Deep breath: this sea snake gathers oxygen through its forehead



Hydrophis cyanocinctus has a mysterious hole in the top of its skull.
Alessandro Palci, Author provided

Alessandro Palci, Flinders University and Kate Sanders, University of Adelaide

Only fish have gills, right? Wrong. Meet Hydrophis cyanocinctus, a snake that can breathe through the top of its own head.

The 3m species, which is native to Australian and Asian coastal waters, can draw in oxygen with the help of a unique set of blood vessels below the skin in its snout and forehead.

The network of blood vessels works very similarly to a fish’s gills, and represents a newly discovered addition to the extraordinary range of adaptations that sea snakes use to thrive below the waves.




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In evolutionary terms, sea snakes are relative newcomers to aquatic life, having evolved from land-based snakes only about 16 million years ago. This is much more recent than marine mammals such as whales and dugongs, which arose around 50 million years ago.

The roughly 60 known species of sea snakes have nevertheless developed an impressive array of adaptations to marine life. These include salt glands under the tongue, nostrils that face upwards and can be sealed by valves, paddle-like tails to facilitate swimming, and the ability to absorb oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide through their skin.

Some sea snakes have even evolved light sensors on the tips of their tails, possibly as a way to avoid having them nibbled off by predators when partially hidden in crevices.

An Arabian Gulf sea snake (Hydrophis lapemoides) in its natural environment.
Keith DP Wilson/flickr

A mysterious hole in the skull

Just when we thought we had uncovered all the strange things sea snakes do, we discovered something new. As we report today in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the annulated sea snake Hydrophis cyanocinctus effectively has a set of gills on its forehead.

The first sign of something unusual was an odd hole (in anatomical terms, a “foramen”, the Latin word for “hole”) in the roof of this species’ skull.

This hole is reminiscent of the “pineal foramen” found in several lizard species, which contains a tiny light-sensitive organ called the pineal eye. Could sea snakes also have a pineal eye?

No trace of such a foramen has ever been found in a modern snake. In fact, snakes are thought to have lost the pineal foramen at least 100 million years ago, which is the age of the oldest reasonably complete fossil snakes.

However, because some sea snakes have light-sensitive organs in their tails, we couldn’t rule out the possibility of a light-sensitive organ reappearing in its ancestral position in the skull – snakes did evolve from lizards, after all.

Not an eye, but a lung

We decided to investigate this unexpected foramen in H. cyanocinctus more closely. We obtained some live specimens from Vietnam, where sea snakes are commonly sold as food in fish markets, and generated images of the soft tissues around the foramen using a combination of traditional and computer-assisted methods.

Head of the annulated sea snake (Hydrophis cyanocinctus) and its blood vessels (highlighted after digitally removing muscles and skin). Note the large vein connecting the network of blood vessels on top of the skull to the inside of the braincase (arrow).
Alessandro Palci, Author provided

These images revealed that this snake does not have a pineal eye. What actually goes through the mysterious hole in its skull is a large blood vessel (sometimes paired). This blood vessel then travels forward and branches into a complex network of veins and sinuses immediately under the skin of the forehead and snout.

We then examined other snakes, both terrestrial and marine, using the same methods, and realised that this network of blood vessels in H. cyanocinctus is unique.




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While a network of blood vessels is expected to be present under the skin of all snakes, what is special about H. cyanocinctus is the greatly exaggerated size of the blood vessels and the fact that they converge towards a single large vein that goes into the brain.

Gills on top of the head

This strange network of blood vessels makes sense when we consider that sea snakes can breathe through their skin. This happens thanks to arteries containing much lower oxygen concentrations than the surrounding seawater, which allows oxygen to diffuse through the skin and into the blood.

However, these low oxygen levels in arterial blood can cause problems, because the brain may not get the oxygen it needs. The dense network of veins on the forehead and snout of these sea snakes helps solve this problem by picking up oxygen from seawater and redistributing it to the brain while swimming underwater.

