TAU researcher among team that identifies a new family of snakes

The Micrelaps snake. Photo: Alex Sablenco.

Newly identified Micrelapidae family includes only three species, two in Africa and one in Israel

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A Tel Aviv University (TAU) researcher took part in an extensive international study that identified a new family of snakes, Micrelapidae. According to the study, Micrelaps, small snakes usually with black and yellow rings, diverged from the rest of the evolutionary tree of snakes about 50 million years ago. Only three species, one in the Middle East and two in East Africa, have been defined as part of the family.

Professor Shai Meiri of TAU’s School of Zoology, Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, and Steinhardt Museum of Natural History Museum collaborated with researchers from Finland, the USA, Belgium, Madagascar, Hong Kong, and Israel. The paper was published in March 2023 in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

“Today we tend to assume that most large groups of animals, such as families, are all already known to science, but sometimes we still encounter surprises, and this is what happened with Micrelapid snakes,” Professor Meiri says. “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.

“In addition to the DNA of Micrelaps, we sampled DNA from various snake groups to which they might have belonged,” Professor Meiri adds. “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. The family seems to be very small and to date comprises 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.

“Since most animals have already been classified into well-defined families, such a discovery of a new family is quite a rare occurrence in modern science,” Professor Meiri notes.