Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Bornean earless monitor lizard in Kalimantan

The Bornean herpetofauna has about 146 amphibians and 254 reptiles – excluding sea snakes and sea turtles. Perhaps the most unusual member of the herpetofauna is the Bornean earless monitor lizard, Lanthanotus borneensis Steindachner 1877; an odd lizard looking lizard with an ancient history. Until now Lanthanotus has been known only from the coastal lowlands of northern Sarawak, but Yaap et al. (2012) report its recent discovery on oil palm development area in the Landak District of West Kalimantan, expanding its known range southward into Kalimantan. 
Photo credit Alain Compost
A single specimen of the lizard was found on 30 May 2008, at 11:28 hrs, in leaf litter in a shallow, rocky creek by a social survey team taking GPS coordinates of locally important cultural sites. The lizard was partially submerged in the creek. The site includes natural forest, secondary forest and isolated bamboo clusters—all located in a recently developed oil palm estate. The estate and its surroundings are a complex mosaic of active or recently abandoned swidden agricultural fields, rubber, agroforestry.

Since its description in 1877, only 12 specimens had been found up until 1961 and only about 100 of these lizards have ever been collected. Much of the information published on L. borneensis are reports on behavioral observations of single specimens kept in captivity and little is actually known about its behavior in its natural habitat.

Yaap, B., G.D. Paoli, A. Angki, P.L. Wells & D. Wahyudi & M. Auliya (2012). First record of The tembawang forms part of a larger forest block. Threatened Taxa 4(11): 3067–3074.

Impact of Harvesting on the Map Turtle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida researchers studying river turtles in Missouri found populations of the northern map turtle have not recovered from harvesting in the 1970s. 
Scientists used data collected by Florida Museum of Natural History herpetology curator Max Nickerson in 1969 and 1980 as a baseline, then surveyed the same stretch of river in the Ozarks in 2004 to determine the northern map turtles had not recovered from a previous 50 percent population loss caused by harvesting, likely for food. River turtles help ecosystems function by cycling nutrients and maintaining food web dynamics. Assessment of the northern map turtle, a protected species in some states, is essential as increasing human populations and global warming further alter its habitat. The study was published Sept. 14 in Volume 3 of Copeia, and is scheduled to appear online this week.

“The importance of river turtles is really underplayed,” said lead author Amber Pitt, a Clemson University postdoctoral research fellow who conducted research for the study as a UF graduate student. “River turtles are long-lived, rely on the same water resources that we do and can serve as indicators of water quality. People should be concerned if turtles are impacted by poor water quality because we are likely being affected, too.”

Inhabiting river systems from southern Arkansas to Quebec, the northern map turtle, Graptemys geographica, is among the most wide-ranging map turtles in the U.S. They are dietary specialists and depend mainly on snails, making the species especially susceptible to biodegradation. Formally known as the common map turtle due to its wide geographic distribution, its name was changed in 2000 so people would not assume it was abundant, Pitt said. The northern map turtle is listed in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and this research may be used as a guideline for conservation or protection of other turtle species.

Scientists determined harvesting was likely the cause of the 50 percent population loss between 1969 and 1980 based on analysis of data published by Nickerson and Pitt in the Florida Museum of Natural History Bulletin in August. Data showed fewer adult females, which are larger than males and preferred for the food trade, and local residents confirmed turtle harvesting occurred in the river, Nickerson said.

“This shows that harvesting, even if it’s a one-time event, can cause a turtle population to significantly decline and remain impacted for decades, because this species doesn’t reproduce quickly,” Pitt said. “It was really discouraging to see that even without the pressure of further harvesting, they couldn’t recover over that long time period, which is partially due to their biology but may also be associated with habitat degradation and disturbance.”

Researchers used similar methods to survey the nearly 3-mile stretch of the North Fork of White River in Ozark County, Missouri, in 2004 by snorkeling to locate, tag and record information about the turtles. Based on the 2004 examination of the river, habitat degradation was apparent because of increased siltation, sedimentation and algal blooms.

“What’s happening in these big spring-fed rivers is very important,” Nickerson said. “When you clear the banks of a river, you increase siltation, which affects the food sources, reproduction, plant growth, species composition and basic ecology of that section of the stream, and perhaps the entire river.”

River degradation has been partially caused by human recreation, which drastically increased by 2004, Nickerson said. People swimming and boating also frighten turtles so they may not bask as much as needed to maintain their health and maximize egg production.

Although scientists generally agree many turtle populations are declining worldwide, little has been published on river turtle communities, said Don Moll, a professor emeritus at Missouri State University who co-authored a textbook on freshwater turtles.

“This is a very important study because it follows the dynamics of this turtle community over a more than 30-year time period, and really it’s the only published river turtle study I can think of that does that,” Moll said. “It’s a real contribution in that sense — it’s so unique.”

One concern with attracting conservation efforts to river turtles may have to do with their small size because they do not garner as much public attention as larger marine species, Pitt said. Adult female northern map turtles are about 11 inches long.

“Often times with conservation, you have the charismatic mega fauna that people care about, such as sea turtles — everybody cares about sea turtles, including me,” Pitt said. “But river turtles are facing just as many threats as sea turtles. People are also harvesting river turtles and there are very few laws in place to stop this harvest — it’s a global epidemic that is causing turtle populations to be wiped out.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Giant Salamanders and peramorphosis

Giant salamanders (Cyptobranchidae) can live for a century, grow to two meters in length, and have an ancestry that extends back more than 56 million years. Fossils giant salamanders are frequently found in Eurasia and they show little variation from their modern descendants. The early giant salamanders had a body size and lifestyle similar to those alive today and they lived in East Asia and North America. But while modern species inhabit oxygen-rich, fast-flowing mountain streams in China, Japan and the US, their ancestors lived in rivers and lakes in the lowlands.
Ontogenetic development in giant salamanders.

