Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Crawfish Frogs, The Most Secretive Frog in North America

The Most Secretive Frog in North America from Ravenswood Media on Vimeo.

Systematics of Confused North African Macrovipers

Daboia mauritanica, Casablanca. Photo Credit: Gabri Mtnez
In North Africa, three species of large paleartic vipers have been recorded: Daboia mauritanica (Duméril & Bibron, 1848), D. deserti (Anderson, 1892) and Macrovipera lebetina transmediterranea Nilson & Andrén 1988. The latter has never been recorded accurately after its description, and it has never been included in any recent phylogenetic analysis. The taxonomic status of deserti is neither clear as a species, subspecies or just a morphological variation of D. mauritanica. Further research with genetic phylogenies with a wide sampling all over northwest Africa, is necessary to clarify the identity and taxonomic position of the taxa transmediterranea and deserti. Hopefully in the near future the population structure of this species complex will become better known.

Octavio Jiménez Robles & Gabriel Martínez del Mármol Marín: Comments on the large paleartic vipers Macrovipera and Daboia in North Africa. Published on March 05, 2012. Available from
Accessed March 07, 2012.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Garter Snake & TTX

Utah State University biologists have long studied varied species of North American garter snakes that have evolved an amazing resistance to a deadly neurotoxin found in innocuous-looking newts, a favorite food of the snakes.

The researchers have now discovered that snakes of different types in Central and South America and Asia have evolved the same resistance in a strikingly similar way.

The findings, by USU alum Chris Feldman, PhD’08, now a faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno; USU biology professor Edmund Brodie, Jr.; Brodie’s son, Edmund Brodie III of the University of Virginia, and former USU faculty member Mike Pfrender of the University of Notre Dame, appear in the March 5, 2012 online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“We were able to break down the genetic basis of the adaptations in each of these snakes,” says Feldman, lead author and a recipient of USU’s Robins Award as 2006 Graduate Research Assistant of the Year. “We found that each snake – ranging from the Neotropical ground snake of Central and South America to the tiger keelback of East Asia – has evolved in almost the exact same way as the garter snakes at the genetic level.”

Each of the snakes feasts on amphibians that secrete tetrodotoxin or TTX, a poison far deadlier than cyanide. It’s the same neurotoxin found in puffer fish which, prepared by rigorously trained chefs, provides sushi lovers with an exhilarating, albeit risky, dining experience. Tetrodotoxin is also an alleged ingredient of so-called zombie powder, an anesthetic-like concoction that causes humans to initially appear dead and regain a temporary semi-conscious state.

“Tetrodotoxin affects proteins that control nerve impulses and the ability of muscles to fire,” Feldman says. “At full strength, the poison instantly paralyzes nervous and muscle tissue in animals – including humans – resulting in rapid death.”

The snakes in the team’s study, however, have mutations that thwart the toxin at the protein level, preventing TTX from blocking the sodium channels in muscle.

“This tells us a couple of things: either these mutations are the perfect solution to avoid the poison or may be the only way to bypass the problem,” Feldman says.

What could limit the range of solutions, Brodie, Jr. says, is the ‘cost’ of the mutation.

“We know that the mutation affects the snakes’ speed,” he says. “Snakes with the mutation are slower. A different mutation to block the toxin could have even greater detrimental effects and that could explain why the current set of mutations is so similar across all species.”

In continued study, the team is investigating Caddisfly larvae, creatures very different from snakes, that appear to have developed a similar resistance to tetrodotoxin. In a naturally protective foil, female newts lay eggs laced with – you guessed it – TTX. Most pond predators that ingest the amphibian caviar do so at their peril. Caddisfly larvae are an exception.

“We’re studying these larvae to see if they’ve adapted with mutations similar to those of the snakes,” Brodie, Jr. says.

