Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Erythrolamprus pseudoreginae: A new, cryptic, species of False Coral Snake from Tobago.

The genus Erythrolamprus currently contains 50 species of highly variable Colubroid Snakes from Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. The genus comprises a large number of species formerly assigned to other genera, as it has been shown by genetic studies that several different morphologies and colour patterns have repeatedly evolved within the group in response to similar environmental conditions; the group takes its name from the first described genus of these Snakes, which was originally used to include several Coral Snake-mimics, hence the common name False Coral Snakes. This high diversity and repeated convergent evolution means that the genus is thought highly likely to include numerous cryptic species (species that closely resemble other species, and cannot be separated by simple, non-invasive examination).

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 15 January 2019,  John Murphy of Science and Education at the Field Museum of Natural History, Alvin Braswell of the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, Stevland Charles of the Department of Biology at Howard University, Renoir Auguste of the Department of Life Science at the University of the West Indies, Gilson Rivas of the Museo de Biologia at the Universidad del Zulia, Amaël Borzée of the Division of EcoScience and the Interdisciplinary Program of EcoCreative at Ewha Womans University, Richard Lehtinen of the Department of Biology at The College of Wooster, Michael Jowers of the Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos at the Universidade do Porto, and the Korean National Institute of Ecology, describe a new species of Erythrolamprus from the island of Tobago.

As well as being an island of the Caribbean, Tobago forms part of the Cordillera de Costa, a sky island archipelago that extends 925 km in an east-west orientation from western Venezuela, across the Northern Range of Trinidad to the island. The Cordillera de Costa forms a distinct upland ecosystem made up of islands that have been periodically separated by either lowlands or ocean, depending on the sealevel, since at least the Miocene and possibly the Cretaceous, it is currently separated from the nearest area of similar uplands, the Guyana Shield by the Llanos Grasslands of northern Venezuela, with Trinidad separated from the Peninsula de Paria in Venezuala by the Gulf of Paria, and the island of Tobago separated from Trinidad by 35 km of open water. Despite these distances the uplands of Trinidad and Tobago form part of a continuous biome with the other parts of the Cordillera de Costa, with plants and animals there more closely related to those of other parts of the sky archipelago than the surrounding lowlands. This biome is a diversity hotspot for members of the genus Erythrolamprus, with sixteen species recorded in the Venezualan part of the range (eight of which are also found on the Guyanan Shield) and seven in Trinidad and Tobago.

The new species is named Erythrolamprus pseudoreginae, as it is described from a population previously assigned to the species Erythrolamprus reginae, which is otherwise found on the Guyanan Shield (a population previously assigned to this species on the Cordillera de Costa of Venezuala and Trinidad has already been described as a separate species. Adult specimens of this species ranged from 436 to 539 mm in length, with the longest specimen found having suffered damage to the tail, which suggests it was formerly somewhat larger. This species lacks the 'Coral Snake' colouration, being brown with black markings, a yellow stripe on the side and a white underside and an olive face.

Erythrolamprus pseudoreginae, living specimen. Murphy et al. (2019).

Erythrolamprus reginae has a very limited range, being found only in the forested ravines along the crest of the Main Ridge, a rocky ridge about 16 km long and covered with lower montane rain forest on schist soil, reaching elevations of 487–576 m above sealevel, with a steep terrain with deep gullies and fast-moving streams. This area lies entirely within the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, which has had protected status since 1776, making it the oldest protected forest in the Americas. As such the species is not thought to be under any immediate threat from Human activities, though it could potentially be threatened by future climate change.

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