A Herpetological Roundup: World Snake Day Edition

It’s been a while since my last roundup, so there’s a lot to tell you about.

  1. Amphisbaenians—sometimes called worm lizards, though they’re neither, nor are they snakes—are the weirdest reptiles. And the mole lizards (Bipes) of Mexico, known locally as ajolotes, are the weirdest amphisbaenians, because while most amphisbaenians are legless, Bipes has forelimbs. Just forelimbs. You don’t see them very much because they’re so fossorial, but herpetologist Sara Ruane managed to catch one on video last month. Yes, it’s real. National Geographic has more.
  2. Speaking of legs, snakes still have the gene to grow them—the so-called “sonic hedgehog” gene. [Current Biology]
  3. It was long understood that snakes use the ZW sex chromosome system: the ovum determines the sex; males are ZZ, females ZW. Only a recent paper found that boa constrictors (Boa constrictor) and Indian rock pythons (Python molurus) have XY chromosomes—the sperm cell determines the sex, as it does in humans. [Current Biology]
  4. Ontario is extending Highway 400 toward Sudbury—through the territory of the threatened Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus). This CBC News article reports on the precautions taken by work crews as they work in massasauga habitat. Meanwhile, Lethbridge’s rattlesnake hotline—yes, they have a rattlesnake hotline—had a busy start to the summer.
  5. Turtle mortality along a stretch of road near Long Point, Ontario was so bad that local residents decided to do something about it. And after taking in nearly 600 injured turtles this year (up from fewer than 400 for all of 2016), the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, just outside Peterborough, has declared a “state of emergency” : they’re simply overwhelmed. Here’s a 2010 video from the Toronto Zoo showing how to help a snapping turtle cross the road.
  6. A turtle found wandering the streets of Burnaby, British Columbia turned out to be a threatened Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), which is not native to B.C. Showing signs of metabolic bone disease, the turtle was almost certainly an escaped or released pet kept illegally; it’ll be sent to a wildlife sanctuary in Ontario.
  7. The Guardian has the story of New Zealand’s cobble skink. The undescribed species was down to a few dozen individuals before wildlife officials tried to capture as many as they could before their habitat literally washed away. The entire population may now reside at the Auckland Zoo, awaiting reintroduction.
  8. Snake fungal disease has been found in more than 30 species in North America. Now it’s crossed the Atlantic: researchers have detected both the fungus and the lesions in wild snakes in both Great Britain and the Czech Republic. [Nature]
  9. Meanwhile, to prevent the spread of a fungal disease found in salamanders, the Canadian government has prohibited the importation of foreign salamanders, which will have an impact on the lab supply and pet trades. [Canada Gazette]
  10. In the Great Lakes region there are all-female populations of mole salamanders (Ambystoma) that are hybrids of several related species, e.g. the Blue-spotted (A. laterale), Small-mouthed (A. texanum) and Eastern Tiger (A. mavortium) Salamanders. A new study suggests that these female hybrids reproduce in a thoroughly curious manner: by mating with males from all three species, taking roughly equal parts of the donor males’ genetic material from each—a process called kleptogenesis. There are science fiction writers who’d have a hard time coming up with this. [Genome Biology and Evolution]
  11. Do snakes hunt in packs? A recent paper suggested that Cuban Boas (Chilabothrus/Epicrates angulifer) hunting bats in caves exhibit behaviour consistent with coordinated hunting. But David Steen is skeptical. “Snakes swallow whole. So when would ‘pack’ hunting be good? Only when there are lots of resources; no competition. Bat cave may qualify,” Steen adds on Twitter. [Animal Behavior and Cognition]
  12. Are snake bites on the rise? CNN’s alarmist headline and article gets smacked down.
  13. A question I answered on Quora: Why do snakes use constriction?

Bus Service in the Pontiac

The Pontiac’s commuter bus service—a single line running the 148 from Isle-aux-Allumettes to downtown Ottawa—was for many years run by Transport Thom. But finding out about the service took some doing: there was never a web page listing fares and schedules. (I had to go to the service station that serves as Shawville’s bus stop.) Now that the service has been taken over by Transcollines, we have that web page.

We like having friends visit, but many of them are urbanites without cars. The current schedule doesn’t necessarily solve that problem: the morning bus passes through Shawville at 6:00 and the afternoon bus leaves Ottawa’s bus terminal at 3:30 (unchanged since the Thom days). A single one-way ticket is $17. (Weekly and monthly passes are much cheaper per trip: it’s a commuter bus, after all.) There’s a reason we usually just drive in and pick people up. But Transcollines will be revamping the service next year; it’ll be interesting to see what changes.

The Unfeathered Tyrannosaur

Albertosaurus diorama, Royal Tyrell Museum, Dec. 27, 2008.