The Turtle & the Octopus

Hapalochlaena sp. from New South Wales. Photo
Credit: David Brenemen
Moreton Bay in Queensland, Australia is estimated to support 20,000 sea turtles. The bay has extensive seagrass beds used as feeding areas by the green sea turtle, (Chelonia mydas). The seagrass beds also provide habitat for many marine creatures, including the blue-lined octopus, Hapalochlaena fasciata, a visually cryptic species that hides in tide pools by blending with its surroundings using pigmented chromatophores. When threatened, the octopus displays bright blue rings and lines, which act as a warning to potential predators. The blue-lined octopus delivers the neurotoxic tetrodotoxin (TTX) when it bites, a molelcule that has been hypothesized to be used for defense although evidence to support this has been absent. Two dead adult green sea turtles were recently found in Moreton Bay, despite the outward appearance of being healthy, the turtles showed no life threatening injuries. Upon dissection both turtles appeared normal, their digestive tracts contained large quantities of the seagrass (Halophila ovalis) and inspection of the contents revealed a bluelined octopus encased within a seagrass bolus in each of the two turtles. In both cases esophageal tissue directly around the octopus was red and inflamed suggesting the turtles had been envenomation, further tests on the turtles' tissues confirmed TTX poisoning. This case provides the first evidence of the octopus using TTX as a possible defense mechanism, and is the first evidence to suggest that this small octopus is a hazard to turtles.

CitationKathy A. Townsend, Jens Altvater, Michael C. Thomas, Qamar A. Schuyler and Geoffrey W. Nette. 2012. Death in the octopus’ garden: fatal blue-lined octopus envenomations of adult green sea turtles. Marine Biology 159, 689-695

Saturday, March 3, 2012

View Points on Constricting Snake Ban

The federal government is ready to institute a ban on the import and interstate movement of large constricting snakes before the end of the month. People are reacting differently depending upon their viewpoint and interests. Here a sampling of opinions and emotion.

The is carrying a story about Ben Siegel building an adoption center in Florida so that people who have snakes will have a place to leave them if they can no longer care for them or have to move out of state. The 2300-square-foot adoption center, will be able to house up to 150 snakes, and the facility will be escape proof. Many of the pythons are likely to be exported overseas, with many of them going to an exporter with a large customer base, particularly in northern Europe. The facility's second floor will be used by reptile clubs for meetings. The center will be running by March 23.

The Broward Palm Beach New Times Blog is carrying a story suggesting that a new proposal from Reps. Tom Rooney and Ted Deutch looks wants to expand the number of species banned from four to nine and includes the boa constrictor and the reticulated python. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill earlier this week, and this has further angered the reptile trade industry, who suggests it will have an economic impact well in excess of $100 million a year. contains a lengthy and emotional discourse that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has turned a blind eye to science and fact, and is serving the environmental and animal rights groups so it can destroy a "legitimate $1.4 billion dollar per year reptile industry." This one continues into quite a rant from someone in the trade.

In a Miami Herald commentary, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is of course complaining that the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers fought and gutted the bill reducing the species that would have been banned from nine to four.ars until the list was gutted by more than half — four species have been banned rather than nine.

The USNewswire  is carrying the following from United States Association of Reptile Keepers

"Politics make strange bedfellows," so the saying goes. Or maybe "Pythons Make Strange Bedfellows" would be more accurate? Today Congressman Tom Rooney hopes to pass his bill HR 511 (aka Python Ban) out of the House Judiciary Committee in an attempt to add 9 constricting snakes to the Injurious Wildlife list of the Lacey Act and potentially kill thousands of jobs and bankrupting countless family businesses in the process. 
This comes on the heels of a four year crusade led by environmentalists and the Obama Administration to enact a rule at US Fish & Wildlife that would have done ostensibly the same thing. Ironically, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, prudently backed off listing 5 of the 9 because the scientific evidence was circumspect, and he wanted to avoid undue economic impact with lower risk animals. Rooney, in a recent press release claimed that the "administration did not go far enough"; putting Rooney squarely in the camp of the environmental NGO's that pushed the administration into enforcing their agenda.
The entire controversy revolves around a small remnant population of Burmese pythons introduced into the everglades about 20 years ago when Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida as a category 5 storm. A small population was established, but was limited to 3 counties in the very southern tip of the state. Florida Fish & Wildlife officials have suggested that as much as 80-90% of the population died in the cold winters of 2009 and 2010. Several cold weather studies done by University of Florida and US Dept of Agriculture support that conclusion.
Licensed python hunters rarely see pythons anymore. But that has not stopped radical environmentalists and a small group of invasion biologists from attributing nearly every ecological problem of the Everglades to the scary specter of the Burmese python. 
The python myth perpetuated by some politicians, government scientists and environmentalists has been criticized by more scholarly academics from around the world; including University of Florida, the National Geographic Society and the Thailand Natural History Museum. It was such an egregious example of government gone wild that Congressman Issa pointed toward problems with the rule in his Government Oversight Committee. Lack of due process, problems with information quality, $104 million in lost revenues, all based on a sensationalized myth seemed to be symptomatic of government agencies trying to justify their own existence and creating policy based on staff preference instead of facts and science. The actions of Government hurting commerce and criminalizing its citizens are supposed to be issues that Republicans typically fight against. However, the action proposed by Congressman Rooney will not only kill jobs, but put approximately 1 million Americans in jeopardy of becoming Lacey Act felons, and potentially displace thousands of snakes. How did the House Judiciary Committee get saddled with this crazy bill when there are so many important issues to deal with?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sea Turtle Migration Study

