So modern snakes eat dinosaur eggs?

From the article “Prehistoric snake gobbled-up dinosaur babies” by Jeremy Hance, which was published on mongabay.com on March 2, 2010:

A fossilized snake has been discovered inside a titanosaur nest in India, leading researchers to conclude that the snake fed on newly-hatched dinosaur babies, rather than their eggs like modern snakes.

The thought process is quite clear, though probably even in its long form simplistic:

  1. This prehistoric snake ate freshly hatched baby dinosaurs.
  2. Modern snakes evolved from prehistoric snakes.
  3. Birds evolved from dinosaurs (though there’s some fuzziness around the edges of this statement).
  4. Birds (and most reptiles) lay eggs.
  5. Modern snakes eat eggs.

But here, it got telescoped into an over-shortened version in which the pronoun “their [eggs]” carries the entire weight of referring, simultaneously  to  dinosaurs in the prehistoric case and (unnamed) birds in the modern case.

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Comments (5)

  1. Q. Pheevr wrote::

    If we leave out the word their, then I think the sentence ends up meaning what it was intended to mean. As it stands, though, I think it has several possible readings, all fairly absurd, of which your interpretation is the most salient. It could be taken to mean that modern snakes eat their own eggs. It could, if we give “like modern snakes” wider scope, mean that modern snakes, like prehistoric ones, eat dinosaur babies rather than eggs. And I think it could even mean that while researchers conclude that the prehistoric snake fed on dinosaur babies, modern snakes conclude that it fed on dinosaur babies’ eggs, although that’s a bit more of a stretch.

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm #
  2. chris waigl wrote::

    I’m squinting very hard to visualize your last reading. The impressive thing for me was the little word “their” made to span referents separated by 100 Mio years or so.

    [Also, slight drafting error corrected.]

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm #
  3. Ben Zimmer wrote::

    But Q. Pheevr, what about the reading in which modern snakes feed on researcher‘s eggs?

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 11:18 pm #
  4. chris waigl wrote::

    Do researchers lay eggs?

    Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 11:20 pm #
  5. Q. Pheevr wrote::

    Ah, yes–I missed that one. And researchers do occasionally lay eggs, although generally in the idiomatic rather than the literal sense (unfortunately for the snakes).

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 10:58 am #