If you think that sounds similar to what fish do with their gills, you’re absolutely right. H. cyanocinctus has managed to evolve a respiratory system that works in much the same way as gills, despite the vast evolutionary distance between these two groups of species. Truly, these snakes are indeed creatures of the sea.The Conversation

Alessandro Palci, Research Associate in Evolutionary Biology, Flinders University and Kate Sanders, Senior lecturer, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In the remote Cambodian jungles, we made sure rare Siamese crocodiles would have enough food



The Siamese Crocodile once lived in Southeast Asian freshwater rivers, but now fewer than 1000 individuals exist.
Shutterstock

Paul McInerney, La Trobe University

For nine hours, my colleague Michael Shackleton and I held onto our scooters for dear life while being slapped in the face by spiked jungle plants in the mountains of Cambodia. We only disembarked either to help push a scooter up a slippery jungle path or to stop it from sliding down one.

With our gear loaded up on nine scooters – 200 metres of fishing nets, two inflatable kayaks, food for five days, hammocks, preservation gear for collection of DNA, and other assorted scientific instruments – we at last arrived at one of the few remaining sites known to harbour the critically endangered Siamese crocodiles.




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The Siamese crocodile once lived in Southeast Asian freshwater rivers from Indonesia to Myanmar. But now, fewer than 1000 breeding individuals remain.

In fact, during the 1990s the species was thought to be completely extinct in the wild. Then, in 2000, scientists from Fauna and Flora International found a tiny population in the remote Cardamom Mountains region of Cambodia.

We travelled to this remote wilderness in 2017 to determine habitat suitability for the reintroduction of captive-bred juvenile Siamese crocodiles. We wanted to understand the food web there to see whether it contains enough fish to sustain the young crocs.

Our journey would not have been possible without the help of Community Crocodile Wardens – local community members who patrol the jungle sanctuaries for threats and record crocodile presence. Wardens also conduct crocodile surveys further afield to discover new populations or to identify new areas of potential suitable crocodile habitat for juvenile releases.

Our recent study found to ensure the species survives, reintroduction locations must be protected from fishing pressure – both from a food supply perspective, but also from risk of entanglement in nets.

A species in decline

When we arrived at our site, northwest of the village of Thmor Bang, our day was capped by what we came to know as the standard evening downpour, despite assurances that we had, in fact, timed our trip for the dry season.

Kayaks were inflated, nets set, and sampling was underway. This proved laborious – to ensure crocodiles didn’t drown, we couldn’t leave nets unattended in the water overnight, but instead checked them every hour until morning.

Siamese crocodiles are generally not aggressive to humans, but they come into conflict with people when caught in fishing nets.

This often leads to the crocodile drowning and the fishing net being ruined. It’s a disaster on both counts, because fish is the only source of protein for many local communities in Cambodia.

Like many other apex predators around the world, the Siamese crocodile is also in decline because of habitat destruction and poaching for their skins.

Their potential large size and generally placid nature means they are highly prized by crocodile farmers who use the skins for handbags and footwear. Crocodile farmers also often hybridise the Siamese crocodiles with other non-native crocodile species.




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Scientists at work: bridging the divide between development and conservation in Cambodia


This means programs for Siamese crocodile reintroduction and breeding must carefully genetically screen all young crocodiles bred in captivity to make sure they’re not actually hybrids, so the “genetically pure” wild populations can remain.

Finding fish bones in croc poo

Despite a pretty good understanding of captive Siamese crocodile behaviour and biology, very little is known about Siamese crocodiles in the wild, such as what they eat or how much food they need to raise an egg to adulthood.

Our only reliable indication of diet comes from scats (crocodile poo or “shit of croc” as we came to call it) collected along the river banks inhabited by remnant populations.

Carefully collected poo samples containing scales and bones tell us fish and snakes make up a significant proportion of the Siamese crocodile diet.

But the shrouded, mystical, extremely remote and virtually inaccessible jungle in the Cardamom Mountains has ensured we know next to nothing about fish communities within habitats set for the release of captive crocodile. And this information is particularly important for prioritising release locations for captive bred juveniles.




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We spent four days sampling fish communities and then repeated the process at two other equally remote locations within the Cardamoms, requiring two days travel between each.

We saw groups of gibbons moving through the forest and macaques climbing down from trees to drink at the river. But at last we spotted a wild Siamese crocodile after dark, swimming in our morning bathing pool, on our second-last day.

Ultimately, we distinguished 13 species of fish from the Cardamom Mountains, confirming the presence of two previously unconfirmed species groups for the region.

