The world is full of obscure snakes. According to Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology, the more you know about them, the better a person you are. Writing this blog, and in my research, I am often confronted with the challenging task of finding out something - anything at all - about a species of snake that I've never heard of before. This post is a walk-through of the process that I usually use to track down even the most basic information about obscure snakes, although it could be used as an example of how to find trustworthy information about any species of plant or animal. I'll use as an example the species Liophidium mayottensis (Peters's Bright Snake) - a lamprophiid colubroid found on the island of Mayotte. If you're like me then you're filled with questions right away: Who was Peters? What is so bright about this snake? Where's Mayotte?
|Wikipedia page for Liophidium mayottensis|
as of October 2014
|The Madagascan Biogeographic Realm|
Mayotte is the southeasternmost island in the
Comoros chain, although politically it is part of France.
Many interesting snakes inhabit this realm, including bolyeriids
|The BHL is also a great source of artwork|
in the form of old plates, like this mudsnake
from Duméril's Erpétologie Générale,
which adorns the logo of this blog
|Wilhlem C.H. Peters|
17. Ablabes (Enicognathus) rhodogaster Schlegel var. mayottensis:
Two young specimens from Mayotte seem to me to belong to the above species, although they do not have red coloration on the belly. Frontal a little longer than high; 8 supralabials, of which the 4th and 5th touch the eye; temporals 1+2+2; infralabials 9, the first pair of which is in contact behind the tapered mental; two pairs of chin shields. Body scales smooth, without apical pits, in 19 longitudinal rows. Ventrals 190, divided anal, subcaudals 99 pairs. Above olive-brown, a little darker along the middle and fourth-to-last row of scales. From the snout through the eye and the frenal region there is a black napkin which is indistinct on the side of the neck and disappears in the penultimate row of scales on the side of the body. Under this there is a bright yellow band, which goes to the mouth. There are three black spots on the rostral and upper lip. The chin and infralabials are spotted or marbled with black and yellow. On the neck are fine yellowish transverse lines. Ventral scales with 4-6 black dots; posterior ventral scales and subcaudals yellowish-white.
We can do a little better by checking some other common sources of information on the web. We already know that Wikipedia's useless (although the links at the bottom of some pages can be quite useful), but a general Google search for the scientific name typically turns up links to the pages for a species on several authoritative sites that aggregate biodiversity information online. In no particular order, I often check the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology's Animal Diversity Web. This is a great student-authored resource but it's still incomplete, and it doesn't even have a page for our genus yet (but check out their detailed pages on all three Acrochordus species). Other similar sites include the Encyclopedia of Life (species page incomplete for L. mayottensis, but check out Laticauda colubrina for a fairly good page), DiscoverLife (which is mostly links with little original content, and is unhelpful for our species, although they host a cool ID guide for North American snakes), and Map of Life (which has lots of cool mapping capabilities but not for our species). Citizen science projects can be a rich source of information on distribution, but such projects are in their infancy for herps. Two of the best are iNaturalist and HerpMapper, neither of which has any data on our species. Remember that none of these sources are peer-reviewed, so they may propagate misinformation (although I have found this to be rare).
|One of Pagale Bacha's Flickr photos of L. mayottensis|
|Some L. mayottensis DNA. It looks just like the DNA|
of any other species, although there's a lot it can tell us.
|Liophidium pattoni and its relationship to some of its closest relatives, including L. mayottensis|
From Vieites et al. 2010
|Hinged teeth of Liophidium rhodogaster|
From Savitzky 1981
Finally, the IUCN record notes that "the extreme scarcity of observations may be attributed to the cryptic habits of this snake, but also suggests that L. mayottensis is not common". No shock there. The short bibliography includes both the old and new editions of the field guide and a paper by Oliver Hawlitschek in the journal ZooKeys that used field surveys and remotely sensed data to assess the conservation status of Comoran reptiles, upon which most of the conservation assessment is based. The profile also cites another work in preparation by Hawlitschek, who was also an expert reviewer for the species and took the Arkive photograph. I visited his website and was able to learn that he is a German PhD student studying herp conservation & phylogeography in the Comoros.
|Phylogenetic tree of Malagasy reptiles based on CO1 DNA barcodes|
Liophidium is near the top right
From Nagy et al. 2012
|Liophidium mayottensis skull (with tooth closeup, inset)|
Image by Cynthia Wang
Thanks to Oliver Hawlitschek, Cynthia Wang, Henry Cook, and Pagale Bacha for the use of their images.
Bauer, A. M., R. Günther, and M. Klipfel. 1995. The Herpetological Contributions of Wilhem CH Peters (1815-1883). SSAR Facsimile Reprints in Herpetology:114.
Boulenger, G. A. 1893. Catalogue of the snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Trustees of the British Museum, London <link>
Cadle, J. E. 1999. The Dentition, Systematics and Phylogeny of Pseudoxyrhopus and Related Genera from Madagascar (Serpentes: Colubridae) with Descriptions of a New Species and a New Genus. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College 155:381-443 <link>
Hawlitschek, O., B. Brückmann, J. Berger, K. Green, and F. Glaw. 2011. Integrating field surveys and remote sensing data to study distribution, habitat use and conservation status of the herpetofauna of the Comoro Islands. ZooKeys 144:21–78 <link>
Hawlitschek, O., Nagy, Z., & Glaw, F. 2012. Island evolution and systematic revision of Comoran snakes: why and when subspecies still make sense. PLoS ONE 7:e42970 <link>
Hedges, S. B. 2013. Revision shock in taxonomy. Zootaxa 3681:297-298 <link>
Meirte, D. 2004. Reptiles. Pages 201-224 in M. Louette, D. Meirte, and R. Jocqué, editors. La faune terrestre de l'archipel des Comores. MRAC, Tervuren.
Nagy, Z. T., U. Joger, M. Wink, F. Glaw, and M. Vences. 2003. Multiple colonization of Madagascar and Socotra by colubrid snakes: evidence from nuclear and mitochondrial gene phylogenies. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 270:2613-2621 <link>
Peters, W. C. H. 1873. Über eine von Hrn. F. Pollen und van Dam auf Madagascar und anderen ostafrikanischen Inseln gemachte Sammlung von Amphibien. Monatsberichte der Königlichen Preussische Akademie des Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1873:792-795 <link>
Savitzky, A. H. 1981. Hinged teeth in snakes: an adaptation for swallowing hard-bodied prey. Science 212:346-349 <link>
Uetz, P. 2010. The original descriptions of reptiles. Zootaxa 2334:59-68 <link>
Vieites, D. R., F. M. Ratsoavina, R.-D. Randrianiaina, Z. T. Nagy, F. Glaw, and M. Vences. 2010. A rhapsody of colours from Madagascar: discovery of a remarkable new snake of the genus Liophidium and its phylogenetic relationships. Salamandra 46:1-10 <link>
Zaher, H., F. G. Grazziotin, R. Graboski, R. G. Fuentes, P. Sánchez-Martinez, G. G. Montingelli, Y. P. Zhang, and R. W. Murphy. 2012. Phylogenetic relationships of the genus Sibynophis (Serpentes: Colubroidea). Papeis Avulsos de Zoologia (Sao Paulo) 52:141-149 <link>