Sri Lanka could be home to more new snake species

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Today, February 10, marks the dawning of the Chinese New Year, and this year is the Year of the Snake. While billions of Chinese will be thinking about the Snake and its zodiacal impact on their lives over the next 12 months, environmentalists here are thinking of the snake and its survival in Sri Lanka, even as new undescribed species are making an appearance.

Ahaetulla nasuta – Green vine snake (Ahatulla). Pic by Dushantha Kandambi

Balanophis ceylonensis – Sri Lanka keelback- (Nihaluwa). Pic by Dushantha Kandambi

A new study on Sri Lankan snakes has appeared in the international research journal, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Despite its small size relative to larger islands such as New Guinea, Borneo, and Madagascar, Sri Lanka has one of the most evolutionarily diverse island snake faunas in the world. New endemic species are being identified, and there may be more waiting to be discovered.

Dr. Ruchira Somaweera, one of the scientists involved in the project, says the researchers learnt a lot about the origins of local snake fauna, and how they colonised the island and evolved.

Dr. Somaweera, who works for the Biologic Environmental Survey (Australia), said Sri Lanka was lucky to have a team of keen young herpetologists, many of whom had contributed to the research project. Dushantha Kandambi and Vishan Pushpamal conducted field work and looked after the logistics of project. The research was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Alexander Pyron of George Washington University (US) and colleagues from the City University of New York.

Sri Lanka is already famous as an amphibian hotspot. Ninety-five of the known 111 species are endemic.

The new study focused on the evolutionary roots of Sri Lankan snakes and finding their place in the global snake evolutionary tree.

Sri Lanka is home to 89 species of inland snakes (excluding species that permanently live in sea water), of which at least 49 are endemic. This includes five endemic groups: Aspidura (Rough-side snakes), Balanophis (Blossom krait), Cercaspis (Sri Lanka wolf snake), Haplocercus (Black-spined snake), and Pseudotyphlops (Large shield-tail snake) – snakes found only in this country.

The study suggests that the Sri Lankan snake fauna may soon rival its amphibians as a global center of endemism and diversity. Only a handful of snakes are lethally venomous, so learn to identify them and let the others live in peace as snakes are an important part of our biodiversity.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.02.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130210/news/sri-lanka-home-to-new-snake-species-32495.html

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