Part of the Lizards and Snakes: Alive! exhibition.

Life Without Limbs

Flicking tongues. Unblinking stares. Incredible agility--but no visible arms or legs. These must be the planet's most intriguing, most misunderstood animals. They are squamates without limbs; you probably know them as snakes.

© AMNH / Roderick Mickens

Over the course of evolution, limbs have vanished in the ancestors of many animal groups, including squamates. But snakes took life without limbs to a whole new level. Their uncanny traits--heat sensing and deadly venom, constriction and expandable jaws--arose during tens of millions of years spent adapting to a limbless lifestyle. Maybe that's why the 3,000 species of snakes fascinate us: they're among the most successful vertebrates on Earth.


Squamate Relationships

Egg-eater snake (Dasypeltis scabra), swallowing egg
© Michael & Patricia Fogden / Minden Pictures

This diagram shows the relationships among the snakes that were found in this exhibit. It also includes the fossils that were on display. Overall, living snake species number about 3,000. Live snakes that were in this exhibit are shown by small photos; fossils that were displayed are shown by name.

What this cladogram doesn't show is where snakes fit in squamates as a whole. That's because scientists still don't know which other squamates are the snakes' closest relatives. Skinks? Monitor Lizards? Extinct mosasaurs? Or could snakes be related to the common ancestor of all squamates?