Loggerhead, Caretta caretta. JCM
Sea turtles have long and complex lives; they can live into their 70s or 80s and they famously return to their birthplace to nest. But new research suggests this isn't the only big migration in a sea turtle's life.

"We're starting to realize that developmental migrations -- ones that sea turtles make before they mature -- are even more amazing," says Dr. Peter Meylan, professor of natural sciences at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. "They only do it one time, but it can be much longer than the reproductive migrations they do as adults and may involve tens of thousands of kilometers."

Meylan has been tagging and tracking sea turtles with his wife, Anne Meylan of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, and Jennifer Gray and other colleagues from the Bermuda Aquarium. They have compiled the results of long-term capture programs in Caribbean Panama (17 years) and Bermuda (37 years) in a summary paper, "The Ecology and Migrations of Sea Turtles: Tests of the Developmental Habitat Hypothesis," in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.

"Bermuda is a place where young turtles go to grow up," Meylan says. "They arrive there after living out in the ocean. In Bermuda waters they grow from about the size of a dinner plate to the size of a wash tub, and then move on to different, adult habitats."

For example, some green turtles hatched in Costa Rica were spending their "growing up" years thousands of kilometers away in Barbados, North Carolina and Bermuda before heading off to spend their adulthoods near Nicaragua.

Young turtles have already survived hatching from their untended eggs, escaped hungry predators on their rush to the ocean, and have avoided marine predators once there. This research points to developmental migrations as another vulnerable time for sea turtles.

"Tag-return data from this study suggest that this may be another dangerous time for these turtles, and protection as they move into their adult foraging ranges could be a productive objective of policy change for effective marine turtle conservation," says Meylan.

Meylan, Peter A. (Peter Andre); Meylan, Anne Barkau.; Gray, Jennifer A. The ecology and migrations of sea turtles. 8, Tests of the developmental habitat hypothesis. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, no. 357,

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spider Predation On A Snake

In South Africa button spiders (Latrodectus, Theridiidae) or widow spiders a they are called elsewhere in the world are represented by at least six species. The photos at the left were reported taken in 2004 in South Africa. The snake is reported to be  a 14cm long Aurora house snake (Lamprophis aurora) and the event reported occurred in an office in South Africa. The photos and an accompaning story resurfaced today on the UK web outlet Invertebrate predation on vertebrates has been documented in a variety of publications (see citation of a review paper below), but it is always novel to find what is usually considered the unexpected - arthropods feeding on reptiles.

McCORMICK, S. and POLIS, G. A. (1982), ARTHROPODS THAT PREY ON VERTEBRATES. Biological Reviews, 57: 29–58.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Polysternon isonae, A New Bothremydid Turtle

Researchers at the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP), the Museu de la Conca Dellà (MCD) and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) have published this week in the online edition of the journal Cretaceous Research the discovery and description of a turtle from the end of the age of dinosaurs.   Above left: a reconstruction of Polysternon isonae. (Credit: Oscar Sanisidro)

Josep Marmi, Angel Lujan, Angel Galobart from ICP, Rodrigo Gaete from MDC, and Violeta and Oms Oriol Riera from UAB have named this new species as Polysternon isonae, in recognition of the municipality of Isona I Conca Dellà (Catalonia, Spain), where the fossil remains of the specimen type have been found.