Now, Madelaine Böhme and Davit Vasilyan at the University of Tübingen have discovered the oldest known giant salamander, Aviturus exsecratus, lived on land as well as in water. A reexamination of 56 MY fossil A. exsecratus from southern Mongolia demonstrated that the animal hunted in the water and on land. Making its life style quite different from all the later giant salamanders, which live or lived only in water.

The evolution of a species from a purely aquatic lifestyle to an amphibious-terrestrial lifestyle is linked with gigantism and sustained growth and is called peramorphosis (the opposite of paedomorphosis). It is completely unknown in modern salamanders. However, development like this is only known in palaeozoological amphibians such as Eryops, which lived 300 MYA.

The authors suspect that Aviturus exsecratus fed on fish and invertebrates in the water – as suggested by the shape of its lower jaw, and probably hunted insects on land. Terrestrial adaptation is indicated by the animal’s heavy bones, long hind legs, a well-developed sense of smell, and palatal dentition typical of a terrestrial salamander. Also, fossil remains of this huge, up to  two meters long animal were found in rock typically formed from water’s-edge sediments.

The researchers hypothesize that body size in Aviturus exsecratus was probably due to a short period of global warming 55.8 million years ago: the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. This most sudden climate change since the death of the dinosaurs saw global temperatures rise 6 degrees Celsius within around 20,000 years.

Davit Vasilyan, MadelaineBöhme. Pronounced Peramorphosis inLissamphibians—Aviturus exsecratus (Urodela, Cryptobranchidae) from thePaleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum of Mongolia.PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (9):e40665 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0040665

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A second look at frog reproductive modes

A New Guinea microhylid with eggs.
Photo credit David Bickford

STONY BROOK, NY, September 10, 2012 – All tadpoles grow into frogs, but not all frogs start out as tadpoles, reveals a new study on 720 species of frogs to be published in the journal Evolution. The study, “Phylogenetic analyses reveal unexpected patterns in the evolution of reproductive modes in frogs,” conducted by John J. Wiens, an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, and colleagues Ivan Gomez-Mestre from the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, and R. Alexander Pyron from George Washington University, uncovers the surprising evolution of life cycles in frogs.

Roughly half of all frog species have a life cycle that starts with eggs laid in water, which hatch into aquatic tadpoles, and then go through metamorphosis and become adult frogs. The other half, according to the authors, “includes an incredible diversity of life cycles, including species in which eggs are placed on leaves, in nests made of foam, and even in the throat, stomach, or back of the female frog. There are also hundreds of species with no tadpole stage at all, a reproductive mode called direct development.”

For decades, it has been assumed that the typical mode (with eggs and tadpoles placed in water) gave rise to direct development through a series of gradual intermediate steps involving eggs laid in various places outside water. “However, the results show that in many cases, species with eggs and tadpoles placed in water seem to give rise directly to species with direct development, without going through the many seemingly intermediate steps that were previously thought to be necessary,” Dr. Wiens said.

“The results also suggests that there many potential benefits for species that have retained aquatic eggs and tadpoles, such as allowing females to have more offspring and to colonize regions with cooler and drier climates. These advantages may explain why the typical frog life cycle has been maintained for more than 220 million years among thousands of species,” said Professor Wiens.

Ivan Gomez-Mestre, Robert Alexander Pyron, John J. Wiens. Phylogenetic analyses reveal unexpected patterns in the evolution of reproductive modes in frogs. Evolution, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01715.x

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Did advanced snakes evolve from a scolecophidian?

A scolecophidian, Epictia tenella. JCM
STONY BROOK, NY, September 18, 2012 – A new study, published online in Biology Letters on September 19, has utilized a massive molecular dataset to reconstruct the evolutionary history of lizards and snakes. The results reveal a surprising finding about the evolution of snakes: that most snakes we see living on the surface today arose from ancestors that lived underground.

The article, entitled “Resolving the phylogeny of lizards and snakes (Squamata) with extensive sampling of genes and species,” describes research led by John J. Wiens, an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. The study was based on 44 genes and 161 species of lizards and snakes, one of the largest genetic datasets assembled for reptiles.

The results show that almost all groups of snakes arose from within a bizarre group of burrowing blind snakes called scolecophidians. This finding implies that snakes ancestrally lived underground, and that the thousands of snake species living today on the surface evolved from these subterranean ancestors.

The authors suggest that there are still traces of this subterranean ancestry in the anatomy of surface-dwelling snakes. “For example, no matter where they live, snakes have an elongate body and a relatively short tail, and outside of snakes, this body shape is only found in lizards that live underground,” said Professor Wiens. “Snakes have kept this same basic body shape as they have evolved to invade nearly every habitat on the planet – from rainforest canopies to deserts and even the oceans.”

J. J. Wiens, C. R. Hutter, D. G. Mulcahy, B. P. Noonan, T. M. Townsend, J. W. Sites, T. W. Reeder. Resolving the phylogeny of lizards and snakes (Squamata) with extensive sampling of genes and species. Biology Letters, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0703

On the trail of herbal snakebite antidote

Puff Adder, Bitis arietans. JCM
PLANT MEDICINE A PhD student at the University of Copenhagen has drawn on nature’s own pharmacy to help improve the treatment of snakebites in Africa.

Marianne Molander from the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences has been working within a Danish team that has examined various plants native to the African continent in a bid to find locally available herbal antidotes.