What’s more, we found fish density was highest in areas with more Siamese crocodiles, and lowest in areas with more human fishing pressure.




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Staying safe in crocodile country: culling isn’t the answer


Understanding the food web of crocodile reintroduction sites is important, because conservation managers need to understand the ecological carrying capacity of the system – the number of individual crocodiles that can be supported in a given habitat. Learning this is especially important when historical information does not exist.

Preservation of fish stocks within Siamese crocodile habitats is critical for survival of the species. But a key challenge for natural resource managers of the Cardamom Mountains is balancing crocodile density with local fishing necessity, and to do this, we need more information on Siamese crocodile biology.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research Fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why we’re not giving up the search for mainland Australia’s ‘first extinct lizard’



A grassland earless dragon at Jerrabomberra, NSW, November 1991. The search is now on for this species’ Victorian cousin.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Jane Melville, Museums Victoria

You may have seen news in recent days of the suspected demise of the Victorian grassland earless dragon – now thought to be the first lizard species to be driven to extinction by humans in mainland Australia.

That suspicion arose on the basis of a newly published study in Royal Society Open Science by our research team, in which we discovered that the grassland earless dragons of southeastern Australia are not a single species, but four distinct ones: one that lives around Canberra, two in New South Wales, and one restricted to the Melbourne region.

The most recent confident sighting of the Melbourne species was 50 years ago, in 1969 – hence the fears that the Victorian species has already succumbed.

But despite this worrying news, we’re not leaving this lizard for dead just yet. Conservationists are now combing remaining grassland around Melbourne in a search for survivors.




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Although no lizard species have previously been declared extinct on the Australian mainland, the grassland earless dragons (Tympanocryptis) of southeastern Australia have long been the subject of conservation concern. Even before being split into four separate species, they were already officially listed as endangered.

The Victorian grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is known only to occur in the native grasslands around Melbourne. A review of historical collections at Museums Victoria show that it was found at several locations including Sunbury, Maribyrnong River (then called “Saltwater River”), and as far west as the Geelong area until the late 1960s.

Although there is little information available about the ecology of this species, it was described by Lucas and Frost in 1894 as:

Inhabiting stony plains and retreating into small holes, like those of the ‘Trap-door Spider,’ in the ground when alarmed […] Often met with under loose basalt boulders.

The last confirmed sighting was near Geelong in July 1969.

First mainland extinction?

Globally, 31 reptiles have been listed as extinct or extinct in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List, the global authority on the status of species. Two skinks and one gecko species have been declared extinct in the wild on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. But until now there have been no recorded reptile extinctions on the Australian mainland.

Yet it is too early to give up on the Australian grassland earless dragon. Zoos Victoria researchers have completed a mapping analysis of potential grassland habitats. But this doesn’t give us enough information to say whether or not any grassland earless dragons remain.

There are several factors that leave open the possibility that the Victorian grassland earless dragon is still clinging to survival. There are some remaining habitat areas that have not yet been surveyed, and this species is small, secretive and hard to find. We urgently need more surveys to try and find any remaining populations.




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If these lizards are not yet extinct, their protection will clearly become an urgent conservation priority. But it is hard to develop a conservation program without knowing where the target species actually lives, or indeed whether it is still alive at all.

Zoos Victoria is now leading a campaign, alongside expert ecologists and local communities, to try and confirm the presence or absence of the Victorian grassland earless dragon. This involves various methods, including habitat mapping, camera trapping, and active searching. The team is also working to identify unsurveyed areas that might potentially be home to these elusive lizards.

Last year the team deployed a series of small pitfall traps at two locations in Little River. Unfortunately, no earless dragons were detected during the survey and few lizards of any species were caught, despite the fact that these locations seemed to offer appropriate food and habitat.

The team is not giving up yet and is committed to continuing the search, with Zoos Victoria researchers having identified sites with suitable habitat both within and outside of the historical distribution, which they aim to survey intensively over the coming years. Meanwhile, reptile keepers at Zoos Victoria are developing husbandry techniques to help look after the grassland earless dragon species from Canberra and NSW.

The conservation challenge has got harder, because where previously we were tasked with looking after one species, we now have to safeguard at least three – and hopefully four!