The abundance of dinosaur fossils that lived between 65 and 70 million years ago in the area currently occupied by the Pyrenees It is well known. In this range we find dozens of sites with bones, footprints and eggs of the last dinosaurs that inhabited our planet, the Tremp basin being one of the areas with the highest concentration of fossils.

However, lesser-known are the other organisms that completed the ecosystems at the end of the Cretaceous period, consisting of other vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, fungi, etc. A common feature of these ecosystems were turtles. In the Pyrenean sites, their fossils are relatively abundant and, in general, consist of isolated shell plates or small sets of plates that can help us get a general idea of the morphology and size of the animal. Instead, the entire shell finding is rare and even more exceptional are the findings where parts of the skeleton are preserved within the shell.

In recent years, in the municipality of Isona i Conca Dellà (Catalonia) numerous discoveries of turtle remains have been made, spread over several sites. One of these sites, that of Barranc de Torrebilles, has given fairly complete remains that allowed describing a new species: Polysternon isonae. The remains found consist of dozens of isolated plates derived from the fragmentation of shells through their sutures, and what is more important: a fragment of the ventral side of a shell and an almost entire shell, which without being totally complete, show morphological features of great interest to paleontologists and have allowed to describe this new species. These remains were recovered during two excavation campaigns conducted during the summers of 2008 and 2009.

So far, two species of the genus Polysternon were known : P. provinciale and P. Atlanticum (plus a possible third P. Mechinorum), distributed only in what is know the south of France and the Iberian Peninsula. They were animals adapted to swimming and living in fresh waters, in the deeper areas of rivers and lakes. Specifically, the shell of the new species P. isonae was oval, measuring about 50 centimeters long and 40 wide. The remains were found preserved in a very hard sandstone strata now exposed in the Barranc de Torrebilles. Just over 65 million years ago, when the animal died, this was not a lithified sandstone and consisted of fine sand that was washed away by river streams and that was deposited, along with the remains of other turtles of the Barranc de Torrebilles, at the bottom of one of these rivers.

Unlike other kinds of turtles, it seems that Polysternon did not survive the end of Cretaceous and went extinct with the dinosaurs. The close proximity of the site Barranc de Torrebilles to the geological level that marks the end of the Cretaceous extinction, indicates that Polysternon isonae was possibly one of the last species of the genus Polysternon.


J. Marmi, Á.H. Luján, V. Riera, R. Gaete, O. Oms, À. Galobart. 2012. The youngest species of Polysternon: A new bothremydid turtle from the uppermost Maastrichtian of the southern Pyrenees. Cretaceous Research; 35: 133 DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2011.12.004

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Fungoid Frog, More Cryptic Species?

Hylarana malabarica. Vagator,
Goa, India. Photo credit: Rakeshb
The Fungoid Frog,  Hylarana malabarica,  is widely distributed in peninsular India, Assam, and Meghalaya and because of its wide distribution the species is categorized under Least Concern in the IUCN Red Listof Threatened Species. But, despite its widespread distribution, H. malabarica shows a patchy distribution in the northern Western Ghats. Padhye et al. noted variation among the individuals from different populations the northern Western Ghats, and examined morphological and genetic variation in six populations collected from six isolated locations. Their analysis used morphology and genetics suggests the six populations of H. malabarica form at least four separate clusters, raising the possibility that H. malabarica could be a species complex. This has become a common situation with amphibians and reptiles, and suggests the diversity of both groups has been greatly understimated worldwide. The entire article can be found on-line.