Ever since tyrannosauroid fossils (namely, Dilong and Yutyrannus) started turning up with evidence of feathers, the idea that the Big T and its close relatives were at least partially feathered themselves was awfully intriguing. I mean, basal coelurosaurs had feathers, early tyrannosauroids had feathers—it stood to reason. But a new study examining fossilized tyrannosaur skin impressions concludes that Tyrannosaurus and its close relatives Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbosaurus had scaly skin rather than feathers. Size may be one reason why: large mammals are less hairy for heat-loss reasons (the exceptions being arctic dwellers like mammoths).

I admit to some disappointment: I was more invested in the idea of a feathered T. rex than I ought to have been.

A Herpetological Roundup

Brown-snouted Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops wiedii or nigriscens), November 13, 2015. Photo by Will Brown. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. Known from only a handful of specimens since its discovery in 1937 and feared extinct, the Albany Adder (Bitis albanica) was found alive and well—at least four specimens were—last November, in a South African location that is being kept secret to deter poachers. Because yes, poachers will collect the shit out of these snakes.
  2. The plan to reintroduce Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts has been suspended in the face of local opposition; the Worcester Telegram’s outdoors writer Mark Blazis is disappointed.
  3. Ontario Nature has announced its new and improved Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas app, which isn’t so much an app as it is a mobile website that supports offline data. Anyway, it’s got a field guide and lets you enter species sightings.
  4. Fossil snakes are generally known from their vertebrae, which makes their study a little less exciting to the lay reader than dinosaurs; still, it’s rather exciting that a new extinct species, Zilantophis schuberti, has been described from a fossil found in eastern Tennessee. “Zilantophis bore uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae. In life, these were likely attachment sites for back muscles. These features are what inspired the name of the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Tatar mythology.” [Journal of Herpetology]
  5. Blind snakes (Scolecophidia) are tiny, secretive and easily overlooked; even so, there’s something of a blind snake renaissance going on, says Andrew Durso. “I recently noticed, much to my surprise, the the number of described species of blindsnakes has doubled in the last 13 years, from 305 in 2004 to 599 today; that’s 16.5% of all snakes! There are certainly many undiscovered species of blindsnakes, so it’s likely that their numbers will continue to grow.”
  6. A fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine from Daniel Engber that looks at the increasing use of the Burmese Python (Python molurus bivitattus) as a laboratory animal, and the possibility that its extraordinary digestive system—which has to flip from inactive to a 50,000-calorie meal all at once—may help find a cure for diabetes.

A Herpetological Roundup

Mating group of Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), Narcisse Snake Dens, May 5, 2014.
  1. Spring is here, and the garter snakes (Thamnophis) are busily mating away — and that means mating balls where as many as a hundred frenzied males may be trying to woo a single female snake. That frenzy may be harder on the males than the females: a new study found that telomere length — associated with stress — decreased with males as they aged, but did not do so with females. [Proc. R. Soc. B]
  2. Then again, it could be worse: a photographer caught a female Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) in the act of constricting and eating its mate.
  3. Speaking of constriction. Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis) are known for eating other snakes, and they’ve also been known to eat snakes longer than they are — including other constricting snakes. They do it by constricting harder — twice as hard as rat snakes. [Journal of Experimental Biology]
  4. Ontario has banned the hunting of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), a species that had previously been regulated as game wildlife (with seasons and bag limits). Conservationists have long argued that any take is unsustainable, and they’re right: turtles simply reproduce too slowly, and face too many other dangers (roadkill, nest predation) — they’re simply in too much trouble already.
  5. In other good news, the Arizona snake shot — allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — bill died in a tie vote in the state senate.
  6. Researchers at Grand Valley State University are monitoring a population of Eastern Massasaugas (Sistrurus catenatus); they hope to learn more to fight the onslaught of snake fungal disease, which is hitting the massasauga particularly hard.
  7. Oh, great: the purported medicinal properties of the Indian Sand Boa (Eryx johniihas led to a spate of poaching and smuggling, putting the species, which is protected in India, at greater risk of extinction.
  8. India is also home to the unusual shield-tailed snakes (Uropeltidae), which Andrew Durso calls the “Darwin’s finches” of snakes.
  9. This January a rare species of boa, Corallus cropanii, endemic to Brazil’s São Paulo state, was found alive for the first time since it was described in 1953. It’s otherwise known from only a handful of specimens.
  10. Cobra venom is largely neurotoxic — it shuts down a prey animal’s autonomic nervous system — but some cobra venoms have cytotoxic, or tissue-destroying, qualities, most famously the venoms of African spitting cobras. Cytotoxins are painful but not as lethal as neurotoxins, so you’d think that cytotoxic venoms in cobras developed as a defense mechanism. But it turns out that cytotoxins don’t correlate with spitting, but with spectacular hoods: the more brightly banded or coloured a cobra species’ hood, the more cytotoxins in the venom. [Toxins]

‘A Time Traveller from the Late 1980s’

Paul Wells, now back at Maclean’s, argues that Donald Trump is a hermit who has walled himself off from the rest of the world since the 1980s. This explains two rather odd things about the president that a lot of us have noticed: one, he spends an awful lot of time, even as president, at his own properties like Mar-a-Lago; and two, that his politics are decades out of date.

Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States — where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” — even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.

These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.

Wells goes on to compare Trump to a character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but the point is clear enough without the analogy.

A Herpetological Roundup

Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, New Zealand, Dec. 29, 2013. Photo by Flickr user _somaholiday. Creative Commons licence.
  1. Atlas Obscura on the comeback of the only remaining rhyncocephalian, the tuatara (Sphenodon). Breeding programs having more tuataras than they know what to do with is a nice problem to have. (I know people who, through zoo connections, have handled tuataras. I’ve never so much as seen one in the flesh.)
  2. Kenya has banned the export of various snakes, including the African Rock Python (Python sebae), due to the impact of collecting and poaching on wild populations. I would have thought that there wouldn’t be much demand, relatively speaking, for the large and nasty African Rock Python, but they’ve been collected so much that, like overfished species, their full-grown size in the wild has diminished. [via]
  3. A plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts is running into opposition from local residents, though the island is a more isolated and remote reintroduction site than just about any other alternative. [via]
  4. The discovery of a rattlesnake in a Texas home led to 23 more turning up in the cellar, where they’d been overwintering.
  5. Ceal Klingler writes about the time that a Panamint Rattlesnake (Crotalus stephensi) came by for a visit. [via]
  6. That Arizona bill allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — which I mentioned in my last roundup — has apparently passed.
  7. The Mexican Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques) is endangered in Arizona, so residents presumably still can’t shoot it. It was believed to have disappeared from the Colorado River system, but it was recently spotted near Lake Havasu City, which has wildlife officials scratching their heads a bit. [via]
  8. I knew about caudal luring — when a predator wiggles uses its tail (usually wiggling it) to attract prey — but this report of Puff Adders (Bitis arietans) using their tongues to do it is something else.
  9. Painted turtles (Chrysemys) don’t leave the water to hibernate, even when it freezes: they spend the winter under ice. How does that work? How do they breathe? The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog explains.

A Herpetological Roundup

Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor), Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Quebec, July 11, 2010.

Five things make a post:

  1. New tree frog genus. North American (and a few Asian) tree frogs previously included in the genus Hyla — including Gray and Green Tree Frogs — have been moved to a new, sister genus, Dryophytes, thanks to a major revision of tree frog taxonomy (PDF). This follows other moves to split genera that spanned continents: Bufo (toads), Rana (true frogs) and Elaphe (rat snakes) have all been split up; North American toads are now Anaxyrus, North American true frogs are now Lithobates (except on the Pacific coast), and North American rat snakes are now Pantherophis. So this is not really a surprise move.
  2. Water snake outreach. The Lake Erie Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) remains on Canada’s endangered species list, but it was removed from the U.S. list in 2011, after a rebound in its U.S. population, which now numbers 10,000 adults. An invasive fish, the round goby, has something to do with it: the water snakes happily feed on them. But public outreach played a role as well. On Cool Green Science, the Nature Conservancy’s blog, Ted Williams looks at the outreach efforts of Dr. Kristin Sanford, whose research showed that habitat loss was less of a factor than human persecution. Her (now quite dated) website: Respect the Snake.
  3. Don’t shoot snakes. An Arizona bill that would lift a ban on firing a gun within city limits if it’s to shoot a rat or a snake is facing opposition — from people opposed to shooting snakes.
  4. Do snakes fart? Scientists are building an animal fart database, and yes, snakes are included. While passing gas might not be a good sign for an obligate carnivore, if by fart we mean making noise while defecating, I can attest that snakes certainly do. (With some of my larger and stinkier charges, I usually hear it before I smell it — at least if I’m in the same room.)
  5. Stressed snakes strike first. A snake’s background level of stress — rather than the stress of encounter, handling or confinement — may determine how likely it is to strike, according to a new study. [LiveScience]

Ted Chiang in The New Yorker

What I like most about Arrival (which, believe it or not, I still haven’t managed to see) is that it’s stimulating interest in Ted Chiang’s work. People who haven’t read him are in for a real treat. (The book you want is Stories of Your Life and Others.) Now Chiang has gotten that rare thing for a science fiction writer: a profile in The New Yorker, in which his legendary reticence — he’s laconic to the point of monosyllaby — is on full display. (I’ve met him: he’s like that in real life.)