“Snake venom antidotes are expensive, it’s often a long way to the nearest doctor and it can be difficult to store the medicine properly in the warm climate. As a result many local people rely on natural resources for treating potentially fatal bites,” says pharmacist and PhD student Marianne Molander.

The Danish researchers are now investigating African plants that have proven effective in treating snakebite. Armed with the results of their research they are set to provide guidance in the use of plants in remote areas where local people have limited access to Western medicine:

“We have particularly focused on the snake species Bitis arietans, which is widespread south of the Sahara. All snake venoms consist of a unique cocktail of enzymes, which results in rapid tissue death. Along with our African partners, we are currently testing plants that act as venom antidotes in remote regions of Africa. A hundred plants from Mali, 27 from South Africa and 13 from the Democratic Republic of Congo are now under the microscope," says Marianne Molander, PhD student in drug design and pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen.

Snake venom as medicine

100,000 people worldwide die each year from snakebites. Three times as many suffer permanent injuries, disability or amputations as a result of a bite to an arm or leg. The problem is greatest in tropical developing countries, where agricultural workers, women and children are the most likely victims. Although a million people in Africa are bitten by snakes each year - only half receive treatment.

But snake venom is not all bad. There are many instances where venom can be developed into drugs used, for example, in the treatment of hypertension, heart failure and diabetic kidney disease. The drug Aggrastat, which is used for chest pain, was developed using a peptide from an African viper.

Herbal healing in Africa

Historically plants have always been a major source of drugs. A quarter of all new medicinal products registered worldwide, come from plants or other natural resources. This impressive potential has its origins in the fact that plants have evolved to contain substances that prevent them being eaten or attacked by diseases. These biologically active defence compounds can sometimes be useful for developing new drugs. And Africa’s poor use nature as their medicine cabinet.

“In Africa where much of the population can’t afford medicine, there is a tradition of seeking out healers and alternative therapists, before turning to conventional medicine. Eighty percent visit the healer before they go to the hospital. Traditional herbal medicine is based on centuries of traditions and achievement, so the local shamans and medicine men are often a good place to start when you are looking for active substances with real pharmaceutical effects,” says Marianne Molander.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Snakes & Spiders in Guam

Boiga irregularis, USGS Photograph
In one of the first studies to examine how the loss of forest birds is effecting Guam's island ecosystem, biologists from Rice University, the University of Washington and the University of Guam found that the Pacific island's jungles have as many as 40 times more spiders than are found on nearby islands like Saipan.

"You can't walk through the jungles on Guam without a stick in your hand to knock down the spiderwebs," said Haldre Rogers, a Huxley Fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice and the lead author of a new study this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The results are some of the first to examine the indirect impact of the brown treesnake on Guam's ecosystem. The snake, which was accidentally introduced to the island in the 1940s, decimated the island's native bird species in one of the most infamous ecological disasters from an invasive species. By the 1980s, 10 of 12 native bird species had been wiped out, and the last two live only in small areas protected by intense snake-trapping.

Rogers and colleagues are investigating whether the loss of birds led to an increase in the spider population on Guam, since many birds consume spiders, compete with spiders for insect prey and utilize spider webs in their nests. Small-scale experiments in other ecosystems have consistently shown a link between the presence of birds and the abundance of spiders, but the new study is the first examine the impact of bird loss on the scale of an entire forest.

Counting spider webs on Guam and on nearby islands in the Marianas Islands chain was the first step. Rogers said the difference between the number of spiders she and her colleagues counted on Guam and three nearby islands that still have birds "was far more dramatic than what any small-scale experiments had previously found." She said the findings underscore the importance of using both observed counts and controlled experiments when attempting to predict how entire ecosystems will react to change.

Rogers landed her first job out of college on Guam in 2002. "I had no idea where it was," she recalled. "I had to look it up on a map." She quickly fell in love with the narrow, 30-mile-long island, a mecca for tourists who are drawn by the tropical island's beaches, diving and snorkeling.

Guam is a U.S. territory, and to prevent brown treesnakes from spreading to other islands, the U.S. spends more than $1 million a year searching airplanes and cargo to prevent the snakes from escaping Guam. However, the reclusive, nocturnal reptiles are extremely hard to find. Rogers said the average resident or tourist on Guam will never see one, and even those who actively hunt them are hard-pressed to find one, which is one reason the snakes have been impossible to eradicate from the island.

Rogers' first job on Guam was to lead the U.S. Geological Survey's brown treesnake rapid response team, a small group of snake hunters charged with capturing brown treesnakes that manage to get off the island. Specifically, the team's mission is to respond within 24 hours of any sighting of a brown treesnake on any island that is served by flights from Guam.

"When I was out there searching for snakes at night, I spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between the forests I was walking through and the forests back on Guam," Rogers said. The spiderwebs were just one difference. The lack of songbirds also make Guam's forests eerily quiet during the day, she said. By the time Rogers enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington in 2005, she had a number of ideas for ecological field studies aimed at measuring and explaining the differences she'd observed.

"There isn't any other place in the world that has lost all of its insect-eating birds," she said. "There's no other place you can look to see what happens when birds are removed over an entire landscape."

One of the first experiments she had in mind was to investigate all those spiderwebs, which are much less plentiful elsewhere in the Marianas.

"I certainly wasn't the first to notice the incredible number of spiders in the jungles on Guam, but we were the first to quantify the difference between Guam and nearby islands," Rogers said.

