Interview: description of two African shovel-snout snakes from Angola

The small number of collected samples, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades.

Recently, our journal ZooKeys published a paper describing two new species of African Shovel-snout snakes: Prosymna confusa, endemic to dry habitats in southwestern Angola, and P. lisima, associated with the Kalahari sands.

We interviewed the authors of the study to find out how they made this discovery and what it means for biodiversity. Werner Conradie (South Africa), the leader of the project, collected most of the specimens and did all the morphological examinations and taxonomy work. Chad Keates (South Africa) conducted the molecular analysis, Javier Lobon-Roviara (Spain) did the CT-scanning skull reconstruction, and Ninda Baptista (Angola) performed fieldwork.

Interview with Werner Conradie, Chad Keates, Ninda L. Baptista, and Javier Lobón-Rovira

Why has the taxonomy of African Shovel-snout snakes been so complicated?

While widespread, the group is infrequently encountered, resulting in a relatively low number of samples being collected through time. This, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades. While we finally seem to have a grip on the higher-level taxonomy (their relatedness to other snakes), their relations among each other remain incomplete. One thing is for sure, the next few years will likely result in the discovery and description of many more.

Live P. confusa. Photo by Bill Branch

Please walk us through your research process.

Similar to solving a puzzle, the process starts off by acquiring the pieces. The pieces come in the form of samples, collected by us and by scientists, accessioned in museums all over the world. Once all the pieces are in one place, it becomes our job to piece them all together and build a picture of the taxonomy of the group. We start in the corners, ironing out our hypotheses. Once we have the outline, a theory of the species composition of the group, we get to work building the puzzle using evidence from multiple different species concepts.

We use genetics, morphology, ecology, and skull osteology and through fitting these concepts together we start to see our species and the boundaries between them. Large chunks of the puzzle begin to take shape, revealing our picture with ever-increasing clarity. As we find, orientate, and fit the last pieces of our puzzle through the creation and completion of the manuscript, we finish the puzzle and in doing so provide you with the complete picture: the updated taxonomy of Angolan shovel-snout snakes.

When did you realize you were dealing with new-to-science species?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the idea grew from the moment Werner Conradie picked up the first snake whilst on the first expedition with the Okavango Wilderness Project, back in 2016. Funded by National Geographic and managed by the Wild Bird Trust, this paper would not be possible without them, because without the transport and logistical support, most of our dataset would never have been found.

What makes these new species unique?

With the aid of modern nano computerised tomography scanning technology, we observed that one of the new species has a well-developed postorbital bone. We still don’t know the purpose of this postorbital bone and why it is absent in the others. We believe it might serve as additional muscle attachment points that aids them on feeding on different kinds of lizard eggs than the others.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

This is also the first new species of Shovel-snouted snake described in nearly 30 years.

In the late 1980’s Zimbabwean herpetologist, Donald Broadley noted that eastern populations of the Angolan Shovel-snouted snake may be a different species. It took nearly 50 years before more material was collected and with the aid of modern technology, like genetic analysis and CT-scanning, we could show he was correct and described it as a new species.  

What can you tell us about their appearance and behavior?

The Shovel-snouted snakes are unique snakes with a beak-like snout that allow them to dig into sandier soils. Thus most of the time they are below the surface and only come out after heavy rains. They also possess unique backward pointed lancet-shaped teeth that they use for cutting open lizard eggs. These snakes specialize in feeding mostly on soft-shell lizard eggs. They find a freshly laid clutch of eggs and one by one, they swallow them whole. They cut them laterally so that the yolk can be released.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

Do they interact with people?

These snakes may be encountered by people tending to their lands or crossing the road, but, for the most part, they are incredibly secretive. Because of their ability to burrow in soft soils, these animals are infrequently encountered, only forced to the surface during heavy rain and by the urge to breed and to feed. If encountered, however, these snakes pose absolutely no harm, as they possess no venom. When threatened, these animals may wind themselves into a tight coil to protect their heads.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

What is the ecological role of these snakes?

Much like most small vertebrates, these animals form an important component of the food web. They consume lizard eggs, exerting a regulatory force on newborn lizards, and serve as food for larger snakes, rodents, and birds. Animals like these form the bedrock of any healthy ecosystem as they contribute to energy exchanges and the flow of nutrients down and up and down again.

Bonus question: how did you get involved in herpetology?

Everyone in the group has a soft spot for reptiles and amphibians’. Irrespective of our contrasting upbringing and our nation of origin, we all came to herpetology independently. While it is hard to unpack the moment that we all fell in love with these weird and wonderful creatures, one thing is for sure, it’s a lifetime commitment.

About the Authors

Werner Conradie holds a Masters in Environmental Science (M. Env. Sc.) and has 17 years of experience with southern African herpetofauna, with his main research interests focusing on the taxonomy, conservation, and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. Werner has published numerous principal and collaborative scientific papers, and has served on a number of conservation and scientific panels, including the Southern African Reptile and Amphibian Relisting Committees. He has undertaken research expeditions to many African countries including Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Werner is currently the Curator of Herpetology at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld), South Africa.

