Last week I gave you this pretty cool skull to have a go at identifying:
As everyone recognised, it’s the skull of a snake. I think that’s clear from those extremely long quadrate bones (highlighted in purple in the top view), with which the lower jaw articulates to allow a huge gape for swallowing prey whole. However, there are a lot of snakes out there – around 3,600 species, which means there are lots of possibilities for the species that this particular skull belongs to.
The side view allows us to rule out quite a few possibilities, since it’s clear from the teeth that this isn’t one of the front-fanged snakes (vipers and elapids).
Rattlesnake skull, with its big front fangs.
The light construction of the skull suggests it’s not one of the constricting snakes, which have much more robust skulls for dealing with the forces generated by the struggles of relatively large prey.
Python skull, with a robust construction for wrangling prey.
The teeth are quite small and although there are a couple of slightly longer ones in the tooth row, they hardly count as real fangs at a paltry 3mm long. So we’re probably dealing with one of the ‘non-venomous’ colubrid snakes (many of these are actually venomous, but lack the appropriate tools to deliver that venom through human skin).
Of course, there are still well over a thousand possible species in the Colubridae – but this is where you have to start ruling out possibilities by comparing the specimen against species that are common and widespread, to begin the process of narrowing down the options.
Since this specimen is in the Museum in Ireland, Europe is a good place to start looking for likely candidates (Ireland itself being famously devoid of native snakes). There is a rather old (published in 1913), but still very useful reference called The Snakes of Europe, by G. A. Boulenger which has a section on identifying species based on their skulls.
If you take a look through, it quickly becomes apparent that there is one species that matches the mystery object very closely – even to the position of the slightly larger teeth. It’s a species that has an interesting defense mechanism that jennifermacaire referred to:
…The closest skull I could find is from a snake that likes to roll over and play dead…
This is a fascinating behaviour seen in several snake species, but Jennifer is correct that it is seen in the species that this skull is from – the European Grass snake Natrix sp.
Of course, the story then gets more complicated again, since a couple of subspecies of Grass snake have been elevated to species in the last few years. The Iberian subspecies Natrix natrix astreptophora was recognised as N. astreptophora in 2016 and the subspecies N. n. helvetica found west of the Rhine (including in the UK) was updated to N. helvetica in 2017.
These studies were based on genetics and I’ve yet to see any way of differentiating between these species using skeletal features, so for now the best I can say about this specimen is that it’s Natrix sp. I hope you enjoyed that little slither into the world of snakes, which seems to have opened a bit of a can of worms…