This article is based on a blog post that originally appeared here. It was coauthored by Adam Lee and Deon Gilbert of Zoos Victoria.The Conversation

Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The first known case of eggs plus live birth from one pregnancy in a tiny lizard


Melanie Laird, University of Otago and Camilla Whittington, University of Sydney

For most animals, reproduction is straightforward: some species lay eggs, while others give birth to live babies.

But our recent research uncovered a fascinating mix between the two modes of reproduction. In an Australian skink, we observed the first example of both egg-laying and live-bearing within a single litter for any backboned animal.

This suggests some lizards can “hedge their bets” reproductively, taking a punt on both eggs and live-born babies to improve overall survival chances for offspring.




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Making reproductive leaps

Most vertebrate species (animals with a backbone) fall neatly into one of two distinctly different reproductive categories.

Oviparous species are egg-layers. These eggs may undergo external fertilisation – such as in spawning fish – or are fertilised and shelled internally, like those of reptiles and birds. Oviparous embryos rely on egg yolk as a source of nutrition to continue development until hatching.

In contrast, viviparous species are live bearers that carry their young to term. Some live-bearing species, including humans, support embryonic development internally via a placenta. Egg-laying is ancestral, meaning that modern live-bearers have descended from egg-laying ancestors.

Physiologically, the evolution of live birth from egg-laying is no mean feat. This transition requires a whole suite of changes, sometimes including the evolution of a placenta – an entirely new specialist organ – as well as loss of the hard outer eggshell, and keeping the embryo inside the body for a longer time.

The placenta is a highly complex organ. One of its jobs is to transfer nutrition to the developing baby.
from www.shutterstock.com

Despite these complex steps, reptiles, particularly snakes and lizards, appear to be unusually predisposed to making the leap to live birth. This capacity has evolved in at least 115 groups of reptiles independently.




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Having it both ways

It’s easy to see why reptiles, as a group, are fascinating models for studying how live birth evolves from egg-laying.

Of particular interest are two Australian skinks that have both live-bearing and egg-laying individuals (known as being bimodally reproductive). These lizards are incredibly valuable to evolutionary biologists as they offer a snapshot into evolutionary processes in action.

The three-toed skink Saiphos equalis is one such species. Reproduction in S. equalis varies geographically: populations around Sydney lay eggs, while those further north give birth to live young.

Whether individuals are live-bearing or egg-laying seems to be genetically determined: when researchers swap their environmental conditions (by moving them from one site to another), the females retain their original reproductive strategy.




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Mothers know best

Our latest research shows this lizard is intriguing in another completely unexpected way.

We observed a live-bearing female that laid three eggs, and then gave birth to a living baby from the same litter weeks later. We incubated two of the eggs, one of which hatched to produce a healthy baby.

A live-bearing female S. equalis in our laboratory colony laid three eggs, one of which hatched to produce a healthy baby.
Camilla Whittington

This finding is remarkable for two reasons. First, as far as we are aware, this is the first example of both egg-laying and live birth within a single litter for any vertebrate.

Second, in some cases, individuals may be capable of “switching” between reproductive modes. In other words, as laying eggs and giving birth each come with their own advantages and disadvantages, individuals may be able to “choose” which option best suits the current situation.

Closer look at eggshells

To better understand this reproductive phenomenon, we investigated the structure of the egg coverings of these unusual embryos in minute detail (using an advanced technology called scanning electron microscopy).

We found that in this litter, the egg-coverings were thinner than those of normal egg-laying skinks and had structural characteristics that overlapped with those of both egg-layers and live-bearers (which have thinner coverings that are greatly reduced).

Egg coverings of S. equalis consist of an outer crust (C) and an inner shell membrane (SM). We compared the structure and thicknesses of these layers of both egg-laying (A) and live-bearing (B) S. equalis to identify similarities with our ‘unusual’ embryos (C).
Melanie Laird

How evolution works

We still don’t know the trigger that caused this female to lay eggs and give birth to a live baby from the same pregnancy.

However, our findings suggest that species “in transition” between egg-laying and live bearing may hedge their bets reproductively before a true transition to live birth evolves.

Being able to switch between reproductive modes may be advantageous, particularly in changing or uncertain environments.

The three-toed skink lives in eastern Australia.
Doug Beckers / flickr, CC BY

For example, extreme cold, drought or the presence of predators can be risky for vulnerable eggs exposed to the environment, meaning that mothers that can carry offspring to term may have the upper hand.

