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'Winged Serpent' Discovered in 5-Million-Year-Old Sinkhole

May 24, 2017 10:39 AM EDT
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An ancient "winged serpent" was found among hundreds of other snake fossils in Tennessee.
(Photo : Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

A winged serpent sounds like something out of a biblical story, but that's what scientists found buried in the Tennessee sinkhole dubbed the Gray Fossil Site. The strange snake species, which lived in the area five million years ago, didn't actually fly but featured distinct wing-shaped protrusions on its vertebrae.

According to a report from the University of Pennsylvania, the group of researchers spent hours and hours examining the hundreds of fossils discovered in the Gray Fossil Site. They were shocked when they found vertebrae that didn't match any of the known living or extinct snake species. This new genus and species was named Zilantophis schuberti, inspired by the winged serpent Zilant in Russian mythology.

Snakes actually feature high numbers of vertebrae, despite not having arms or legs. The wing-like protrusions on the sides of this newly discovered serpent's vertebrae are unique, and the scientists suggested that they are probably attachment sites for the back muscles.

Despite the snake's intimidating name and namesake, it was no fearsome creature during its time. The animal was relatively small at about 12 to 16 inches long.

"This animal was probably living in leaf litter, maybe doing a bit of digging and either eating small fish or more likely insects," lead author Steven Jasinski of the University of Pennsylvania and the State Museum of Pennsylvania said. "It was too small to be eating a normal-sized rodent."

Researchers believe that the Zilantophis schuberti's close living relatives include the rat snakes and kingsnakes.

The Gray Fossil Site is widely regarded as one of the richest fossil sites in the country. It's estimated to be between 7 and 4.5 million years old, one of the only sites of this period in the U.S. In the age that the winged serpent lived there, it was a sinkhole wrapped in a forest with a great variety of fauna.

The study was published in the Journal of Herpetology.

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