Historically, if ecologists wanted to study how insects reacted to the absence of birds, they would build an "exclosure," a covering designed to keep birds out of their study area. Rogers said most exclosures cover a few branches of one tree, and, in rare cases, an entire tree. Building structures large enough to exclude birds from an entire forest simply isn't affordable, so the brown treesnake has effectively set the stage for experiments that ecologists couldn't otherwise do.

To find out exactly how many spiders were on the island, Rogers' team grabbed a tape measure and spent four months hiking through jungles counting spider webs, as a proxy for spiders. She and study co-authors Janneke Hille Ris Lambers and Josh Tewksbury of the University of Washington and Ross Miller of the University of Guam found that spiders were between two times and 40 times more plentiful on Guam than on neighboring islands.

Rogers said the results were a surprise, because they were several times more than would have been predicted from simply scaling up the numbers from small-scale exclosure studies.

"None of the small-scale experiments recorded that kind of increase," Rogers said. "It suggests that the small-scale experiments had gotten the interaction correct -- there is an increase in spiders when you lose birds -- but they may have underestimated the effect size."

Rogers said the result "shows that birds have a strong effect on spiders. Anytime you have a reduction in insectivorous birds, the system will probably respond with an increase in spiders. With insectivorous birds in decline in many places in the world, I suspect there has been a concurrent increase in spiders."

In future work, she plans to conduct exclosure experiments on neighboring islands that still have forest birds and compare those results with observations on Guam to determine the exact links between the lost forest birds and the spider population increases.

"Ultimately, we aim to untangle the impact of bird loss on the entire food web, all the way down to plants," she said. "For example, has the loss of birds also led to an increase in the number of plant-eating insects? Or can this increase in spiders compensate for the loss of birds?"

The research was supported by the Budweiser Conservation Scholarship through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the University of Washington Department of Biology Giles Award, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate research fellowship, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Haldre Rogers, Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, Ross Miller, Joshua J. Tewksbury. ‘Natural experiment’ Demonstrates Top-Down Control of Spiders by Birds on a Landscape Level. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (9): e43446 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043446

The Bockadams of the genus Cerberus

Thinking about herpetological field work in Thailand brings back a lot of memories. One of the most vivid is arriving at small village on the Gulf of Thailand side of the peninsula and being greeted by two local men with burlap bags filled with snakes, they had more than 50 snakes in the genus Cerberus. When we asked them how they collected them, they explained they gathered them from the mud flat by scooting around on a board and picking them up. We then inquired how long it took to collect the snakes, and they replied, “about half an hour.” 

The evidence now suggests that snakes in the genus Cerberus may be the most abundant aquatic snakes on the planet. They have an unusual coastal distribution that extends from the vicinity of Mumbai, India to Paula, Micronesia a distance equal to about 20% of the Earth’s circumference.
The scientific community first became aware of the snakes now placed in the genus Cerberus through a drawing by Patrick Russell in his 1796, two volume, An Account of Indian Serpents, collected on the Coast of Coromandel. Russell applied the local Telugu name to the snake, the bockadam. Cerberus has a long and debris-filled nomenclatural history. This is highlighted by the fact that 16 species of Cerberus have been described since 1799, with at least 44 combinations of names applied to species within the genus. Gyi’s (1970) review of the homalopsids recognized three species, one of which had two subspecies. Cogger et al. (1983) placed Homalopsis australis Gray in the synonymy of Hydrus rynchops Schneider and reduced the number of recognized species to two. 

Alfaro et al. (2004) analyzed 2338 mtDNA bp from 21 localities and recovered five clades of Cerberus: a South Asia clade (India and Myanmar), a Greater Sunda Island-Sulawesi clade, a Thai-Malay Peninsula, Gulf of Thailand clade, a Philippine clade that included C. microlepis, and an Australopapuan clade, that is quite divergent (0.06 – 0.12) from the Asian clades (the Asian clades are 0.02–0.06 divergent from each other).

In an examination of 22 homalopsid species using three mitochondrial and one nuclear genes, Alfaro et al. (2008) recovered Cerberus as monophyletic. Using Markov Chain Constant Rates (MCCR) to test the times of divergence Cerberus appears to have separated from its sister the puff-faced water snakes of the genus Homalopsis about 14 MYA, while the Asian Cerberus clade diverged from the Australopapuan clade about 3 MYA.
Top to bottom: C. australis, C. dunsoni,  C. microlepis, C. rynchops (photo by A. Lobo),
C. schneiderii. 
Murphy, Voris, and Karns (2012) have now reviewed the nomenclature of the genus and define species based upon morphology and previously published molecular evidence. Three species have been recognized by recent workers, this paper recognizes five species: a South Asian C. rynchops (Schneider 1799); the Southeast Asian-Philippine C. schneiderii (Schlegel 1837); the freshwater Philippine endemic C. microlepis Boulenger 1896; the Australopapuan C. australis (Gray 1842); and C. dunsoni a new species from Micronesia. They also select a lectotype for Homalopsis schneiderii Schlegel based upon a figure published in 1837 and restrict the type locality for this species to Timor. They also discuss the evidence for a population of Cerberus australis in Indonesia, west of Weber’s Line.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Suizo Report -- Paradise in Paradise

Howdy Herpers, 09/10/12

I've got to pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming. When we started to ramp up on tigers and black-tails, I had no idea that so few would lead us to so much!

As we speak, we have three parings going on. Pairing number one is the big guy, CM12 hanging out with female CM10. I can get visuals on both animals, but the male blocks any photo opportunities. He is guarding the entrance to a boulder escarpment, and she is directly behind him.

We have 3 male black-tails with transmitters, and all 3 have visited female CM10. One might snicker and call her a slut, but in reality, she doesn't have much choice.  Those boys are going to come calling, and there isn't much she can do about it.