CitationPadhye, A., A. Jadhav, M. Diwekar & N. Dahanukar (2012). Population variations in the Fungoid Frog Hylarana malabarica (Anura: Ranidae) from northern Western Ghats of India. Journal of Threatened Taxa 4(2): 2343–2352.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Masked Water Snakes Revised

A. Homalopsis buccata, B. H. mereljcoxi
C. H. nigroventralis, D. H. semizonata. 
Photo credits: R. Steubing, J. C. Murphy, 
and J. Vidum

Masked water snakes of the genus Homalopsis are the largest members of the family Homalopsidae, exceeding 1.3 m, and are abundant in the low elevation wetlands of Southeast Asia. They have robust bodies, wide heads, distinctive pattern of alternating brown and cream bands outlined in black, and often a pale colored venter with paired dark spots on the lateral edge of the ventrals and first dorsal rows of scales. Masked water snakes are nocturnal ambush predators preying on small fish, and their large size and interesting dorsal pattern makes them a target for the novelty leather industry. Homalopsis is harvested in large numbers at Tonle Sap, Cambodia for its skin and protein. Only one species of Homalopsis was recognized for the majority of the last 250 years until H. nigroventralis was resurrected in 2006. Despite its distribution, abundance, and excessive exploitation, the systematics of Homalopsis and Linnaeus’ original description of Coluber buccatus in 1758 the genus and species has remained poorly studied. Murphy and colleagues analyzed 163 specimens of Homalopsis and found three cryptic species within the genus, bring the total known species to five. These species are based upon relatively subtle morphological characters that follow geographical patterns, and in part explain why these cryptic species have been long confused. Two of the five now known species were previously described; the third had no available name. With the exception of H. nigroventralis, there is no way to identify these species at a glance; scale characteristics and counts need to be examined in detail. The authors recognize Homalopsis hardwickii Gray a species known only from the type specimen and from an unknown location, but presumably somewhere in “India;” and H. semizonata Blyth a species from Myanmar with three prefrontal scales; H. buccata is the type species of the genus and found throughout the Indonesian archipelago, and H. nigroventralis a melanistic species of the Mekong drainage system originally described as a subspecies of H. buccata, and know known from Cambodia and Thailand as well. The new species H. mereljcoxi is, ironically, the most exploited species and is found in Thailand and the Indochinese Peninsula.


Friday, February 24, 2012

The Tadpole & Buoyancy

Survival and reproduction of many aquatic and semi-aquatic animals can depend upon how well they float. Tadpoles use various strategies to attain buoyancy, depending upon their stage of development and location in still or turbulent waters. Researchers have taken a closer look at the developing frog's strategies to achieve buoyancy.

A report in the current issue of the journal Herpetologica studied eight species of tadpoles in three different environments -- still waters, intermittent streams, and torrent sections of rivers. All species were examined in the larval and metamorphic stages, and three species were also examined in the hatchling stage.

The ability to float is determined by hydrodynamic lift and static lift. Hydrodynamic lift is generated by a difference in the velocities of a tadpole and the water around it. Static lift is the difference between the specific gravities of the organism and the water in which it lives. Tadpoles can alter their static lift by adding lung gas -- for instance, gulping air at the water's surface -- or by releasing lung gas.

Comparing buoyancy levels and how tadpoles achieve them, researchers have found that the tadpoles of different species can adjust to different environments. In ponds and intermittent streams, lung gases offer tadpoles the flexibility they need to adjust to water depth, current speed, and ingestion of dense particles when feeding. When water currents increase, tadpoles can rapidly reduce lung volume and therefore gaseous lift and buoyancy.

In fast-flowing waters, negative buoyancy is favored. So species in such environments have no gaseous lift, but can maintain their position in the water using an oral sucker. These species often live in contact with the bottom where the water current is at its lowest.

Transitions between hatchling, larval, and metamorphic stages also affect the buoyancy of tadpoles. It seems important to survival that buoyancy is neutral, or nearly so, as hatchlings become larvae because this facilitates locomotion. Another change in buoyancy occurs at the start of metamorphosis. At this time, buoyancy decreased in all but of the species, possibly to make the tadpoles less vulnerable to predation.

John H. Gee & Sylvie L. Rondeau. 2012. Strategies Used By Tadpoles to Optimize Buoyancy in Different Habitats. Herpetologica, 68 (1): 3 DOI:10.1655/HERPETOLOGICA-D-10-00023.1

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Chikilidae- A New Family of Ambibians

 Chiklil fulleri a member of the family Chikilidae.

A team of biologists led by University of Delhi professor Sathyabhama Das Biju spent more than five years digging through forest soils in the rain, and discovered a new family of amphibians -the Chikilidae - endemic to northeast India but with ancient links to Africa.

