New snake from the Philippines found in collection

By Sophie Teall

The Waray dwarf burrowing snake (Levitonius mirus) from the Philippines has been newly described by a team working with specimen collections at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Collection. 

No larger than a pencil, this species is native to the Samar and Leyte islands in the south-east of the Philippines. Here it spends its time burrowing in the soil searching for food in the form of small invertebrates such as earthworms. Little is currently known about the species, but it is thought to emerge from the ground and the leaf litter only in times of heavy rain. With smooth scales to limit friction and a narrow pointed skull, this small snake is well adapted to life below the surface. It is even one of the few snake species in the world with the fewest number of vertebrae. Kansas University graduate research assistant Jeffery Weinell describes this to “likely [be] the result of miniaturization and adaptation for spending most of its life underground”.

 

L. mirus is only known from three museum specimens and has not been photographed alive.

Scientists know little about its behaviours in the wild.

Image by Weinell et al. in Copeia

Weinell and collaborators stumbled across the species by chance while studying another group of small, burrowing snakes called Pseudorabdion. This genus contains snakes native to Southeast Asia, many of which can be found in the Philippines. Weinell was sequencing the DNA of the Pseudorabdion samples at the Biodiversity Institute when he noticed that three of the specimens were not actually members of this group. Analysis of the internal and external features of the snakes allowed the team to identify them as part of Cyclocorinae, a group found only in the Philippines. Their findings were published in Copeia at the end of last year. 

The scientific naming of this species reflects its serendipitous discovery, as the species name, mirus is derived from the Latin for “unexpected”. The genus name, Levitonius pays homage to researcher Alan Leviton, who has been researching snakes in the Philippines since the ’60s. 

It is not uncommon for species to be misidentified. The samples used in this study were collected in 2006 and 2007 but were thought to be juveniles of another species. The discovery of the Waray dwarf burrowing snake corroborates the importance of preserving samples. It is through the accumulation of a larger number of specimens in collections over time that discoveries like these can be made and helps to correctly identify different species.

These findings also highlight the need for more work to be done to understand biodiversity in the Philippines, in particular on islands such as Samar and Leyte. These islands have received relatively little attention in the past due to predictions that the species present would be a subset of those found in the Mindanao region to the south. Weinell and collaborators, however, argue that this needs to be rethought. 

Understanding the biodiversity of these islands is not just important for biological curiosity but has important practical implications as well. With deforestation threatening much of the natural habitats for species in the Philippines, more research is needed to ensure that conservation efforts and policies can protect the wide range of species on the islands. To do so, researchers must broaden where they focus their efforts. According to Marites Bonachita-Sanguila of the Biodiversity Informatics and Research Centre and Father Saturnino Urios, “biologists have really missed many important species occurrences, such as this […] because we did not know basic clues about where to find them”. 

Sources

Lynch, B., 2021. New Snake Species Found Hidden In Biodiversity Collection. [online] The University of Kansas. Available at: <http://news.ku.edu/2021/01/05/remarkable-new-species-snake-found-hidden-ku-biodiversity-institutes-herpetology&gt; [Accessed 8 January 2021].

Sci-News. 2021. Scientists Find Remarkable New Snake Species In the Philippines. [online] Available at: <http://www.sci-news.com/biology/levitonius-mirus-09189.html&gt; [Accessed 8 January 2021].


Weinell, J., Paluh, D., Siler, C. and Brown, R., 2020. A New, Miniaturized Genus and Species of Snake (Cyclocoridae) from the Philippines. Copeia, 108(4).

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