We have yet another paring of black-tails transpiring. As none of you may remember, we captured female CM15 a few weeks back--had to snatch her from a crevice that her boyfriend CM14 was sharing with her.

Two days later, they were placed back together in that same crevice.  CM14 then left her--to join female CM10!

Now the pair (14 and 15) are back together again, at a different location. They are buried in a massive Neotoma network, out on the Bajada between Iron Mine Hill and Lil Hill.

We've had three separate pairings with the tigers over the past couple weeks as well. Female CT12 was joined by an unknown male. That pairing seems to be over. CT11, "Steven," found himself a girlfriend for a while, and now that pairing is over as well.

This weekend, CT8 "Zona" was joined by our newest transmittered male, CT14. I first found them together Saturday morning, and visited them again that night, and Sunday night.

Backing the train up a bit, on 23 August, I pulled female atrox #133 (Slone's bitch) from the plot to get a transmitter change.

On 24 August, I had not one snake in the hopper--but five! She dropped 4 young (1 male, 3 females) during her first evening of capture. EXACTLY one year ago, CA133 dropped six young under similar circumstances. This is yet another example of atrox giving birth in consecutive years.

There is SO much more to report, but we will keep this one short by going to images.

Image 1: CA133 with her young (the 4th neonate is behind the water bowl)
Image 2 and 3: Images of CT8 Zona and her boyfriend, CT14, 8 September 2012

Image 4: CT8 and CT14, in a different location, still together, 9 September 2012. They had moved a distance of about 30 meters since the night before.
Image 5, by Marty Feldner: CT12 with her unknown (to us) boyfriend, 26 August 2012. We are leaving all pairings alone for the remainder of the year.
Image 6, by Marty Feldner: CT11 "Steven" with as yet unknown (to us) girlfriend, 3 September 2012. Ditto on not disturbing pairings.
It is my sincere hope that the black-tail pairings will be photographable in the days ahead. Thus far, no luck with that. And thus far, no mating with any of the pairings watched. I expect that coitus is happening, but we just haven't been lucky enough to see it--yet!

If nothing else, we can hope for birthing encounters next year!

This here is Roger Repp, signing off from soggy Southern Arizona, where the turtles are strong, the snakes are handsome, and the lizards are ALL above average.

Best to all, roger

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The fangless homalopsid snakes of eastern Indonesia

Snakes in the family Homalopsidae have been long considered semiaquatic or aquatic forms with live birth and rear-fangs. In 2011, Brachyorrhos was confirmed as a member of the family (Murphy et al. 2011), but Brachyorrhos is terrestrial, feeds on worms, and has no rear fangs. The DNA evidence suggested Brachyorrhos was the most basal member of the family. Further investigation into the genus suggested it was restricted to Eastern Indonesia, the Moluccas, Aru, and the Raja Ampat Islands. However, the literature suggested it was also present in western New Guinea, frequently mentioning Brachyorrhos jobiensis, a species described from Yapen Island, known only from the type specimen which was destroyed in World War II.
For all of the 20th century, two species were thought to comprise the genus Brachyorrhos, B. albus  and B. jobiensis because G. A. Boulenger had synonomized several previously described species under the name Brachyorrhos albus. A review of museum specimens found four species of Brachyorrhos in the Moluccas, one species on Seram and nearby Ambon (B. albus), one species on Buru (B. gastrotaenius), one species on Ternate (B. raffrayi), and an undescribed species on Halmahera, that we named B. wallacei (Murphy et al. 2012).  Despite the fact that Ternate (a volcanic island) is only 14 km off the coast of Halmahera, the genetic difference between the snakes on the two islands was 7.2%, suggesting they had separated from their common ancestor quite some time ago.

Within the museum specimens examined were six specimens labeled Brachyorrhos jobiensis, all from extreme western New Guinea, in an area known as the Bird's Head. The Bird's Head is a biodiversity hot spot that has been poorly explored for squamate reptiles. Examination of the six specimens revealed three different undescribed species, based upon their body form. Two of the species had cylindrical bodies and stout tails (about 9 to 12 % of the body length) and appear to be cryptozoic/ fossorial/ aquatic species. The third species has a remarkable lateral compression of the body, an exceptionally abbreviated tail (about 3% of the body length) suggesting it is an aquatic form evolved from a fossorial ancestor (Murphy, 2012).
The differences between jobiensis-like snakes and the Brachyorrhos were striking, while they shared a considerable amount of morphology, the jobiensis -like snakes had rounded heads, a reduced number of scales at the back end of the body, a single internasal scale, and remarkably different looking tails. While the morphology they shared suggested they are related.
It seems likely that more Brachyorrhos species will be found, in eastern Indonesia. And, further investigation into these interesting snakes may provide insight into the evolution of fangs, as well as the shift from terrestrial to aquatic or aquatic to terrestrial life styles.
Literature Cited
Murphy, J. C., Mumpuni & K. L. Sanders, 2011. First molecular evidence for the phylogenetic placement of the enigmatic snake genus Brachyorrhos (Serpentes: Caenophidia). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 61: 953–957.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Revision of the Lizards in the Family Teiidae

