Updated: Mar 31
By Harrison York; December 27, 2020
Hidden in Plain Sight
Last Christmas, the biology community was surprised with the published discovery of a new snake species belonging to an entirely new genus. The genus is called Levitonius, with the scientific name of the species being Levitonius mirus. It is commonly known as the Waray dwarf burrowing snake.
The snake was not found in some deep cave or jungle, but in the biodiversity collection of the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute. The three specimens of the snake identified to be members of this new species were collected in field missions between 2006 and 2012, overlooked until Jeff Weinell, a research graduate at the institution, accidentally stumbled upon the development.
Weinell originally planned to learn more about Pseudorabdion, a group of snakes in which Levitonius was mistakenly included.
“I sequenced DNA from a bunch of specimens of that group, and this one was actually misidentified as belonging to [Pseudorabdion],” Weinell said about the spontaneous discovery.
The validity of the snake being a new species was confirmed with CT scans. The CT scans showed that the snake’s bone structure was different from that of other species, having fewer vertebrae than a large majority of snakes around the world. The snake’s skull is also relatively long and narrow compared to its size. Thus the snake was officially considered a unique genus and species.
Weinell was given the ability to name the species and genus of his unique discovery. Levitonius pays homage to Alan Leviton, a researcher who has spent decades studying snakes in the Philippines - and is still doing so. Mirus is translated to “extraordinary” in Latin, chosen by Weinell because of the way he made his find. The common name honors the Waray-Waray people, who live in the region where the first confirmed members of the species were found.
On top of naming a new species, a new genus was created because the genetic difference between the new discovery and its closest relative, Oxyrhabdium, was typical of the difference between genera. Weinell predicts that this development will spark further research in the Philippines that will yield confirmation of additional species in the genus.
The Waray dwarf burrowing snake lives on the Philippine islands of Samar and Leyte. The archipelago, or island formation, is remarkably diverse, with 112 individual species of snake species.
The Waray dwarf burrowing snake has iridescent scales, and its diet is based mainly on earthworms. It is a “miniaturized” genus, smaller than its relatives with a maximum length of about 6.7 inches. While the new species may barely reach the size of a pencil, its relatives could be three or four times longer.
Because of its small size and exclusivity to two Philippine islands, the three found in the institute’s collection are the only known specimens. They also live underground, so the weather plays an important part in determining if the snakes will surface. Like the earthworms they eat, these snakes come out of their burrows only after heavy rains. Consequently, there are no confirmed photographs of the snake while it is alive. Weinell had tried to find the snake by traveling to the Philippines in 2017, but was unsuccessful.
The Importance of Continued Research
The discovery has several implications for the future of biology. First, biodiversity collections should continue to be maintained and preserved. Having specimens accessible to researchers in universities and similar institutions allow new discoveries like the Waray dwarf burrowing snake to arise. Careful experimentation, like the DNA analysis used to confirm the find, can be carried out on these specimens, offering lab-condition results that scientists can rely on.
Preserved collections allow researchers to take both a second look at their own findings from the field and a second look at the work before them. In this case, Weinell, through his access to the University of Kansas’ collection, was able to correct one of the errors of biologists of the past.
“How we define species is still continuing to change,” Weinell said. “We’re getting data from whole genomes of snakes, which is really changing our way of understanding evolution as a whole.”
In addition to keeping collections of dead specimens, we need to maintain the living populations of reptiles and animals in general. In the Philippines, habitat loss is a prevalent issue as forests are destroyed and replaced with agriculture. Because this new snake species, as well as many others found in the archipelago, live only on a few islands each, it is vital to keep track of their populations and ensure the species’ survival.
Finally, the discovery shows us that there is still much work to be done in the field of classification and documentation of biodiversity. New species are still often being found and research needs to be done to better understand them and their place in the ecosystem.
The accidental uncovering of the mystery of Levitonius mirus is an example of opportunity to make lasting impacts and developments in the biological community. While it can sometimes feel like everything has already been discovered, or that new finds take decades of experience and expertise, there is always something new to learn, something new to study, and something new to show to others and better our understanding of the world.
Where does the Waray dwarf burrowing snake live?
The Waray dwarf burrowing snake lives in the Philippines, specifically on the islands of Samar and Leyte. The snake burrows into the ground, where it lives for most of its life, but can be found on the surface after heavy rains. The three specimens that Jeff Weinell examined were originally from these islands and were kept in a biodiversity collection at the University of Kansas.
Why was it decided that the new species deserves an entirely new genus?
The discovery also came with the creation of a new genus because of the differences between Levitonius mirus and its closest relatives. The most prominent of these is its size. The snake only reaches about seven inches in length compared to genetically similar species that can be three or four times longer. The new species also has very few vertebrae, a long and narrow skull, and certain differences within its DNA that set it apart. While it is the only member of its genus for now, more research will take place to uncover more information about the Waray dwarf burrowing snake and other possible members of the genus.
Permission from Jeff Weinell to replicate both images for the purpose of this article.