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Fossil Folklore

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'Fossil serpent' poster

Snakes and Serpents

Snakes figure prominently in all kinds of folklore (Pickering 1999). In Christianity they are associated with the Devil and the biblical story of Adam and Eve, while in the folklore of other cultures they feature as creatures to be feared and respected.

Various fossils have been misidentified in folklore as petrified snakes, notably ammonites which can resemble coiled snakes, or parts of snakes, as in the case of shark’s teeth thought to be snakes’ tongues and some other fish teeth to be their eyes. Misidentifications lie at the root of many myths regarding fossils.

One of the most extreme concerns a fossil tree, Lepidodendron, which in 1851 was exhibited in Wales as the body of a gigantic fossil serpent (North 1931). The leaf bases on the trunk of this Carboniferous lycopod tree do bear a vague similarity to the scales of reptiles and it is easy to see how uninformed members of the public could be misled by the showman responsible for the exhibition, long after the true identity of these fossil trees was known to science.