Dracaena guianensis and its unusual teeth, used for crushing 
mollusk shells. JCM
Genera in the New World lizard family Teiidae were spread out over several families before 1885 when Boulenger consolidated them  and organized them into four groups; Group I included macroteiids that shared nasals not separated medially by a frontonasal, well-developed limbs and a moderate to large body.  Boulenger's three remaining groups included various genera of microteiids that are currently assigned to the Gymnophthalmidae. Later, the macroteiids were placed in a separate subfamily containing two clades formally recognized as the tribes Teiini and Tupinambini by Presch. Little doubt remains that the Teiidae and Gymnophthalmidae are monophyletic groups, and today Presch’s clades are generally regarded as subfamilies. Recognition of these subfamilies has received mostly support from separate morphological analyses (chromosomal, hemipenial,  osteological,  integumental, myological, neurological) as well as mitochondrial DNA. A third subfamily Chamopsiinae accommodates extinct genera from North America and may be the sister group of the extant subfamilies. The Teiidae is almost certainly the sister group of the Gymnophthalmidae, and teiids likely arose in the middle Cretaceous from a common ancestor shared with the extinct Polyglyphanodontidae this group has been considered an additional subfamily of the Teiidae by some authors. The genus-level taxonomy of the Teiidae has long been unsatisfactory. This problem is particularly acute within the speciose radiation of cnemidophorines in which most tropical species are assigned to the large polyphyletic genera Ameiva and Cnemidophorus. Polyphyly urgently requires resolution, because teiids are often the most conspicuous elements of many New World herpetofaunas and have been the subject of numerous detailed ecological studies. As researchers make ecological comparisons among teiid species, draw inferences about their biogeography, propose conservation strategies, and conduct other studies of their comparative biology, polyphyly of genera such as Ameiva, Cnemidophorus, and Tupinambis will likely produce what have been called “error cascades,” where seemingly trivial taxonomic problems become magnified in the development of scientific knowledge. However, the problem is not just one of polyphyly. Some genera have never been adequately diagnosed, whereas others are defined by apparent symplesiomorphies. These problems contribute to misidentification in the field and incorrect or uncertain assignment of newly discovered species.

Salvator rufescens. JCM

Harvey et al. (2012) found that despite advances within particular groups, systematics of the Teiidae has long been unsatisfactory, because few morphological characters have been described for this family. Consequently, most species have been assigned to the large, polyphyletic, and poorly defined genera of Ameiva and Cnemidophorus. They describe 137 morphological characters and score them for most species of the Neotropical Teiidae. Important, but previously undescribed, character suites are detailed in the article and result in a new taxonomy of the Teiidae based on recovered evolutionary history and numerous morphological characters surveyed in this study. The authors recognize three subfamilies: Callopistinae new subfamily, Teiinae Estes et al., and Tupinambinae Estes et al. They resolve the polyphyly of Ameiva and Cnemidophorus, by establishing four new genera for various groups of Neotropical Teiidae: Ameivula new genus, Aurivela new genus, Contomastix new genus, and Medopheos new genus. They resurrect Holcosus Cope from the synonymy of Ameiva and Salvator Duméril and Bibron from the synonymy of Tupinambis. On the basis of shared derived characters, they propose new species groups of our redefined Ameiva and Cnemidophorus. We incorporate our new characters into a key to the genera and species groups of Teiidae. A phylogenetic hypothesis of Teiidae based on morphological characters differs substantially from hypotheses based on mitochondrial DNA. The phylogeny based on morphology is consistent with well-established biogeographic patterns of Neotropical vertebrates and explains extreme morphological divergence in such genera as Kentropyx and Aurivela.

Harvey, M.B., Ugento, G.N., Gutberlet, RL. 2012. Review of Teiid Morphology with a Revised Taxonomy and Phylogeny of the Teiidae (Lepidosauria: Squamata). Zootaxa 3459:1-156.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Visual Depiction of Vertebrate Biodiversity Distribution

The following is a post placedon the website yesterday (September 5) its author Clinton Jenkins is a Research Scholar in the Biology Department at North Carolina State University. Clinton specializes in using spatial analysis and remote-sensing technologies to answer conservation questions and identify priorities for action. The images are remarkable because they visually portray vertebrate biodiversity on the planet.

The variety of life on Earth is not spread evenly, but is concentrated in very special places. SavingSpecies has been working to map the diversity of vertebrate life across the world and thereby identify the very best places where we can protect and restore the most biodiversity for the buck. These beautiful new maps, seen here for the first time, illustrate some of the intriguing patterns of life in the world. As well as being gorgeous images of life’s diversity, the maps help us use science to prioritize our conservation efforts.

Map 1. World map of color coded density of endemic vertebrate species. (Click image for larger version.)

In our first view (Map 1), we see colors that indicate the highest concentrations of the number of animal species across the world’s land masses. Deep reds and yellows cover much of the tropics, indicating a huge number of species. The world’s high latitudes and its deserts are blue, indicating relatively low vertebrate diversity. We can see clear geographic and geological patterns in these maps of life.

In the globe below (Map 2), we take a closer look at biodiversity in the Americas. The deep reds of Amazonian diversity stretch west into the Andes, but as one crosses over the Andes and toward the Pacific coast, total diversity drops off rapidly into greens and blues.
Map 2. Color coded number of vertebrate species in the Americas. (Click for larger map.)

The different vertebrate groups do not follow the same patterns. If we split our map (Map 3) into its three constituent animal groups (birds, mammals, and amphibians*), then our view of the world begins to change. Below we show this split view for the Americas. The Amazon region is certainly diverse for everything, but we can see that the amphibians show exceptional concentrations of species in far western Amazonia. Both amphibians and birds show a peak of diversity in the southeast of Brazil, where SavingSpecies has been actively supporting local conservation.

Map 3. South America showing color coded density of endemic species of birds (left), mammals (middle), and amphibians (right). *For now, we can represent only the birds, mammals, and amphibians, because the reptiles and fish are still too poorly known to produce such detailed maps. (Click for larger map.)