Their discovery was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, providing yet more evidence that India is a hot spot for amphibians and a location worthy of protection against the country's industry-heavy development agenda. It also provides exciting new evidence for the zoogeography of caecilians.

"This is a major hotspot of biological diversity, but one of the least explored," Biju said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We hope this new family will show the importance of funding research in the area. We need to know what we have, so we can know what to save."

By naming it Chikilidae, a name from the Goro language, Biju hoped to increase the profile of the local people and make them aware of the importance of the new animal.

The forest habitat of the Chikilidae an ignored tropical forests now faces deforestation and development for industry as India's economic growth takes off. Industrial pollutants, pesticides and more people may mean a world of trouble for a creature that can be traced to the earliest vertebrates to creep across land.

Biju - a botanist-turned-herpetologist now celebrated as India's "Frogman" - has made it his life work to find and catalog new species. There are too many cases of "nameless extinction," with animals disappearing before they are ever known, he said. "We don't even know what we're losing."

Biju, however, is working the reverse trend. Since 2001, he has discovered 76 new species of plants, caecilians and frogs - more than any other scientist in India - and estimates 30-40 percent of the country's amphibians are yet to be found.

Within the Chikilidae, the team has already identified three species, and is on its way to discovering at least three more.

The discovery of the Chikilidae's , made along with co-researchers from London's Natural History Museum and Vrije University in Brussels, brings the number of known caecilian families in the world to 10. Three are in India and others are spread across the tropics in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. There is debate about the classifications, with some scientists counting fewer caecilian families.

Much remains to be discovered in further study, Biju said, as many questions remain about how the creatures live.

So far, Biju's team has determined that an adult chikilid will remain with its eggs until they hatch, forgoing food for some 50 days. When the eggs hatch, the young emerge as tiny adults and squirm away.

They grow to about 4 inches (10 centimeters), and can push their dense skulls through some of the region's tougher soils, disappearing quickly at the slightest vibration. "It's like a rocket," Biju said. "If you miss it the first try, you'll never catch it again."

A possibly superfluous set of eyes is shielded under a layer of skin, and may help the chikilidae gauge light from dark as in other caecilian species.

DNA testing suggests the chikilids closest relative is in Africa - with the two evolutionary paths splitting some 140 million years ago when India separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana.

Biju's team worked best during monsoon season, when the digging is easier and when the chikilids lay their eggs in waterlogged soils. Gripping garden spades with blistered hands, the researchers along with locals they hired spent about 2,600 man hours digging for the elusive squigglers, usually found about 16 inches (40 centimeters) deep.

"It was backbreaking work," said research fellow Rachunliu Kamei, who even passed out in the forest once, and some days found not even one specimen.

"But there is motivation in knowing this is an uncharted frontier," said Kamei, lead researcher and main author of the study paper.

Rachunliu G. Kamei, Diego San Mauro,  David J. Gower, Ines Van Bocxlaer, Emma Sherratt Ashish Thomas, Suresh Babu, Franky Bossuyt, Mark Wilkinson and S. D. Biju. 2012. Discovery of a new family of amphibians from northeast India with ancient links to Africa. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0150 (published first on-line)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New Sea Snake From Australia

Photo credit Brian G. Fry
A paper, published yesterday in the journal Zootaxa, announces the discovery and notes that the new species called Hydrophis donaldii is unique in having raised scales.

“H. donaldii had evaded earlier discovery as it prefers estuarine habitats that are poorly surveyed and not targeted by commercial fisheries”, explained Dr. Bryan Fry, a co-author on the discovery paper and an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences.

The scientists collected nine specimens of this ‘viviparous or true’ sea snake from the coastal estuarine habitats of Weipa on the Queensland coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“Weipa really is one of the last sea snake ‘Serengetis’. We can see over 200 sea snakes in a single night’s hunting, whereas sea snake populations have really crashed elsewhere through over-fishing removing their prey and also the snakes drowning in trawling nets.”

“All venomous animals are bio-resources and have provided sources of many life-saving medications, such as treatments for high-blood pressure and diabetes. This reinforces why we need to conserve all of nature as the next billion dollar wonder-drug may come from as unlikely a source as sea snake venom.”

