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The Gray Fossil Site in eastern Tennessee is one of the richest stores of fossils in the eastern United States, particularly from the Neogene period, 23 to 2.58 million years ago. Credit:

5-Million-Year-Old Winged Snake Fossils Found in US

US researchers have identified a new species of snakes with projections of what might have been the unique broad wings that roamed five million years ago in the form of fossils at the Gray Fossil Site in the US and named after the Russian mythology snake Zilanto with wings.

The fossils have been identified as those of the new genus and species Zilantophis schuberti and the a close examination of dark-stained snake fossils revealed that the vertebrae did not match any known species of snake. living or extinct. Zilantophis was a small snake, about 12 to 16 inches long.

Since snakes do not have arms or legs, their vertebrae is used by paleontologists to identify fossil snakes. The species name, schuberti, honors Blaine Schubert, executive director of East Tenneessee State’s Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and advisor to both authors during their studies there. The name roughly translates to “Schubert’s Winged Snake” or “Schubert’s Winged Serpent.”

Zilantophis have uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae, which might have been attachment sites for back muscles, thus getting the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Russian mythology, said Steven Jasinski, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It is 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,” he said.

Based on features of its vertebrae, this new species is thought to be most closely related to rat snakes and kingsnakes but a close examination revealed otherwise, he said.

The Gray Fossil Site is minefield of fossils from the Neogene period, which spans from 23 million to 2.58 million years ago, when Zilantophis dwelled there amid a variety of animals in forests. The fauna too represents familiar North American creatures such as bears, beavers and salamanders.

The study was published in the Journal of Herpetology.

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