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ETSU alumni identify ancient species of snake from Gray Fossil Site

JOHNSON CITY – East Tennessee State University alumni Steven Jasinski and David Moscato are gaining national and international attention for a newly identified ancient species of snake from the Gray Fossil Site.  Their discovery was described in a recently published paper in the Journal of Herpetology.

Jasinski and Moscato earned their master’s degrees from ETSU with concentrations in paleontology.  Jasinski, whose master’s degree is in biology, is now a doctoral student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, and is also the acting curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.  Moscato, who earned his master’s in geosciences, is currently a scientific writer focusing on popular articles and is a contributor at Earth Touch News.
In the paper, the authors describe a snake between 12 and 16 inches in length with broad, wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae that are unlike any other known species of living or extinct snakes.  These projections were probably attachment sites for the snake’s back muscles.  The species probably lived around 5 million years ago.
Although it does not actually have wings, of course, Jasinski and Moscato named the new species Zilantophis schuberti, which translates to “Schubert’s winged serpent.”  The genus name comes from Zilant, a winged serpent from the mythology of the Tatar, a Turkic people living in portions of Russia and Mongolia.  The species name, schuberti, is in honor of Dr. Blaine Schubert, who taught and advised both authors during their time at ETSU.  Schubert is director of ETSU’s Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geosciences.

“It is an incredible honor to have a species named after me, especially by past students,” Schubert said.  “I am also rather passionate about snakes and lizards, so having one of these critters attached to me through time is quite special.”
“We felt this was a way to honor a scientist who helped both of us immensely with his support, his contributions to herpetology and paleontology – particularly at the Gray Fossil Site – and for inspiring both David and me and furthering our understanding of fossil reptiles and amphibians,” Jasinski said.  “It is the least we can do for Blaine after everything he did for us as students at East Tennessee State University and after we graduated.”
It took several months from the time they first noticed the unusual features of the vertebrae they had found preserved in the sediments surrounding the sinkhole or lake that became the Gray Fossil Site for Jasinski and Moscato determine they had a new species on their hands.  The process involved comparing the bones to those of other snake species, both current and extinct, and consulting with other scientists for confirmation.
“When we first saw (the bones), we knew they were unusual, but the feeling wasn’t so much ‘Eureka!’ as it was ‘What the heck is this?’” Moscato said.
“Even when we began investigating them further, we thought they may be a part of an already known snake, since the morphology or shapes of vertebrae do change somewhat depending on what part of the snake they are from,” Jasinski added.  “After looking at everything we could, we felt confident they represented something new, which was exciting, but then we had to convince other people and scientists of that, as well.  Now that it has been published and recognized as a new species, it does feel great.”
Jasinski and Moscato do not think Zilantophis schuberti lived in the water, but lived and hunted on the land near the body of water.
“Without finding any direct evidence, it is guesswork what it was eating,” Jasinski said.  “It probably lived in the forested area around the (water) and would have preyed on what it could, although its small size would have limited what it could eat.”

“Zilantophis probably had a lot of predators to look out for – birds of prey, large toads, small mammals and possibly larger snakes,” Moscato added.  “We don’t have any evidence of specialized snake-eating snakes like king snakes at the site, but many species of snake today are known to nab smaller snakes.  Small snakes today often feed on tiny creatures like insects, worms and the smallest of frogs or salamanders.  The pond of the Gray site would have been a great place to find all of those things.”
The scientists cannot be sure of the habitat range of the new species at this point.
“Currently, we have not found fossils of this snake outside of this site, but that does not mean it wasn’t living elsewhere.  Small animals like Zilantophis often have smaller ranges, so it may be that Zilantophis was limited in its range, but it will be hard to determine that for sure.  Regardless, now scientists can keep their eyes open to see if any new fossils belong to this snake.”
News of Zilantophis Schuberti’s discovery has been covered by the Discovery Channel, the National Science Foundation, Science Daily, Seeker, Live Science and more, including media outlets from as far as England, India and China.
Zilantophis schuberti is the second new species Jasinski has had a hand in identifying.  In 2016, he and ETSU paleontologist Dr. Steven Wallace identified a dog, Cynarctus wangi, which was approximately the size of a coyote and lived along the eastern coast of North America around 12 million years ago.  Their work was published in the Journal of Paleontology.
The Gray Fossil Site, along with its Natural History Museum, is located 1.8 miles off Exit 13 on Interstate 26.  Discovered 16 years ago during a Tennessee Department of Transportation roadwork project, the site is one of the only late Miocene epoch (between 4.5 and 7 million years ago) fossil sites in the eastern United States.  Some of the species found to date at the Gray Fossil Site include mastodon, red panda, tapirs, peccary, sloth, salamander, rhinoceros, toad, turtle and more.