In contrast, lengthy pregnancies can be taxing on the mother, so depositing offspring earlier as an egg may be beneficial in some situations.

We suggest that other species in which live birth has evolved from egg-laying relatively recently may also use flexible reproductive tactics.

Further research into this small Australian lizard, which seems to occupy the grey area between live birth and egg-laying, will help us determine how and why species make major reproductive leaps.




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The Conversation


Melanie Laird, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Otago and Camilla Whittington, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banning exotic leather in fashion hurts snakes and crocodiles in the long run


File 20190326 139349 ur5jll.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Yellow anaconda (snake) skins pegged to dry by indigenous people in Argentina.
Tomas Waller, Author provided

Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.

We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.

The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.

But this decision is not supported by evidence.




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Too simplistic

Banning the use of animal skins in the fashion industry sounds straightforward and may seem commendable – wild reptiles will be left in peace, instead of being killed for the luxury leather trade.

But decades of research show that by walking away from the commercial trade in reptile skins, Selfridges may well achieve the opposite to what it intends. Curtailing commercial trade will be a disaster for some wild populations of reptiles.

How can that be true? Surely commercial harvesting is a threat to the tropical reptiles that are collected and killed for their skins?

Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.

If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?

Women raise Burmese pythons at a small farm on Hainan Island, China.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided



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Biggest man-eaters in the billabong

The iconic case study that supports this principle involves saltwater crocodiles in tropical Australia – the biggest, meanest man-eaters in the billabong.

Overharvested to the point of near-extinction, the giant reptiles were finally protected in the Northern Territory in 1971. The populations started to recover, but by 1979-80, when attacks on people started to occur again, the public and politicians wanted the crocodiles culled again. It’s difficult to blame them for that. Who wants a hungry croc in the pond where your children would like to swim?

Saltwater crocs are the reason many beaches are not open for swimming in northern Australia.
Shutterstock

But fast-forward to now and that situation has changed completely. Saltwater crocs are back to their original abundance. Their populations bounced back. These massive reptiles are now in every river and creek – even around the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.

This spectacular conservation success story was achieved not by protecting crocs, but by making crocs a financial asset to local people.

Eggs are collected from the wild every year, landowners get paid for them, and the resulting hatchlings go to crocodile farms where they are raised, then killed to provide luxury leather items, meat and other products. Landowners have a financial interest in conserving crocodiles and their habitats because they profit from it.

Saltwater crocodile eggs collected in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided

The key to the success was buy-in by the community. There are undeniable negatives in having large crocodiles as neighbours – but if those crocs can contribute to the family budget, you may want to keep them around. In Australia, it has worked.

The trade in giant pythons in Indonesia, Australia’s northern neighbour, has been examined in the same way, and the conclusion is the same. The harvest is sustainable because it provides cash to local people, in a society where cash is difficult to come by.




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Decisions without evidence

A collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina.
Emilio White, Author provided

So the evidence says commercial exploitation can conserve populations, not annihilate them.

Why then do companies make decisions that could imperil wild animals? Probably because they don’t know any better.

Media campaigns by animal-rights activists aim to convince kind-hearted urbanites that the best way to conserve animals is to stop people from harming them. This might work for some animals, but it fails miserably for wild reptiles.

We argue that if we want to keep wild populations of giant snakes and crocodiles around for our grandchildren to see (hopefully, at a safe distance), we need to abandon simplistic “feelgood conservation” and look towards evidence-based scientific management.

We need to move beyond “let’s not harm that beautiful animal” and get serious about looking at the hard evidence. And when it comes to giant reptiles, the answer is clear.

The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Adjunct Professor, Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Snake venom can vary in a single species — and it’s not just about adaptation to their prey


Wolfgang Wüster, Bangor University and Giulia Zancolli, Université de Lausanne

Few sights and sounds are as emblematic of the North American southwest as a defensive rattlesnake, reared up, buzzing, and ready to strike. The message is loud and clear, “Back off! If you don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you.” Any intruders who fail to heed the warning can expect to fall victim to a venomous bite.

