New species of iridescent snake discovered in Vietnam

The species is from a family of burrowing snakes 

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 09 December 2020 18:38 GMT
The iridescent scales of the newly discovered Achalinus zugorum
The iridescent scales of the newly discovered Achalinus zugorum
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In the lush green forests of northern Vietnam, a team of scientists researching biodiversity stumbled across a stunning new species of snake almost by accident.

The team of US and Vietnamese scientists were researching the ecology of landscapes among limestone karst formations, rivers and valleys of a heavily forested part of northern Vietnam last year. They undertook night hikes which took them wading along rivers and streams and wandering through jungles, catching and recording information about a broad variety of the region’s flora and fauna.

But it was only while they were on their way to a survey site that the scientists spotted a snake on the road and stopped to investigate it.

The creature had dark iridescent scales, which shifted almost like a hologram from electric blue to acid green in the light, and they were laid out in an unusual pattern.

Instead of the scales lying one across the other as is usual among snakes, the ridged scales lay in what is known as a “keeled” pattern, and gives rise to the nickname “odd-scaled snakes”.

Until this snake was found, keeled scales had only been recorded in 13 species, six of which were from Vietnam.

Furthermore, the snake had unusual eyes, lacking photoreceptors, suggesting it spent most of its life underground or below leaflitter in the forest.

The team knew immediately they had found a new species.

“In 22 years of surveying reptiles in Vietnam, I have collected only six odd-scaled snakes,” said Truong Nguyen, vice director of the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, according to a blog post on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s website.

“This is one of the most poorly-studied groups of reptiles.”

The species, part of the  rare genus Achalinus is from a family of burrowing snakes which branched from the evolutionary tree earlier than most other groups.

For this reason, they look and behave unlike many other snakes and could help scientists understand more about snake evolution.

The research team named the new species Achalinus zugorum in honor of the Smithsonian’s retired curator of reptiles and amphibians, George Zug, and his wife, Patricia Zug, the blog post said.

“It’s part of a group of species that has some odd characteristics,” said Dr Kevin de Queiroz, co-author on the paper and curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Smithsonian.

“These snakes have fairly small scales, with skin exposed between them.”

The scientists plan to continue surveying and searching for new species in the area, and are hoping to inspire better protection for the local environment.

“The goal is to eventually find ways for the environment and people to coexist,” said lead author Aryeh Miller, a research fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a graduate student at Washington University in St Louis.

The region faces environmental impacts from deforestation, construction and the overharvesting of species.

“It's happening so quickly that we can't keep up,” he added.

“Some of the species unique to this region are gone before they're even described.”

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