Reptile taxonomy has been upended in recent decades by studies that use mitochondrial DNA—and only mtDNA—to reorganize and subdivide existing species into new groups. In a point-of-view piece for Herpetological Review exploring the usefulness and validity of subspecies as a concept, David Hillis argues against this practice, pointing to a mismatch between mtDNA and intergradation zones, and new studies looking at nuclear gene flow that disagree with mtDNA findings, thanks to which taxonomic changes based on mtDNA are beginning to be reversed. [Andrew DuBois]
- Neil Balchan is upset, and so am I. The garter snake researcher visited a wintering den where he was doing field research only to discover that dozens of harmless red-sided garter snakes had been beaten and butchered at the site. CBC News has more.
- Here’s TVO on the fragile state of the eastern hognose snake in Ontario.
- And here’s the Great Lakes Echo on scientists’ efforts to track the elusive—and, in Ontario, endangered—rat snake.
- The Tennessee Aquarium has created the first map of North America’s biogeographical turtle communities.
- Burmese pythons might be an invasive scourge in Florida’s Everglades, but they’re not doing well in their natural range. The Guardian looks at conservation efforts on the python’s behalf in Bangladesh.
- An interesting read in Smithsonian magazine about taxonomic vandalism—the act of exploiting international rules to name new species without the science to back it up, usually for self-aggrandizing reasons. It’s endemic in herpetology; Raymond Hoser’s name turns up here, and not for the first time.
- Tiger keelback snakes are both venomous (it’s a rear-fanged colubrid)
and poisonous, thanks to the toads they feed on. The snakes store the toad toxins in their nuchal glands. But do they know they’re packing toad toxins? According to a new study, yes: the snakes’ defensive behaviour changes depending on the toxicity of their diet. [Journal of Comparative Psychology]
- Commercial reptile collection has been banned in Nevada, where it’s been more or less unregulated for decades. Nature’s Cool Green Science blog has the story behind the ban.
- Sean Graham has some advice for field herpers: instead of spending money and effort on finding rare species for your life list, they should spend that on field work that might actually do some good. “Imagine if instead of trying to find their lifer Pigmy Rattlesnake in Apalachicola National Forest, they instead went looking for them in central Alabama where records are few and patchy? If instead of herping for fun, everyone made their herping count?”1
- Using the Internet to identify snakes is definitely a thing; I’ve gotten my share of requests. Sierra, the Sierra Club’s magazine, looks at how the Snake Identification Facebook group does the job. Turns out the challenges the group faces are as much about social dynamics—dealing with frivolous requests, not attacking people for killing snakes—as they are scientific.
- If you can’t feed a snake mice, does that mean you can’t keep snakes at all? I answer this question on Quora.
A new paper has resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid taxon. The cladistic study of diplodocid dinosaurs concluded that there were substantial differences between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus: the former is even more robust and has a distinctly thicker neck. News coverage: Nature, Scientific American, Brian Switek at Smithsonian.
O. C. Marsh named Apatosaurus ajax in 1877 and Brontosaurus excelsus two years later. Paleontologists later concluded that ajax and excelsus were just two different species of the same genus. The rules of scientific nomenclature generally hold that the senior name takes precedence. Since Apatosaurus was named first, “Brontosaurus” had to give way. (This is, by the way, what will happen with Triceratops and Torosaurus, if the proposal that Torosaurus is the mature form of Triceratops gains wide acceptance: Triceratops came first.)
It’s important not to get too excited over this sort of thing. It happens all the time in the biological sciences (see Tom Spears’s piece in the Ottawa Citizen). Herpetologists have been on a reclassification rampage for the last couple of decades; it’s no different with dinosaurs.
As a child who read every damn dinosaur book in the library, no matter how old, I was mightily confused by the inconsistent naming: nomena dubia were in every book. Anatosaurus and Trachodon have since been folded into Edmontosaurus, Stenonchyosaurus has been reclassified as the previously mysterious Troodon, and Brachiosaurus has been split in two, so that now some mounted skeletons are a mix of Brachiosaurus altithorax and Giraffatitan brancai.
The fact that Deinonychus antirrhopus was briefly considered a species of Velociraptor is probably the reason why Velociraptor—an Asian dromaeosaurid about the size of a turkey—ended up in Jurassic Park as something way too big.
And there’s no guarantee that this study will be the last word on the subject. A decade from now someone else may produce equally convincing arguments that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus should be combined after all. It happens all the time.