However, from previous work we know that not all species are equally prone to extinction. Some animals have exceptionally small ranges, making them particularly vulnerable. It is these species and their homes that most concern us here at SavingSpecies. They are the low-hanging fruit for preventing extinction. But where are those species? Well, they are in the truly special places of the world. For birds, the Andes are simply unparalleled for their concentrations of rare birds (bright yellow and red streaks in Map 4). Within the Americas, only southeastern Brazil and parts of Central America come close to showing such concentrations of rare birds. Rare mammals are concentrated in much the same pattern.

Map 4. In the Andes, endemic bird species are highly concentrated in narrow ranges. (Click for larger map.)

For amphibians, the concentration of these super-rare species is even more extreme. The map below (Map 5) shows how a handful of small regions in the Andes have exceptional concentrations of rare amphibians. In these and nearby regions scientists are discovering many new amphibians, just at the time when their habitats are disappearing faster than ever before. SavingSpecies’ newest project, in collaboration with Colombia’s The Hummingbird Conservancy, has identified such an area, near Medellin, in which nine new species of frogs were recently discovered.

Our project in southeast Brazil’s Atlantic forest is similarly focused on areas of high endemism, protecting species with very small ranges in our effort to prevent their extinction. Initial reports are that our Brazil project is meeting with considerable and earlier-than expected success. (Read my progress report from August 2011.) But that’s a topic for another blog post. For now, let’s just say that with this work, using such maps to identify areas with the most species at the highest risk of extinction, our donors’ dollars will save species.

Map 5. South America showing color coded density of endemic amphibian species. (Click for larger map.)

Thanks to Félix Pharand-Deschênes at Globaïa ( for help in designing the biodiversity globes. Original data on the distributions of bird species are from BirdLife (BirdLife 2011) and for mammals and amphibians are from the IUCN (IUCN 2010), who distribute data from the Global Mammal and Global Amphibian Assessments. Threatened species are those considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. BirdLife (2011) Bird species distribution maps of the world. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK and NatureServe, Arlington, USA.

Altering the Planet, Loss of tropical forests reduces rain

Amphibians and reptiles are adapted to rainfall, and use the rain
or lack of it as cues for a variety of behaviors.

Deforestation can have a significant effect on tropical rainfall, new research confirms. The findings have potentially devastating impacts for people living in and near the Amazon and Congo forests.

A team from the University of Leeds and the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology found that for the majority of the Earth's tropical land surface, air passing over extensive forests produces at least twice as much rain as air passing over little vegetation. In some cases these forests increased rainfall thousands of kilometres away.

By combining observational data with predictions of future deforestation, the researchers estimate that destruction of tropical forests would reduce rain across the Amazon basin by up to a fifth (21 per cent) in the dry season by 2050. The study is published today in Nature.

Lead author Dr Dominick Spracklen from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds said: "We were surprised to find that this effect occurs strongly across more than half of the tropics. We found that the Amazon and Congo forests maintain rainfall over the periphery of the forest basins - regions where large numbers of people live and rely on rainfall for their livelihoods.

"Our study implies that deforestation of the Amazon and Congo forests could have catastrophic consequences for the people living thousands of kilometres away in surrounding countries."

Scientists have debated whether vegetation increases rainfall for hundreds of years. It is well established that plants put moisture back in the air through their leaves by a process known as evapotranspiration, but the quantity and geographical reach of rainfall generated by large forests has – until now – been unclear. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that forests significantly increase rainfall, until now there has been a lack of observational evidence.

The team used newly available NASA satellite observations of rainfall and vegetation, along with a model which predicts atmospheric wind flow patterns, to explore the impact of the Earth's tropical forests.

"We looked at what had been happening to the air over previous days – where it came from and how much forest it had travelled over," Dr Spracklen said.

To understand the relationship in detail, they investigated the journey of air masses arriving over different parts of the forest, to see the cumulative amount of leaf cover the air had moved over during the previous ten days, not just the amount of vegetation it was over when it rained. This showed that the more vegetation the air had travelled over, the more moisture it carried and more rain was produced.

Dr Stephen Arnold from the University of Leeds, a co-author on the paper, said: "The observations show that to understand how forests impact rainfall, we need to account for how air has interacted with vegetation during its journey through the atmosphere often over thousands of kilometres. This has significant implications for how policy makers should consider the environmental impacts of deforestation, since its effects on rainfall patterns may be felt not only locally, but on a continental scale."

Dr Spracklen said the findings showed the importance of initiatives to protect tropical forests. "Brazil has recently made progress in slowing the historically high rates of deforestation across the Amazon and our study emphasises that this progress must be maintained if impacts on rainfall are to be avoided.

"The Amazon forest maintains rainfall over important agricultural regions of Southern Brazil, while preserving the forests of the Congo Basin increases rainfall in regions of Southern Africa where rainfed agriculture is important. Increased drought in these regions would have severe implications for their mostly subsistence farmers."

First Invasive Python Found on Key Largo

The following story was posted on It provides evidence that the introduced pythons are expanding their range into the Florida Keys. 

A python found on Key Largo late Friday did not go quietly.

At about 11 feet long, the python apparently is the largest invasive-exotic snake yet captured in the Florida Keys.

"The officers who captured it said this one was very nasty," said Officer Robert Dube, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildife Conservation Commission.

That's why the wildlife agency noted the python "is not believed to be someone's escaped pet."

"Usually snakes that have been kept in cages and handled regularly are more docile," Dube explained. "This one was ready to fight."

Deputy Bryan Cross of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office was on patrol around 11 p.m. Friday when he spotted the python near mile 105.

