A new species of snakes named Zilantophis schuberti that had unique broad wings and lived five-million-years ago has been identified by the researchers. The fossils of the new genus and species were found from the Gray Fossil Site in the US.
Researchers spent hours in the close examination of hundreds of dark mineral-stained snake fossils to carry out the study. What was surprising for the scientists was the discovery of vertebrae that did not match any known species of snake, living or extinct.
"Snakes do not have arms or legs, but they have high numbers of vertebrae. These are often the bones that paleontologists use to identify fossil snakes," said Steven Jasinski, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
Zilantophis had uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae. These were likely attachment sites for back muscles when they were alive. The name of the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Russian mythology, was inspired by these features. "It is about as large around as your pointer finger," said Jasinski.
"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. "These snake vertebrae are tiny," said David Moscato, who pursued his masters at East Tennessee State University.
"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," said Moscato.
The newly discovered species id believed to be most closely related to rat snakes (Pantherophis) and kingsnakes (Lampropeltis), based on features of its vertebrae. Both these snakes are relatively common in North America today. The Gray Fossil Site is one of the richest fossil localities in the US, particularly from the Neogene period, which spans from 23 million to 2.58 million years ago.
At the time that Zilantophis dwelled there, the site was a sinkhole surrounded by forest, attracting a variety of animals. The local fauna included ancient representatives of familiar North American creatures such as bears, beavers and salamanders. Others were more exotic, including unique species of rhinoceros, alligator and the site's famous red panda.
The study has been published in the Journal of Herpetology.
(With inputs from PTI)