Winged Snake Species Discovered In Tennessee Sinkhole

Posted: May 24 2017, 11:44pm CDT | by , Updated: May 24 2017, 11:53pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Winged Snake Species Discovered in Tennessee Sinkhole
Image by Steven Jasinski

The new species of snake lived roughly 5 million years ago

A unique species of ancient snake has been discovered in a fossil site in Tennessee and it can hold clues about the important evolutionary phase of reptiles.

The new snake species lived some 5 million years ago and contained wing-shaped structures on the sides of its spine. These types of winged structures are usually not associated with snakes. While many snakes can glide through the air today, the new snake species could not remain airborne despite its wing-like appendages.

Researchers identify different types of snakes through their vertebrae. Snake backbone is made up of hundreds of vertebrae attached to ribs. That is what makes them so flexible and allow them to move smoothly without having limbs or legs.

When researchers analyzed the vertebrae of the new snake species, they were surprised to find that it did not match any known species of snake, living or extinct. The snake was so unusual that it has been assigned to a new genus and species. It has been given the name Zilantophis schuberti. The first part of its name derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Russian mythology while the word schuberti honors Blaine Schubert, an expert in paleobiology from East Tennessee State University. The name translates to "Schubert's Winged Snake" or "Schubert's Winged Serpent."

"It's about as large around as your pointer finger. This animal was probably living in leaf litter, maybe doing a bit of digging and either eating small fish or more likely insects. It was too small to be eating a normal-sized rodent,” said Steven Jasinski, lead study author from University of Pennsylvania.

"These snake vertebrae are tiny. Before we can study them, they have to be meticulously separated from the sediment and other bones. This work is done by dedicated museum workers, students and volunteers."

The fossil came from an ancient sinkhole in Tennessee dubbed as Gray Fossil Site. The Gray Fossil Site is one of the richest fossil localities in the United States. It represents Neogene period which extends from 23 million to 2.58 million years ago, offering a window into life on Earth in a relatively unknown era.

The new fossil is estimated to be between 4.5 million years old, straddling between the Miocene and Pliocene epochs – the sub-divisions of Neogene period. The Gray Fossil Site sinkhole once harbored a pond environment and preserves a fantastic number of extinct animal remains including bears, rhinos, sabertooth cats and red panda. Animals that died in the lake buried in the sediments at the bottom of the lake and remained incredibly well preserved.

The site is so rich in fossil material that on some days researchers have recovered hundreds of remains. These animal fossils help researchers develop a better picture of how fauna in the region has changed over time. They can also act as a tool to predict how living communities may respond to changes in ecosystems in the future.

“The Miocene was a time when the snake fauna of North America was undergoing significant changes,” said Jasinksi. “Zilantophis is part of this period of change. It helps show that colubrids were diversifying at this time, including forms that did not make it to the present day."

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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