More than 100 million years ago, the ancestors of the first snakes were small lizards that lived alongside other small, nondescript lizards in the shadow of the dinosaurs.

Then, in a burst of innovation in form and function, the ancestors of snakes evolved legless bodies that could slither across the ground, highly sophisticated chemical detection systems to find and track prey, and flexible skulls that enabled them to swallow large animals.

Those changes set the stage for the spectacular diversification of snakes over the past 66 million years, allowing them to quickly exploit new opportunities that emerged after an asteroid impact wiped out roughly three-quarters of the planet’s plant and animal species.

But what triggered the evolutionary explosion of snake diversity—a phenomenon known as adaptive radiation—that led to nearly 4,000 living species and made snakes one of evolution’s biggest success stories?

A large new genetic and dietary study of snakes, from an international team led by University of Michigan biologists, suggests that speed is the answer. Snakes evolved up to three times faster than lizards, with massive shifts in traits associated with feeding, locomotion and sensory processing, according to the study scheduled for online publication Feb. 22 in the journal Science.

“Fundamentally, this study is about what makes an evolutionary winner. We found that snakes have been evolving faster than lizards in some important ways, and this speed of evolution has let them take advantage of new opportunities that other lizards could not,” said University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Daniel Rabosky, senior author of the upcoming Science paper.

“Snakes evolved faster and—dare we say it—better than some other groups. They are versatile and flexible and able to specialize on prey that other groups cannot use,” said Rabosky, a curator at the U-M Museum of Zoology and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.