Palestinian Fossils
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Legged Snake Fossil from Ein Yabrud, Jerusalem

Researchers from Southern Methodist University, Dallas (USA) have described an intriguing new species of fossil snake with legs that was found in the Ein Yabrud limestone quarry, north of Jerusalem. In a paper published in March 2000 in the Science Journal, SMU paleontologist Prof.Louis Jacobs and several international co-authors say the fossil snake is important because it provides new information on the evolution of snakes. The fossil snake, which lived 95 million years ago, is named Haasiophis terrasanctus after a Hebrew University professor named George Haas who obtained it from quarry workers more than 20 years ago. The well-preserved fossil sat largely unstudied in storage until Mike Polcyn, an SMU graduate student in paleontology, brought back pictures of it and other undescribed specimens that he took while on a business trip to Occupied Palestine in 1996. "We immediately decided we needed to go back and organize a joint project to research and publish on this unique location and the animals preserved there," Polcyn said. Haasiophis is a little over a meter long and has hind legs about 2 cm long that extend all the way to the toe bones. Its head and lower jaws are intact. "It is extremely rare to find a fossil snake head preserved because they usually get spread and scattered," Jacobs said. Haasiophis is the second limbed snake to come from the limestone quarry near the villages of Ein Yabrud, north of Jerusalem. George Haas published a description of the first limbed snake, Pachyrachis problematicus, in 1979, but at the time he placed it not as a snake but as a marine lizard known as a dolichosaur. Some scientists believe Pachyrachis represents the most primitive snake known and provides evidence of a link between mosasaurs giant swimming lizards of the Cretaceous Period and true snakes. In the past 20 years, however, researchers have developed more quantitative methods of evaluating relationships between species based on unique anatomical details. The analysis of the head and jaws of Haasiophis presented in the Science article places it closer to more advanced terrestrial snakes such as boas and pythons and suggests that neither Pachyrachis nor Haasiophis has anything to do with snake origins. "As a result of this analysis, it seems less likely that snakes evolved from mosasaurs," Jacobs said. Scientists believe snakes evolved from a group of lizards prior to 100 million years ago. During the evolutionary process, their headbones changed, they developed long bodies with specialized vertebra and muscles, and they lost their legs. Jacobs said analysis of Haasiophis indicates that snake feeding apparatus, body form and locomotor pattern all evolved before the hind legs were lost. "The fact Haasiophis had legs means that either snakes lost their legs more than once or they re-evolved them," Jacobs said. He speculates that the tiny legs on Haasiophis were somehow used in reproduction and stimulation, much like the spurs on anacondas are used today. They are too small in relation to the reptile's whole body to have helped it move. During the Cretaceous Period, the area that includes the Middle East was a shallow sea with patches of reef and limestone deposition, much like the modern-day Bahamian reef. At one point about 95 million years ago, the sea level fell, making a quiet area on this limestone shelf. Animals washed into the area and fell to the bottom. With no scavengers to eat the bodies, they eventually fossilized within the limestone. Paleontologists also have found fossils of sharks, turtles, primitive mosasaurs and plants in the Ein Yabrud quarry. Analysis of Haasiophis also adds to the debate over whether snakes originated on land or in the sea. Haasiophis lived in the sea, and Jacobs believes it may represent the first invasion of the sea by snakes.(SMU News).

Snake Science
The skull of H. terrasanctus viewed from above and below

A Palestinian child holding a peacock at the demolished Rafah Zoo, Rafah Refugee Camp, Rafah City, Gaza Strip. The Rafah Zoo was demolished by the Israeli invading and occupying forces on Thursday 20.5.2004.

Palestinian Zoos in Gaza and the West Bank :

Qalqilya Zoo in the West Bank stays open, but animals die one by one

Even beasts bear Mideast's burdens

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published October 14, 2003

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Sami Khader, a veterinarian at the Qalqilya Municipal Zoo in the West Bank, cleans cobwebs from a stuffed giraffe and calf. The zoo opened in 1986 at a time of relative calm and drew visitors from throughout the West Bank and even Israel. Now few people stop by.

QALQILYA, West Bank - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exacted a terrible toll on humans. It has been tough on animals, too.

Consider Brownie the giraffe, star of the Qalqilya Municipal Zoo. Last year, Brownie was fleeing from Israeli gunfire when he crashed into a pole. He fell down and never got up.

Then there were the zebras, dead from tear gas. And Abdullah the baboon, who ripped off three fingers when he grabbed the jagged bars of his cage in a moment of panic.

Since the Palestinian uprising against Israel began three years ago, the zoo has lost many of its live exhibits. And the ones that survived aren't looking too impressive.

"What do you see inside here?" veterinarian Sami Khader asks, pointing in disdain at a cage of ordinary chickens and geese. "This isn't a zoo."

Compared to Israel's renowned zoological park, Tel Aviv Safari, the Qalqilya zoo has always been a modest affair. But as the only zoo in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, it was a point of pride for Palestinians eager to develop their own nation and institutions.

The zoo opened in 1986 at a time of relative calm and drew visitors from throughout the West Bank and even Israel. One day, more than 70 buses pulled up.

But in 2000, Palestinians rebelled against the Israeli occupation and Qalqilya became, in Israeli eyes, a hotbed of terrorism. Israel barricaded the city and soldiers often engaged in fierce battles with militants, sometimes within yards of the zoo.

Thus did Brownie meet his end.

Acquired from South Africa, Brownie was among the zoo's most popular attractions. He was also "a very nervous giraffe," Khader says. "Tanks came in every day and sometimes there was shooting, sometimes bombing."

Terrified by gunfire from a nearby school, Brownie careered into one of the metal poles that held up his shelter. He apparently broke his neck when he fell.

Nor was that all. Brownie's mate Ruti, 13 months pregnant, was so traumatized she aborted 10 days later.

"We lost father and baby," Khader says.

So far, all of the monkeys have survived, but they screech and run to the corner of their cage if Khader points his mobile phone at them.

They think it's a gun.

On a recent afternoon, the zoo's only visitors were two women eating lunch in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Revenues have plunged from 2-million shekels a year - about US Dollars 465,000 - to just 170,000.

As a result, the animals aren't getting fat. A rabbit dropped through the ceiling of the python cage is swallowed before hitting the floor. A ravenous bear wrestles a bag of Green Cowboy Corn Chips out of Khader's hands.

Many of the animals were donated by Israel and, despite the conflict, Khader still enjoys good relations with Israeli zookeepers and veterinarians. He often calls them for advice and they in turn call to see how he's doing.

But with Qalqilya shut off from the outside world, the zoo has a problem.

"Any animals I lose, it is not easy to bring in new ones," Khader says. "Most zoos in the world want to help us, but how can they help if the roads are closed?"

Because there are fewer live animals to care for, Khader has taken up a new profession. Taxidermy.

Today, Brownie and his unborn calf loom majestically in a zoo warehouse. (At 13 months, a giraffe fetus looks remarkably like a giraffe; the gestation period is between 14 and 15 months.) Nearby, one of the zebras lies on its side, its lips in a macabre grin.

Khader has also stuffed a lion, an ostrich and several snakes. Eventually, all will go into a nature museum he hopes to start on the zoo grounds.

"It will be the first museum in the history of Palestine," he says proudly. "But it is not easy to build one now." (Times).