But the consequences of that bite are surprisingly unpredictable. Snake venoms are complex cocktails made up of dozens of individual toxins that attack different parts of the target’s body. The composition of these cocktails is highly variable, even within single species. Biologists have come to assume that most of this variation reflects adaptation to what prey the snakes eat in the wild. But our study of the Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus, also known as the Mojave rattlesnake) has uncovered an intriguing exception to this rule.

What’s in those glands? It depends where you are!
W. Wüster

A 20-minute drive can take you from a population of this rattlesnake species with a highly lethal neurotoxic venom, causing paralysis and shock, to one with a haemotoxic venom, causing swelling, bruising, blistering and bleeding. The neurotoxic venom (known as venom A) can be more than ten times as lethal as the haemotoxic venom (venom B), at least to lab mice.

The Mohave rattlesnake is not alone in having different venoms like this – several other rattlesnake species display the same variation. But why do we see these differences? Snake venom evolved to subdue and kill prey. One venom may be better at killing one prey species, while another may be more toxic to different prey. Natural selection should favour different venoms in snakes eating different prey – it’s a classic example of evolution through natural selection.

This idea that snake venom varies due to adaptation to eating different prey has become widely accepted among herpetologists and toxinologists. Some have found correlations between venom and prey. Others have shown prey-specific lethality of venoms, or identified toxins fine-tuned for killing the snakes’ natural prey. The venom of some snakes even changes along with their diet as they grow.

We expected the Mohave rattlesnake to be a prime example of this phenomenon. The extreme differences in venom composition, toxicity and mode of action (whether it is neurotoxic or haemotoxic) seem an obvious target for natural selection for different prey. And yet, when we correlated differences in venom composition with regional diet, we were shocked to find there is no link.

Variable venoms

In the absence of adaptation to local diet, we expected to see a connection between gene flow (transfer of genetic material between populations) and venom composition. Populations with ample gene flow would be expected to have more similar venoms than populations that are genetically less connected. But once again, we drew a blank – there is no link between gene flow and venom. This finding, together with the geographic segregation of the two populations with different venoms, suggests that instead there is strong local selection for venom type.

Mohave rattlesnake feeding on a kangaroo rat, one of its most common prey items.
W. Wüster

The next step in our research was to test for links between venom and the physical environment. Finally, we found some associations. The haemotoxic venom is found in rattlesnakes which live in an area which experiences warmer temperatures and more consistently low rainfall compared to where the rattlesnakes with the neurotoxic venom are found. But even this finding is deeply puzzling.

It has been suggested that, as well as killing prey, venom may also help digestion. Rattlesnakes eat large prey in one piece, and then have to digest it in a race against decay. A venom that starts predigesting the prey from the inside could help, especially in cooler climates where digestion is more difficult.

But the rattlesnakes with haemotoxic venom B, which better aids digestion, are found in warmer places, while snakes from cooler upland deserts invariably produce the non-digestive, neurotoxic venom A. Yet again, none of the conventional explanations make sense.

Clearly, the selective forces behind the extreme venom variation in the Mohave rattlesnake are complex and subtle. A link to diet may yet be found, perhaps through different kinds of venom resistance in key prey species, or prey dynamics affected by local climate. In any case, our results reopen the discussion on the drivers of venom composition, and caution against the simplistic assumption that all venom variation is driven by the species composition of regional diets.

From a human perspective, variation in venom composition is the bane of anyone working on snakebite treatments, or antidote development. It can lead to unexpected symptoms, and antivenoms may not work against some populations of a species they supposedly cover. Anyone living within the range of the Mohave rattlesnake can rest easy though – the available antivenoms cover both main venom types.

Globally, however, our study underlines the unpredictability of venom variation, and shows again that there are no shortcuts to understanding it. Those developing antivenoms need to identify regional venom variants and carry out extensive testing to ensure that their products are effective against all intended venoms.The Conversation

Wolfgang Wüster, Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Bangor University and Giulia Zancolli, Associate Research Scientist, Université de Lausanne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An end to endings: how to stop more Australian species going extinct



File 20190305 48435 o1z6b8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

John Gerrard Keulemans. Published by Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (France)

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


We need nature. It gives us inspiration, health, resources, life. But we are losing it. Extinction is the most acute and irreversible manifestation of this loss.

Australian species have suffered at a disproportionate rate. Far more mammal species have become extinct in Australia than in any other country over the past 200 years.

