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Fossilized Remains of 'Winged Serpent' Found in Ancient Sinkhole in Tennessee

May 15, 2017 11:02 AM EDT
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'Winged Serpent' Zilantophis schuberti
The Zilantophis schuberti is a newly identified snake species found in eastern Tennessee. This small creature lived roughly 5 million years ago.
(Photo : Steven Jasinski/Press Release for Media Use via EurekAlert)

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the State Museum of Pennsylvania, discovered fossilized remains of a new snake species in an ancient sinkhole located in Eastern Tennessee.

The discovery, described in a paper published in the Journal of Herpetology, can give some insights to an important transitional time in the snakes' evolutionary history. The remains of the snake were found in the Gray Fossil Site near the East Tennessee State University. The researchers were able to determine that the fossils belong to a new species when its vertebrate did not match any of the known snake species.

"Snakes don't have arms or legs, but they have high numbers of vertebrae," said Steven Jasinski, a doctoral student at Penn's Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences and lead author of the study, in a press release. "These are often the bones that paleontologists use to identify fossil snakes."

Before the researchers could analyze the remains of the unusual snake, they first have to meticulously separate the vertebrate from the sediments and other bones. It took many hours of closely examining hundreds of dark-mineral stained fossil before the researchers were convinced they were dealing with a new genus and new species of snake.

Dubbed as Zilantophis schuberti, the new genus of snakes has unique wing-shaped projections on the side of its vertebrae. These projections were likely used as the attachment sites for back muscle.

The genus name was derived from the winged serpent Zilant in Russian mythology. On the other hand, the new species name was given to honor Blaine Schubert, executive director of East Tenneessee State's Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology. Basically, Zilantophis schuberti can be translated to "Schubert's Winged Serpent."

Just about as large as the pointer finger, Zilantophis schuberti probably lived in leaf litters or shallow burrows. Due to its size, the primary diet of these snakes consists of small fish or insects. Further investigations of its vertebrate showed that the Zilantophis schuberti is closely related to rat snakes and kingsnakes.

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