Ancient Snake Species Had Wing-like Projections on its Vertebrae

Posted on June 12, 2017

Snake fossil wing-like projections

A snake fossil discovered in an ancient snake hole in eastern Tennessee has an interesting feature on its vertebrae. The vertebrae have wing-like projections. This doesn't match the skeleton of any known species of snake, living or extinct. The snake lived about 5 million years ago.

The researchers have named the new genus and species, Zilantophis schuberti. The name is derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Tatar mythology. The researchers don't think the snake had actual wings or even ornamental pseudo-wings. They think the projections were likely attachment sites for back muscles.

Steven Jasinski, lead author of the new study, is a doctoral student at University of Pennsylvania and acting curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. Jasinski says in the announcement, "Snakes don’t have arms or legs, but they have high numbers of vertebrae. These are often the bones that paleontologists use to identify fossil snakes."

The research paper, co-authored by Jasinksi and David A. Moscato, was published in the Journal of Herpetology. Zilantophis schuberti was about 12 to 16 inches long. The researchers say the ancient snake is most closely related to modern rat snakes (Pantherophis) and kingsnakes (Lampropeltis).

Image: Steven E. Jasinski and David A. Moscato