H. donaldii is named in honor of David Donald, Dr. Fry’s long-time boat captain.

“Quite simply we would not have found this snake without Dave’s unique knowledge of the area. I told him we wanted to survey as many distinct types of habitat as possible and he guided us to the perfect spots,” Dr. Fry said.

It is also given the common-name ‘rough-scaled sea snake’ to reflect the unique scalation.

“We don’t know why it has been evolutionarily selected to have such unique scalation, but we will next study its ecology to learn more about it,” the scientist concluded.

KANISHKA D. B. UKUWELA, KATE L. SANDERS & BRYAN G. FRY. 2012.  Hydrophis donaldi (Elapidae, Hydrophiinae), a highly distinctive new species of sea snake from northern Australia. Zootaxa 3201: 45–57 

Chrysosporium Threatens Endangered Rattlesnake

The Chicago Tribune is carrying the following story: 

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.— A fungus rarely seen in the wild is killing certain southern Illinois rattlesnakes while cropping up in the northeastern U.S., wildlife specialists said.

Matthew Allender, a wildlife veterinarian and University of Illinois visiting instructor of comparative biosciences, said that in 2008 biologists reported to him that they'd found three eastern massasauga rattlesnakes with debilitating fungal infections in a southern Illinois park. The snakes, which are candidates for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, died within three weeks of their discovery, and a fourth snake with the fungus was discovered in the same park in 2010.

Allender later identified the pathogen as Chrysosporium, a fungus that plagues portions of the pet reptile industry but is not normally seen in the wild. He later heard from other biologists about similar infections in timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

"Chrysosporium causes disease in bearded dragons and in other snakes, and it's a bad bug," Allender said. "We see it in captive animals worldwide, but we don't typically find it in free-ranging animals."

The fungus also is emerging as a dangerous infection in humans with weakened immune systems, he said, adding that he sees the fungal infection in endangered snakes as a "yellow flag" warranting more study.

"Wildlife diseases and human health are not that different," he said. "And often wildlife are our window into a weakened environment that leads to disease in both people and animals."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fungal Ant Gardens as Incubators for Snake Eggs

Parental care in snakes is poorly documented. It has been known since the 18th century that female pythons will not only guard their eggs but warm them when the ambient temperature drops; female king cobras have been long known to build nests of decomposing vegetation for their eggs and stay nearby; and more recently maternal care in rattlesnakes has been observed. There are other examples scattered in the literature but perhaps most unexpected is the ancient scolecophidians show signs of parental care and since parental care is present in these snakes, the behavior should not be too surprising in the more modern snake lineages. Paleontologist Claude Hibbard discovered a nursery (or a communal egg laying site) of the New Mexico worm snake, Rena dissectus in the 1960’s.
A Liotyphlops albirostris egg on a colony of A. cf. goniodes.
Note that the workers have planted pieces of fungal garden on
the egg’s shell.

Recently Gaspar Bruner and colleagues report the dawn blind snake (family Anomalepididae) Liotyphlops albirostris depositing its eggs in the fungus gardens of the fungus-growing ant Apterostigma cf. goniodes.They found three snake embryos in the nest of the phylogenetically basal attine ant, which has relatively small nests. In an effort to determine if the ants could distinguish snake eggs from a snake-like egg made of a different material, the authors observed the behavioral responses of ants to natural and artificial snake eggs. They transferred the eggs from the nest to a sterile Petri dish and removed the fungal mycelium around the eggs using forceps. Then either a plasticine or natural egg (with the fungus removed), was placed on the top of the fungal garden. Using a stereomicroscope they observed the ants’ behavior toward the egg or the plasticine egg. They found worker ants repeatedly attended and groomed the snake eggs, but never observed the ants biting them. The ant workers took pieces of their fungus garden and planted them on the eggs, behavior very similar to what the workers do with ant eggs, larvae, and pupae in their fungus garden, as a means of controlling infections. When researchers removed the mycelial cover of an egg the ants completely recovered the eggs with fungal garden material and restored it to the original condition but did not attend or cover the artificial egg. Also, the ants spent substantially more time physically examining the snake egg than the artificial egg suggesting the ants were not simply responding to natural eggs as a foreign object. The entire article is available on line.