“This may have allowed for a small snake that was relatively strong for its size and relatively flexible,” Jasinski said. “This could have been for being a predator or being better at living in its environment.”
The unusual features did not last long, however, in evolutionary time.
“Those wing-like projections are probably something that evolved uniquely in Zilantophis and disappeared with it when it went extinct,” Moscato explained.
The new fossil species is thought to be most closely related to rat snakes and kingsnakes, both of which are relatively common in North America today. Schubert’s Winged Serpent had a unique life in and around the sinkhole, though. It lived in leaf litter on land close to the water that once filled the prehistoric depression.
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The researchers suspect that the snake nabbed tiny fish in the water as well as insects, worms, and small amphibians. All were once plentiful at the location, named the Gray Fossil Site.
It has always been a snake-eat-snake world, so larger snakes could have preyed upon Schubert’s Winged Serpent, as well as birds of prey, large toads, and small mammals that were living at the time in what is now eastern Tennessee.
“Zilantophis would have had to make sure to stay out from under the feet of barrel-chested hornless rhinos, saber-toothed cats, shovel-tusked elephants, and the most abundant large animal at the site: tapirs,” Moscato said. “The site’s most famous animal, the red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli), was larger and more omnivorous than the modern-day version. It might even have made a grab for Zilantophis if given the chance!”