Chad Keates is a post-doctoral fellow at the African herpetology lab at Port Elizabeth museum (Nelson Mandela University, based in the SAIAB Genetics Platform). Having recently completed his PhD in Zoology, Chad’s research focusses are African herpetofauna and their evolutionary and ecological structuring. In Chad’s short professional career, he has published several principal and collaborative peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters. Chad is also a strong advocate for reptile and amphibian awareness and regularly conducts walks, talks and presentations as well as produces numerous popular scientific outputs on the subject. He has undertaken numerous expeditions to many African countries such as Angola, Zambia and South Africa with a variety of both professional and scientific organisations.

Ninda Baptista is an Angolan biologist, holds an MSc degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Lisbon, and is currently enrolled for a PhD in Biodiversity, Genetics and Evolution in the University of Porto, addressing the diversity of Angolan amphibians. Over the last 12 years she has worked on environmental consulting, research and in-situ conservation projects in Angola, including priority areas for conservation such as Kumbira, Mount Moco and the Humpata plateau. She conducted herpetological surveys throughout the country and created a herpetological collection (Colecção Herpetológica do Lubango), currently deposited in Instituto Superior de Ciências da Educação da Huíla (ISCED – Huíla). Ninda is an author of scientific papers and book chapters on Angolan herpetology and ornithology. She also works on scientific outreach, producing magazine articles, books for children and posters about the country’s biodiversity in collaboration with Fundação Kissama.

Javier Lobón-Rovira is PhD student at Cibio, Portugal, working to unveil evolutionary pattern in southern Africa gekkonids. As Biologist he has worked in different conservation projects and groups around the globe, including reptiles and amphibians at Veragua Rainforest Foundation, Costa Rica or big mammals in Utah, USA. However, as photographer, he has collaborated with different Conservation NGOs in Africa, America and Europe and manage to publish on International Journals as National Geographic, Africa Geographic or Nature’s Best Magazine. 

Read the study:

Conradie W, Keates C, Baptista NL, Lobón-Rovira J (2022) Taxonomical review of Prosymna angolensis Boulenger, 1915 (Elapoidea, Prosymnidae) with the description of two new species. ZooKeys 1121: 97-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.85693

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Bay Area high school students describe two new species of scorpions with California Academy of Sciences

Identified on the community science platform iNaturalist, the species add to California’s rich biodiversity.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (August 15, 2022) — California now has two new scorpions on its list of species, thanks to the efforts of two keen-eyed high school students from the Bay Area and the California Academy of Sciences. Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain, avid users on the community science platform iNaturalist, discovered the new-to-science scorpions while trawling the thousands of observations uploaded by other users in the state. New species Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California. For scientists, conservation managers, and the growing communities of wildlife observers on platforms like iNaturalist, these newly described species provide a better understanding of California’s biodiversity and the places most in need of protection—a cornerstone of the Academy’s Thriving California initiative. The budding naturalists collaborated with Curator of Arachnology  Lauren Esposito, PhD, to formally describe the species in a study published today in ZooKeys

This female scorpion is one of the newly described species (Paruroctonus soda) and is seen carrying 51 juveniles. (© Prakrit Jain)

In 2019, Forbes and Jain came across an unknown scorpion species on iNaturalist observed near Koehn Lake—an ephemeral lake in the Mojave Desert—that had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier. 

“We weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at,” Jain says. “Over the next couple years, we studied scorpions in the genus Paruroctonus and learned they frequently evolve to live in alkali playas like Koehn Lake. When we returned to that initial observation, we realized we were looking at an undescribed Paruroctonus species.” 

Harper Forbes (left), Prakrit Jain (right), and Academy Curator of Arachnology Lauren Esposito, PhD, (center) search for scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Serendipitously, another unknown scorpion observed in San Luis Obispo County was uploaded to iNaturalist shortly after their discovery in May of 2021. With a few years of arachnid research under their belts, Forbes and Jain knew right away that it was a new species in the same genus. They immediately contacted Esposito to assist, resulting in two new-to-science scorpions—P. soda and P. conclusus—and a published paper in which Forbes and Jain are first authors. 

“Harper and Prakrit went through all the steps to formally describe a species, sampling the populations and comparing them with existing specimens in our collection,” Esposito says. “There’s a lot of work involved, but they are incredibly passionate about this research. It’s inspiring to see that their hobby is one that advances biodiversity science.”

The new scorpions species were discovered on community science platform iNaturalist. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

P. soda and P. conclusus are both alkali sink specialists, meaning they have adapted to the alkaline basins—dry, salty playas with high pH soils—in which they evolved. Each species has a very limited range and can only be found in the playas where they were discovered: Soda Lake (the former’s namesake) and Koehn Lake. During their summer break, Forbes and Jain visited the lakes to collect specimens of each new species. After scouting the alkali flats during the daytime for habitats most suited for playa scorpions, they set out with their vials and forceps at dusk, as these desert dwellers are primarily active at night. Luckily, most scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so the researchers used blacklights to scour the open playas while keeping an eye out for their glowing subjects. They also searched the scorpions’ typical hiding places, peering into cracks in the hard clay soil and combing through common alkali sink plants like iodine bush (Allenrolfea occidentalis) and bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra). At the end of each trip, they successfully collected a sample size of both males and females sufficient for the study.

