Thanks to a little luck, scientists at the University of Kansas's Biodiversity Institute have managed to discover not only a new species of snake but an entirely new genus too. The discovery is not only a nice surprise for science but also speaks volumes to the importance of preserving biodiversity collections in research institutions and universities.
New species might be "hiding in plain sight"
Jeff Wendell, a graduate research assistant at the University of Kansas' Biodiversity Institute has managed to find three specimens of a new species, and genus, of snake preserved within the institute's collection. The specimens had been collected during fieldwork between 2006 and 2012 and were misidentified, it turns out, as juveniles of another more common species.
Belonging to the freshly discovered snake genus Levitonius, the new snake species has been officially named Levitonius mirus.
Also, know as the Waray dwarf burrowing snake, it is native to the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines. This part of the world is well known for its exceptional biodiversity that includes no less than 112 land snake species alone.
The new species was identified through a combination of DNA analysis and CT scans of its skeleton and the results were published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Copeia.
The new species of snake has among the fewest vertebrae of any snake in the world and has a relatively long and narrow skull for its size. The snake's scales are also highly iridescent and it appears to mainly survive on a diet of earthworms.
A very lucky find indeed
Weinell had been working on a group of snakes called Pseudorabdion when, much to his surprise, some of the specimens in the collection seemed to be out of place.
"I sequenced DNA from a bunch of specimens of that group, and this one was actually misidentified as belonging to (Pseudorabdion)," Weinell told CNN in an interview.
"When I got the DNA results back, at first I thought it was just an error on my part or contamination from the samples," Weinell added.
However, a combination of CT scans of its skeleton proved that Weinell had found a new species of snake literally "hiding in plain sight".
Levitonius mirus tends to reach around 6.7 inches long (17 cm), about the length of a pencil and is roughly three or four times smaller than its closest relatives. This has led the species, and genus, to be described as "miniaturized".
"That has a lot of consequences, like [the] reduction of the number of bones, a sort of simplification of the body," Weinell told CNN.
"Miniaturization hasn't been observed that often, at least in snakes," he added. For Levitonius mirus this process appears to have been quite extreme when compared to other members of the larger superfamily it belongs to -- Elapoidea.
This group is a collection of much larger venomous snakes like cobras and mambas. It is believed that Levitonius mirus is probably non-venomous, however.
The next step is to study Levitonius mirus in the field
While this is welcome news for biologists the world over, the next step is to try and witness the new snake species in the wild. Being a burrowing animal, this is likely not going to be a simple task.
The three specimens identified so far are the only ones known, and no photographs have ever been taken of them alive.
"There's still good habitat there for them to be there, but they live underground, so it's hard to find them unless you have the perfect conditions that might make them come out above the ground," Weinell explained to CNN.
This new discovery is very exciting indeed but it also helps reinforce the importance of maintaining biodiversity collections in research institutions and universities. If trained "expert field biologist" could fail to recognize a new species in the field like Levitonius mirus, have they missed others?
Only through preserving and maintaining good collections of specimens found in the field can future work on discovering, or rather rediscovering, new species can be made.
Especially as new technological tools and data become available in the future. Who knows what secrets are also "hiding in plain sight" in the many biodiversity collections around the world?
"Now that we're getting data from whole genomes of snakes, which is really changing our way of understanding evolution as a whole, really, how we define species is still continuing to change. How that affects things in the future is not yet clear," Weinell concluded.
The original study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Copeia on the 23rd December 2020.