Saturday, December 23, 2017

An unfortunate snake

There's a lot of stress this time of year. It's also a time when people are often nostalgic about their childhoods. So, to relieve a little stress and appeal to your inner eight-year-old's sense of humor, I present a few paragraphs about an unfortunate fossil snake.

Picture a snake:

I spend a lot of time wandering around rocky areas. Of course I have photos of snakes.

The snake in question lived approximately 33 million years ago, in the area that is now the White River Badlands of South Dakota. At the time the land was not quite so "Bad"; think more open prairie, like the lower-relief areas flanking the Badlands. Populate the land with tortoises and oreodonts, and throw in some nimravids, horses, rhinos, entelodonts, anthracotheres, and so forth, as you see fit. For the snake, think small (the vertebrae are only a few mm across). Now, the snake gets eaten. It's not known what ate it, or whether the snake was alive or dead at the time, but we have to turn the snake into four snake vertebrae in a piece of dung, and then convert the dung to a coprolite.

Some 33 million years later, somebody from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology collected that coprolite. The collections information is limited, but it was collected before 1969 from Pennington County or Shannon County, South Dakota, and based on the associated matrix it probably was found in the Lower Nodular Zone (=lower brown mudstone beds) of the Scenic Member of the Brule Formation. The coprolite was then studied as part of a project on Brule Formation coprolites. One snake vertebra came to light, and the rest of the coprolite was dissected, revealing three more snake vertebrae among other bones. The vertebrae, described in Parris and Holman (1978), belonged to a snake unknown to science. What to name such a creature? No, don't overthink it; if you've picked up a bit of Latin and Greek from scientific names, you'll know there is only one possible answer, and that answer is...

Coprophis. "Kopros" is Ancient Greek for "dung", just as in "coprolite", and "ophis" is Ancient Greek for "serpent". "Dung serpent". For the rest of scientific eternity, this animal will be known by a name that means "poop snake". (Well, to be completely accurate, it is Coprophis dakotaensis, meaning "[South] Dakota's poop snake", but that's incidental.) Because sometimes fate has a strange sense of humor, these specimens were originally cataloged into the collections of Princeton University (this is back in the days before it disbanded its paleontology collections), which means that the fossils of Coprophis were catalogued with PU numbers. The bones later went into the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum, where they are now known under the less embarrassing but not quite as fitting YPM VPPU 020732.


Parris, D. C., and J. A. Holman. 1978. An Oligocene snake from a coprolite. Herpetologica 34(3):258–264.

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