Seminar at the California Academy of Sciences

I recently gave a virtual talk on St. Patrick’s Day at the California Academy of Sciences in celebration of snake biology and diversity. I discussed a bit about how I got involved in science, the fascinating snakes of Vietnam (with a focus on Achalinus zugorum), and why it’s crucial we preserve karst forests and the biological diversity that calls them home. Check out my talk on YouTube, along with several other fascinating seminars from many other great snake biologists. My talk begins at the 20:45 mark.

THE PLIGHT OF VIETNAM’S KARST-DWELLING SPECIES

I was quoted in a recent article detailing the development of karst areas in Vietnam, and what that means for biodiversity and biodiversity researchers. Research has shown that these karsts host an array of endemic species (species found no where else on Earth) that is at risk of extinction or extirpation if karst stripping and cement processing continues throughout not only Vietnam, but more broadly Southeast Asia. In this article in the Southeast Asia Globe, journalist Govi Snell writes about the destruction of the karsts, with particular reflection of the impact on Delacour’s langur, one of the most critically endangered primates in the world. Snell also discusses Vietnam’s most recently described snake species, Zugs’ odd-scaled snake, which colleagues and I recently discovered.

THE PLIGHT OF VIETNAM’S KARST-DWELLING SPECIES

Discovery of a New Species of Odd-Scaled Snake from Vietnam

During the summer of 2019, I conducted an expedition to remote, biologically unexplored areas of Vietnam with colleagues from the University of North Carolina Asheville, University of Washington, and the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources (Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology) as part of a Global Genome Initiative award to assess amphibian and reptile diversity in the northern reaches of the country. On the last night of field work in Ha Giang Province, which sits on the Vietnam-China border, we encountered a small, iridescent black snake on road. As northern Vietnam hosts a wide array of biotic diversity, especially snakes, even seasoned naturalists might have difficulty correctly identifying all taxa encountered. Based on the distinctive scale morphology, we determined the species belonged to the family Xenodermidae– commonly known as odd-scaled snakes. Later that evening, upon further examination of the specimen, we identified it to be a member of the exceedingly poorly known genus Achalinus, a group of <15 species known only from east Asia.

When I returned to the Laboratories of Analytical Biology at the National Museum of Natural History, I was promptly able to sequence the DNA of the specimen from a tissue sample, which told us it belongs to a previously undescribed lineage. Consequently, colleagues and I described this new species as Achalinus zugorum, with the epithet honoring Dr. George R. Zug, retired curator of amphibians and reptiles at the National Museum of Natural History, and Patricia Zug, George’s wife and fellow herpetological enthusiast. Both George and Pat have been close colleagues, friends, and mentors to me over the past few years, and this naming honors both their contributions to the field and their mentorship of young scientists.

Little is known about the ecology, biology, and fundamental natural history of this species, making it one of the most poorly known reptiles in the world. We can infer a couple of things about the ecology and natural history of this species from anatomical clues. First, snakes of the genus Achalinus lack retinal cones, which are typically associated with bright-light vision, leading us to believe this is a nocturnal species that at least occupies the leaf-litter interface, if not being an entirely fossorial or subterranean species drawn out occasionally by heavy rains. Indeed, fossoriality has been reported in a handful of Achalinus previously. Second, the dentition of Achalinus zugorum, consisting of equally sized, curved maxillary teeth with lingual ridges tells us that this species likely consumes soft-bodied prey, such as earthworms.

The manuscript was published in the journal Copeia. The Smithsonian Magazine also features a story on the discovery.

Aryeh H. MillerHayden R. DavisAnh Mai LuongQuyen Hanh DoCuong The PhamThomas ZieglerJustin L. LeeKevin De QueirozR. Graham Reynolds, and Truong Quang Nguyen “Discovery of a New Species of Enigmatic Odd-Scaled Snake (Serpentes: Xenodermidae: Achalinus) from Ha Giang Province, Vietnam,” Copeia 108(4), 796-808, (7 December 2020). https://doi.org/10.1643/CH2020060

Achalinus zugorum sp. nov. (Miller et al. 2020)

Characterizing a cryptic radiation of Asian gracile skinks in Myanmar (Freitas et al., 2020).

I’ve always had a special affinity for scincid lizards. Riopa skinks are one of the many poorly known skink genera of SE Asia, especially in Myanmar. In this study, led by Dr. Elyse Freitas, we generate novel morphological (meristic and mensural) and multi-locus genetic data from specimens collected throughout central and northern Myanmar to better understand species-level diversity within this group. Using a myriad of species delimitation approaches, we find that lineages overlap significantly in multivariate morphospace and high levels of cryptic diversity exist despite substantial genetic divergence. Check out the study published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, or download a PDF directly.

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The discovery of two new gecko species from southern Myanmar

We have discovered the first members of the lizard genus Cnemaspis on the mainland of Myanmar. Published in the journal Zootaxa, we report the discovery of three Cnemaspis species in the country’s southernmost subdivision called the Tanintharyi Region. Out of the three species, two are new to science— the Tanintharyi Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis tanintharyi) and the Thayawthadangyi Islands Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis thayawthadangyi). A PDF is available here (Lee et al. 2019).

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Field work in northern Vietnam

I have recently concluded some field work in Vietnam with colleagues Dr. R. Graham Reynolds, Dr. Truong Quang Nguyen, Dr. Cuong The Pham, and Hayden R. Davis. One of the most notable finds was this remarkable endemic tiger gecko (Goniurosaurus catbaensis). The specimens collected during our surveys will join a growing repository of life on Earth at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as aid further study of reptile and amphibian systematics in Southeast Asia. This research is supported by the Global Genome Initiative (https://ggi.si.edu/), and is a collaboration between the National Museum of Natural History, the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources (Hanoi, Vietnam), and the University of North Carolina Asheville. 

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Characterization of the complete mitochondrial genome of the Lesser Antillean Iguana

In a collaboration with researchers from UNC Asheville, Mississippi State University, the University of Amsterdam, and the Shedd Aquarium, we have recently characterized the first mitochondrial genome of the critically endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana (Iguana delicatissima). We deployed a combination of off-target sequence capture and targeted Sanger reads to assemble the complete mitogenome. The paper can be found here.

 

First record of the Malaysian Bridle Snake in Myanmar

Our manuscript in Check List documenting the first record of Dryocalamus subannulatus in Myanmar has been published. This is the first of many forthcoming range extensions into the Tanintharyi for a diversity of taxa from the Isthmus of Kra region. In this note, we provide comparative morphological and molecular data of the Tanintharyi specimen.

Link: https://checklist.pensoft.net/articles.php?journal_name=checklist&id=23034

New paper out in PBSW!

Our manuscript redescribing Xenochrophis bellulus (Stoliczka, 1871) and detailing its taxonomic status has now been published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. A lost holotype and cluttered taxonomic history has led us to designate a neotype and provide detailed morphological redescriptions based on a small series of museum specimens. We additionally delve into the taxonomic conversation of this species with hemipenial-based systematic comparisons.

Get it here.