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A Good Handful of Sea Snakes

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2012

The great heyday of natural history museums is over, and nowadays, these institutions, and their vast backrooms of aging specimen collections, tend to be badly funded, or even completely put out of business.

But they also continue to produce surprises, including the discovery of new species.  Here’s a ScienceDaily account of a newly found sea snake, Aipysurus mosaicus, from a museum in Copenhagen.

In a formalin-filled jar in Copenhagen Natural History Museum, a new snake species has recently been discovered.

“Museums are probably full of undiscovered species, and are an invaluable archive worthy of protection, just like the jungle itself,” says Johan Elmberg, professor of animal ecology at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

The newly discovered mosaic sea snake, named after its unusually patterned skin, which looks just like a Roman floor mosaic, lives in one of the world’s most endangered environments — the tropical coral reefs around Northern Australia and Southern New Guinea.

“Sea snakes are a good indicator of how the coral reefs and other precious ecosystems are doing. If there are snakes left in the environment it shows that the reefs are healthy and intact,” says Johan Elmberg.

The new sea snake was found by chance by two research colleagues, John Elmberg and Arne Rasmussen, associate professor at the School of Conservation at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. One day at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen they examined formalin-filled jars of snakes and found two sea snakes with the same name on the label, which had been there since being sent home by the great collectors of the eighteen hundreds.

As it happened, the specimens had been misidentified by one of my least favorite nineteenth-century naturalists, John E. Gray of the British Museum.  (I am inferring that he was the Gray named on the identifying label simply as Gray 1849.)  He was a closet naturalist, never left the comforts of home, but made a minor career out of ridiculing field biologists for their mistakes.  (You can read about some of this in my book The Species Seekers.)  This time, it was Gray who made the mistake.

“But they looked different and didn’t seem to belong to the same group of snakes. That was where the detective work began. After comparing the sea snakes with other similar species in other museums in Europe it was even more obvious that we had found a new distinct sea snake,” says Johan Elmberg.

The Mosaic sea snake belongs to a good handful of species ranging in southeast Asia and Australia. The snake never goes ashore and now that its identity is known it is apparent that it is relatively common in the sea in northern Australia and southern New Guinea.

“There are millions of sea snakes, but how they live, where and at what depth is difficult to know exactly because these snakes are so difficult to study,” says Johan Elmberg.

Some species of sea snake are considered as having the strongest venom of all snakes, but because the species that Johan and Arne discovered is one of the few that feed on fish eggs, it has only very small fangs and is therefore virtually harmless. Of all the 3000 snake species in the world, only 80 or so live in the oceans. To analyze the tissue samples Johan Elmberg and Arne Rasmussen were helped by Kate Sanders, a molecular ecologist in Australia, who also collected tissues from living individuals of the new species and examined them in a DNA lab. The analysis showed a very clear difference in the genetic composition of the newly discovered species compared to other similar sea snakes.

“When Kate told us that we actually had found a new snake species, I got chills. To find a new species is a biologist’s ultimate dream,” says Johan Elmberg.

Johan believes that it is very important to document the biodiversity of the marine environment to get a grip on the status of the coral reefs for example.

“This discovery also highlights very clearly the importance of the museum’s treasure trove of biodiversity. There are lots of species still to be discovered in the world’s museums, which unfortunately often struggle to finance their operations,” says Johan Elmberg.

You can read the full species description in the journal Zootaxa.  Among other details, it notes that the new species and the one for which it was originally mistaken have been separated by about two million years of evolution.

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