletin 23.
- Gauthier, J. A., Kearney, M., Maisano, J.A., Rieppel, O. et Behkke, A. D. B. 2012: Assembling the Squamate Tree of Life: Perspectives from the Phenotype and the Fossil Record. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History 53(1):3-308.