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Israeli Scientists Discover New Snake Family – Micrelapidae


The Micrelaps Snake
(Photo credit: David David TAU)

In what is being described as a rare scientific discovery, Researchers from the Tel Aviv University (TAU) School of Zoology, Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, and of The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History Museum have identified an entirely new type of snake called the Micrelapidae. The scientists found that Micrelapidae, small snakes usually with black and yellow rings, diverged from the evolutionary tree of other snakes about 50 million years ago. The newly identified family includes only three species, two in Africa and one in Israel.

Prof. Shai Meiri of TAU, took part in the extensive international study that identified the new family of snakes. The study was conducted by researchers from Finland, the USA, Belgium, Madagascar, Hong Kong, and Israel. The paper was published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

It may sound unusual to hear about zoological studies coming out of Israel, which is best known as Startup Nation. But Israeli scientists are also known for their zoological research in addition to a myriad of medical breakthroughs. For example, last year a TAU study discovered that the female locust has superpowers. No, it is no Wonder woman. No, it is not bulletproof, nor does it fight crime like a vigilante. But the female locust can stretch itself a great deal kind of like Plastic Man.

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And last month a study conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science showed that wild land mammals weigh less than 10 percent of the combined weight of humans and are outweighed by cattle and other domesticated mammals by a factor of 30.

On the Micrelapidae Prof Meiri said, “Today we tend to assume that most large groups of animals, such as families, are already known to science, but sometimes we still encounter surprises, and this is what happened with Micrelapid snakes. For years they were considered members of the largest snake family, the Colubridae, but multiple DNA tests conducted over the last decade contradicted this classification. Since then, snake researchers around the world have tried to discover which family these snakes do belong to – to no avail. In this study we joined the scientific effort.”

The researchers used micro-CT technology – high-resolution magnetic imaging, to examine the snake’s morphology, focusing specifically on the skull. In addition, they applied methods of deep genomic sequencing – examining about 4,500 ultra-conserved elements, namely regions in the genome that take millions of years to exhibit any change. Prof: Meiri: “In addition to the DNA of Micrelaps we sampled DNA from various snake groups to which they might have belonged. In this way we discovered in Micrelaps some unique genomic elements, which were not found in any of the other groups.”

According to the researchers, their findings indicate that Micrelaps diverged from the rest of the evolutionary tree of snakes about 50 million years ago. Since then, these snakes have evolved independently, as a distinct and separate family. Apparently, this is a very small family, including only three species: two in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, and one in Israel and nearby regions (northern Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, southern Syria, and southern Lebanon). This geographic dispersion suggests that these snakes probably originated in Africa, and then, at some point in their history, some of them made their way north through the Great Rift Valley.



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