Poring over hundreds of snake fossils excavated from an ancient eastern Tennessee sinkhole, paleontologists Steven Jasinski and David Moscato noticed bones that were unlike any other. They included vertebrae with broad wing-shaped projections coming out of the sides.
“When we first saw them, we knew they were unusual, but the feeling wasn’t so much, ‘Eureka!’ as it was, ‘What the heck is this?’” said Moscato, who is the programming coordinator at the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at East Tennessee State University. “Before we could be sure this was something new, we had to look at just about every similar species of snake we could think of, alive or extinct.”
The extensive investigation determined that the bones belonged to a new five-million-year-old fossil species, which the researchers named Zilantophis schuberti, or “Schubert’s Winged Serpent.” Their work was published in the Journal of Herpetology.
“Schubert” honors Blaine Schubert, the executive director of East Tennessee State’s Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology. He was the adviser of both Jasinski and Moscato when they were students there.
The snake, which when alive measured about 12 to 16 inches long, did not have actual wings and therefore could not fly, yet it was a compact powerhouse. The researchers believe that the winged projections were likely attachment sites for back muscles.