Family tree of one-fifth of the world snake diver

Müller's ground viper (Micrelaps muelleri), a species of venomous rear-fanged snake, is a member of the newly described family Micrelapidae.

image: Müller’s ground viper (Micrelaps muelleri), a species of venomous hind-toothed snake, is a member of the newly described family Micrelapidae. This particular species is found in the Levant region and the individual in this photograph is from Israel. Photo credit: Simon Jamison
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Credit: Photo credit: Simon Jamison

The international team of researchers was able to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of a major group of snakes,

Elapoideawhich turned out to be an important avenue for building a complete tree of life for snakes.

They did this using one of the largest genomic datasets, state-of-the-art algorithms and software

published to date to study evolution.

It modifies the evolutionary tree of Elapoidea, living superfamily of ecologically hyperdiverse snakes

(some of which are the deadliest in the world), spread almost all over the world.

The team generated a gigantic genomic dataset of nearly 4600 genes – for comparison, most datasets used for animal DNA taxonomy contain less than 10 genes! Researchers have done this for members of all known elapoid families and subfamilies. They further used nano- and micro-computed tomographic scans for several species of elapod snakes.

New major branch in the snake family tree

In addition, the researchers discovered a whole new family within the Elapoidea superfamily (meaning a rank above family in biological classification).
Among snakes, one of the most species-rich large groups is this superfamily. Snakes in this superfamily evolved during the early Cenozoic era (the Eocene to be precise), around 50 to 45 million years ago, as the researchers in this article estimate. Elapoidea has some 700 species divided into several families.

Parents of ancient snakes still creep among us

Some of the deadliest snakes on the planet belong to this family, such as cobras, mambas, but also harmless and bizarre snakes such as African shovel-nosed snakes or venomous burrowing asps that can bite without opening their mouths. While biologists do indeed discover new species and genera quite often, discovering an entire family is extremely rare for vertebrates, almost once or at most a few times per century. This new family has two types and a total of four or five species. These snakes are found in the Levant region of East and Northeast Africa.

“Snakes are not only diverse, but they are very important ecologically. Venomous snakes are also important medically. What if knowledge about the evolution and classification of a group as important were in tatters?”, Sunandan Das Explain.

“Everything would then be seriously hampered: from communication between scientists, to research, to the evolution of venom, to venom delivery systems, etc., to understanding the rate and mode of evolution of a large part of the world’s diversity of snakes to popular scientific work on such a group. So far, this has been exactly the case with the elapod snakes – they are a classic example of “ancient and rapid radiation” and as such a badass, concludes Sunandan Das.


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