The snake slithered into a heavily wooded lot, but the deputy followed it while calling for wildlife officers.

FWC Officers Jason Rafter, Kip Hoover and Shelton Bartlet came to corral and capture the potentially dangerous reptile.

Several pythons have been captured in the Keys but numbers are not recorded. "We've probably been averaging about one a year for several years now," Dube said.

In November, a 7-foot python was found on a Key Colony Beach driveway.

The first python ever discovered on Key Largo was found when researchers tracking a Key Largo woodrat with a radio collar followed the signal straight to the snake's belly.

The previous largest python from the Keys measured about 10 feet, 6 inches.

For several years, it was believed that the pythons found in the Keys probably were released or escaped pets.

However, research conducted in 2011 by U.S. Geological Survey staff demonstrated that pythons apparently have the ability to survive in salt water - meaning the reptiles may be able to swim across Florida Bay from the Everglades.

A python killed in the Everglades earlier this year measured a record 17 feet, 7 inches, and was carrying 87 eggs.

Constrictor snakes like pythons are considered a menace to native wildlife in Florida. Captured constrictor snakes usually are killed for research into their eating habits.

Suzio Report: One From Mart Feldner

Howdy Herpers,

As Marty suggests below, on the evening of 1 September, I left him and Hans-Werner Herrmann with a receiver, and turned them loose. I chose the wrong night to be "uncooperative," because one of the coolest events I've ever heard of involving a ringtail and a black-tailed rattlesnake occurred.

Marty was kind enough to do a write up for our team, and I leave you with his words and images.

We really have a good team out in paradise these days. Best to all, roger
Marty Feldner takes over: We started off the most recent Suizo adventure with a colorful sunset while walking around looking for tortoises...none of which were found. Shortly after tortoises proved evasive and uncooperative Roger departed leaving HW and me to bear witness to nocturnal events.

The first snake tracked was female tiger CT8 that was hunkered down and not visible in a large fortress of hackberry. Female atrox CA121 was next and was found coiled on a 'wash island' in Suizo Wash. Shortly after CA121 came into sight a tarantula entered the open area a couple meters beyond CA121 with a trajectory that would bring it near where she was coiled. The picture shows a tongue-flicking CA121 where she's extended her head slightly from her coils as the tarantula passed. I thought that was what I saw but waited until I confirmed it on the pictures taken and, she did; she extended her head when the tarantula passed and withdrew it back to the normal position of a resting hunting coil afterward.

Next, we climbed Iron Mine Hill tracking female molossus CM10 to find a beep coming from underneath a large boulder. Before leaving we tuned in the signal for male molossus CM11 and, as Roger correctly guessed, his beep was coming from the same unobservable location as CM10's. Back into Suizo Wash male tiger CT14 was tracked to a tangle of ragweed where he remained unseen. Then, with the tired and hungry HW ready for a beer and dinner we headed back to the hill to track the last snake of the night; the big boy, male molossus CM12. On the way the cable for the antenna got tangled in a bush and as I spun to relieve pressure and undo the snag a short buzz came from a couple feet behind the heel of my boot and, as I turned, a new female tiger was breaking coil and heading towards the nearby prickly pear.
The new tiger was bagged so blood could be taken and a PIT tag implanted. Back to tracking CM12 we found him on the crawl in a bouldery area a short distance uphill from an area previously used by female molossus CM10. Under the boulders there was a stick midden and
CM12 headed under the boulder.
A few minutes passed and from the bushes and boulders a couple meters below a ringtail emerges and moves up to check out the midden. The ringtail notices company and vanishes...only to circle around and re-emerge on the rocks above us.

For the next half hour CM12 crawls up, over, back and forth throughout the boulders as if he might be tracking a female and during the entire time the ringtail is moving about the area keeping an eye on the Saturday night entertainment. A couple times the ringtail comes close to the snake, seemingly interested. During the closest encounter the ringtail came within a foot on the snake and was perched on a rock slightly above the snake with the fore part of its body lifted off the rock eyes and ears forward and directed at the snake while it sniffed at the air. The snake appeared to be equally aware of the ringtail. The morning tracking session reinforced what we had suspected the night before; snakes are moving. We handed off male tiger CT10 to Roger and Gordon when we found it moved out past where we parked instead of being south of the road to the parking area where the signal came from the night before. At least female tiger CT13 was where she was supposed to be based on the previous day's checking of signal locations. She was tucked into some prickly pear near the edge of a small wash.
From there we headed out to track male tiger CT11 and found him deep in a prickly pear strewn atop a coiled female where he head-jerked slightly above the female...or else it would have been chin-rubbing. CT11 took obvious notice of me as I climbed under the nearby plants to get a picture but went right back to the object of his interest after I retreated.

The next snake checked was CM15, the new female molossus found with male molossus CM14 the previous week. 

CM15 was pulled out of her crevice Sunday morning, had surgery Monday and was released at her capture site Tuesday and, what do you know? She's back to using the crevice she was she was initially found in. Male CM14, who was found with CM15 the previous week and whose signal the night before indicated he was still close to her was nowhere nearby. He had moved to the other side of Iron Mine Hill where he was found on the crawl before taking refuge at the base of a boulder.
So, after essentially circumventing Iron Mine Hill HW and I headed over the top to try and get female tiger CM12's signal which we weren't able to get previously. We get a signal and a general idea of a direction from the top of the hill and head off into the bajada where we lose the signal, walk all the way out to Park Link searching and finally find the signal and follow it to female tiger CT12 coiled at the base of prickly pear close to the location she used at the end of July.
Then it was time for beer, mussels and brats!