Snake (illustration)
Snake (illustration) Thinkstock

Scientists have long scoffed at the Torah account of how the serpent in the Garden of Eden walked upright before being cursed, but a newly found 113-million-year-old fossil proves that snakes indeed once had four legs.

Back in the first days after Creation, the Torah relates how G-d cursed the serpent for deceiving Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, saying, "upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life" (Genesis 3:14). Several traditional commenters theorize that the first snakes may have had limbs. 

The new 19.5 cm long fossil, dubbed Tetrapodophis amplectus and revealed by BBC on Friday, indicates that snakes indeed once had means of not just "eating dust."

While several previous finds had hind limbs, this is the first with four legs and is thought to be the oldest direct ancestor of current snakes.

The legs of the new first find are small and likely weren't used for full walking, but could have been used to grab prey and burrow. According to experts, the fossil was apparently in a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk.

Dr. Nick Longrich of the University of Bath, an author in a new study on the find published in Science, told BBC about the amazing discovery.

The front legs were just four millimeters long, and the hind ones seven millimeters, but the doctor made clear they weren't just "vestigial" evolutionary leftovers.

"They're actually very highly specialized - they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think (snakes from the fossil's time) are doing is they've stopped using them for walking and they're using them for grasping their prey," he said, suggesting earlier snakes did indeed walk.

"It would sort of embrace or hug its prey with its forelimbs and hindlimbs. So it's the huggy snake," Longrich said.

According to Longrich, the find settled the debate about whether snakes adapted on land or on water.

"This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it's pretty clearly not aquatic," said Longrich, explaining that the snake's tail wasn't paddle-shaped for water use and it had no fins, and likewise the structure of its short snout and long trunk indicated a burrower snake.

Longrich was expecting an in-between species which would suggest an evolution of the snake species, but he was "really blown away" to find a full-fledged snake - just with legs.

He said he saw "a lot of very advanced snake features" such as hooked teeth, a flexible jaw and spine, as well as scales.

"And there's the gut contents - it's swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature. It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It's just got little arms and little legs."