The thylacine is the most recognised and mourned of our lost species, but the lesser bilby has gone, so too the pig-footed bandicoot, the Toolache wallaby, the white-footed rabbit-rat, along with many other mammals that lived only in Australia. The paradise parrot has joined them, the robust white-eye, the King Island emu, the Christmas Island forest skink, the southern gastric-brooding frog, the Phillip Island glory pea, and at least another 100 species that were part of the fabric of this land, part of what made Australia distinctive.

And that’s just the tally for known extinctions. Many more have been lost without ever being named. Still others hover in the graveyard – we’re not sure whether they linger or are gone.




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What makes some species more likely to go extinct?


The losses continue: three Australian vertebrate species became extinct in the past decade. Most of the factors that caused the losses remain unchecked, and new threats are appearing, intensifying, expanding. Many species persist only in slivers of their former range and in a fraction of their previous abundance, and the long-established momentum of their decline will soon take them over the brink.

The toolache wallaby is just one of Australia’s many extinct species.
John Gould, F.R.S., Mammals of Australia, Vol. II Plate 19, London, 1863

Unnecessarily extinct

These losses need not have happened. Almost all were predictable and preventable. They represent failures in our duty of care, legislation, policy and management. They give witness to, and warn us about, the malaise of our land and waters.

How do we staunch the wound and maintain Australia’s wildlife? It’s a problem with many facets and no single solution. Here we provide ten recommendations, based on an underlying recognition that more extinctions will be inevitable unless we treat nature as part of the essence of this country, rather than as a dispensable tangent, an economic externality.

  1. We should commit to preventing any more extinctions. As a society, we need to treat our nature with more respect – our plants and animals have lived in this place for hundreds of thousands, often millions, of years. They are integral to this country. We should not deny them their existence.

  2. We should craft an intergenerational social contract. We have been gifted an extraordinary nature. We have an obligation to pass to following generations a world as full of wonder, beauty and diversity as our generation has inherited.

  3. We should highlight our respect for, and obligation to, nature in our constitution, just as that fusty document could be refreshed and some of its deficiencies redressed through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Those drafting the blueprint for the way our country is governed gave little or no heed to its nature. A constitution is more than a simple administrative rule book. Countries such as Ecuador, Palau and Bhutan have constitutions that commit to caring for their natural legacy and recognise that society and nature are interdependent.

  4. We should build a generation-scale funding commitment and long-term vision to escape the fickle, futile, three-year cycle of contested government funding. Environmental challenges in Australia are deeply ingrained and longstanding, and the conservation response and its resourcing need to be implemented on a scale of decades.

  5. As Paul Keating stated in his landmark Redfern speech, we should all see Australia through Aboriginal eyes – more deeply feel the way the country’s heart beats; become part of the land; fit into the landscape. This can happen through teaching curricula, through reverting to Indigenous names for landmarks, through reinvigorating Indigenous land management, and through pervasive cultural respect.

  6. We need to live within our environmental limits – constraining the use of water, soil and other natural resources to levels that are sustainable, restraining population growth and setting a positive example to the world in our efforts to minimise climate change.

  7. We need to celebrate and learn from our successes. There are now many examples of how good management and investments can help threatened species recover. We are capable of reversing our mismanagement.

  8. Funding to prevent extinctions is woefully inadequate, of course, and needs to be increased. The budgeting is opaque, but the Australian government spends about A$200 million a year on the conservation of threatened species, about 10% of what the US government outlays for its own threatened species. Understandably, our American counterparts are more successful. For context, Australians spend about A$4 billion a year caring for pet cats.

  9. Environmental law needs strengthening. Too much is discretionary and enforcement is patchy. We suggest tightening the accountability for environmental failures, including extinction. Should species die out, formal inquests should be mandatory to learn the necessary lessons and make systemic improvements.

  10. We need to enhance our environmental research, management and monitoring capability. Many threatened species remain poorly known and most are not adequately monitored. This makes it is hard to measure progress in response to management, or the speed of their collapse towards extinction.




Read more:
Eulogy for a seastar, Australia’s first recorded marine extinction


Extinction is not inevitable. It is a failure, potentially even a crime – a theft from the future that is entirely preventable. We can and should prevent extinctions, and safeguard and celebrate the diversity of Australian life.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.