Fossil Friday: Diablophis

Diablophis the “devil snake”? Just look at that derpy smile and stubby little legs!

Species: Diablophis gilmorei (Dee-ah-blow-fis Gill-mer-ae)

What it means: Snake from Devil’s Canyon

Other Species: None

Where I live: Colorado, USA – The Morrison Formation

When to find me: The Late Jurassic period, about 157-152 million years ago.

My favorite food: Frogs, small mammals, and other small animals that live in the undergrowth near rivers and ponds.

It’s hard enough to measure live snakes, let alone extinct ones. Let’s guess 5 feet.

My neighborhood: The Morrison Formation covers a huge expanse of land with a variety of different habitats teaming with life. Most of it was very much like the Serengeti of modern day Africa, only with prairies of drought-tolerant ferns and cycad relatives instead of grass. Dense woodlands of tall conifers like the modern araucaria, ginkgoes, and tree ferns would only lie in places of plentiful water such as the few permanent rivers. Other areas had far more sparse and shrubbier vegetation like the open woodlands of acacia trees in the Serengetti.

Life in this environment would’ve adapted to long months of harsh drought, followed by a few months of monsoon that flooded the rivers. Many of the larger herbivores may have migrated like the herds in Africa do today, while most carnivores stayed behind to feast on the dead and dying, or else become opportunistic hunters of less traditional diets for lean times, such as fish or turtles in the rivers.

A few of my neighbors: First let me share the plant-eating giants…

  • Long-necked sauropods like Apatosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Suuwassea, Supersaurus, Haplocanthosaurus, and Dystrophaeus.
  • Armored dinosaurs like Stegosaurus, Hesperosaurus, Mymoorapelta, and Gargoyleosaurus.
  • Two-legged ornithopods like Dryosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Nanosaurus

Monstrous meat-eaters in the neighborhood include dinosaurs like Allosaurus, Torvosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Saurophaganax, Marshosaurus, Ornitholestes, Coelurus, Elaphrosaurus, Tanycolagreus, Stokesosaurus, and Koparion.

I have to watch out for crocodile relatives on both land and water that might try to eat me. As long as I keep my eyes open there are lots of tasty treats hiding in the ferns and horsetails…countless lizards, mammals, and frogs. There are also lots of turtles and fish in the water, and pterosaurs that patrol the skies!

Fun Facts:

  • Diablophis is named from two different languages. Diablo is Spanish for “devil” + ophis (Greek for snake). The name refers to Devils’ Canyon, Colorado, near where the fossils were found.
  • Diablophis fossils were originally grouped in with another early snake known as Parviraptor, even though the other fossils were found off the coast of England. This is not unusual, since many dinosaurs from the Morrison Formation have close relatives in Europe, especially along the Western coast.
  • Early snakes like Diablophis come from a group of highly specialized lizards!
  • Paleontologists are not 100% sure if Diablophis was a true snake or a weird snake-ish lizard. Reptiles, especially lizards, were changing and separating into all sorts of groups during the middle Jurassic period. It can be hard to tell exactly when the first true snake appeared. The evidence must be fairly strong though if the animal was called “snake from Devil’s Canyon”
  • The teeth of Diablophis are described as being more curved than its relatives, which would work well for catching slippery frogs and smaller fish.

Fossil Finds:

Some incomplete fossils from the upper and lower jaw, and a handful of vertebrae.

References:

Foster, John. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press, 2007

Caldwell, M., Nydam, R., Palci, A. et al. The oldest known snakes from the Middle Jurassic-Lower Cretaceous provide insights on snake evolution. Nat Commun 6, 5996 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6996

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