While the species range for P. soda is small (just a few square miles), it is entirely located within Carrizo Plain National Monument—federally protected land that renders this species safe from human-driven threats. Unfortunately, this is not the case for P. conclusus.

“While no official assessment has been carried out for either species, P. conclusus can only be found on a narrow strip of unprotected land, less than two kilometers long and only a few meters wide in some places,” Forbes says. “The entire species could be wiped out with the construction of a single solar farm, mine, or housing development.” 

Habitat of Paruroctonus conclusus at the type locality, taken in July 2021.

Though P. soda seems to be relatively safe compared to P. conclusus, the constant threat of climate change endangers all wildlife, particularly in delicate desert environments. As part of the Thriving California initiative, Academy scientists hope to collaborate with schools and communities throughout the state to conduct further biodiversity research. By harnessing scientific data—including crowd-sourced data from iNaturalist—and providing access to environmental and science learning, the initiative hopes to halt biodiversity loss in the Golden State. 

Harper and Prakrit will continue their research with the Academy and are currently working on a holistic book of California’s scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Now high school graduates, this fall Forbes will study evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona and Jain will study integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. They will continue their work with Esposito and are currently collaborating on their next major project: a holistic book of California’s scorpions. In addition to their research and academic endeavors, they are excited to get back out in the field to find, collect, and identify more scorpions. 

“I will never get tired of going out at night to find a certain scorpion for the first time,” Jain says. “Whether it be solving the mystery of a long-lost scorpion or discovering something new in an unexpected place, a trip to the desert is always a challenge and an adventure.”

This press release was originally published by the California Academy of Sciences.

Underground carnivore: the first species of pitcher plant to dine on subterranean prey

This is the first pitcher plant known to produce functional underground traps, and the first for which capture of subterranean prey has been observed.

What we thought we knew about carnivorous plants was swiftly called into question after scientists discovered a new species in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. Nepenthes pudica is what scientists call a pitcher plant – it has modified leaves known as pitfall traps or pitchers, where it captures its prey. In a strategy so far unknown from any other species of carnivorous plant with pitfall traps, this one operates underground, catching its prey in the soil.

Habitat with a mature plant of Nepenthes pudica lacking pitchers on the aboveground shoot. Photo by Martin Dančák

“We found a pitcher plant which differs markedly from all the other known species,”

says Martin Dančák of Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, lead author of the study, published in the journal PhytoKeys, where his team described the new species.

“In fact, this species places its up-to-11-cm-long pitchers underground, where they are formed in cavities or directly in the soil and trap animals living underground, usually ants, mites and beetles”, he adds.

A completely buried shoot with a bunch of well-developed pitchers uncovered from beneath a moss cushion. Photo by Martin Dančák

Only three other groups of carnivorous plants are known to trap underground prey, but they all use very different trapping mechanisms and, unlike Nepenthes pudica, can catch only minuscule organisms.

The plant forms specialised underground shoots with entirely white, chlorophyll-free leaves. In addition to lacking their normal green pigmentation, the leaves supporting the pitchers are reduced to a fraction of their normal size. The pitchers, however, retain their size and often also their reddish colour.

If no cavity is available, the shoots grow directly into the soil, as seen here where a bunch of pitchers was excavated from the ground. Photo by Martin Dančák

“Interestingly, we found numerous organisms living inside the pitchers, including mosquito larvae, nematodes and a species of worm which was also described as a new species”,

explains Václav Čermák of the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic, who was also part of the research team.

The newly discovered species grows on relatively dry ridge tops at an elevation of 1100–1300 m. According to its discoverers, this might be why it evolved to move its traps underground. “We hypothesise that underground cavities have more stable environmental conditions, including humidity, and there is presumably also more potential prey during dry periods,” adds Michal Golos of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, who also worked on this curious plant.

A shoot with reduced white leaves and well-developed pitchers extracted from a cavity under a tree. Photo by Martin Dančák

A series of lucky events back in 2012 led to the discovery of the species. Ľuboš Majeský of Palacký University Olomouc, part of the research team, recounts the key moment: “During a several-day trip with our Indonesian colleagues to a previously unexplored mountain, randomly chosen from a number of candidates, we noted plants which were undoubtedly Nepenthes but produced no pitchers. After a careful search, we found a couple of aerial pitchers, a few juvenile terrestrial ones, and one deformed pitcher protruding from the soil.”

“At first, we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and that local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers. Still, as we continued to find other pitcherless plants along the ascent to the summit, we wondered if a species of pitcher plant might have evolved towards loss of carnivory, as seen in some other carnivorous plants. But then, when taking photos, I tore a moss cushion from a tree base revealing a bunch of richly maroon-coloured pitchers growing from a short shoot with reduced leaves entirely lacking chlorophyll.”

The group then checked the other encountered plants and found that all of them had underground shoots with pitchers, confirming that this species specifically targets the underground environment.

The scientific name Nepenthes pudica points to the plant’s curious behaviour: it is derived from the Latin adjective pudicus, which means bashful and reflects the fact that its lower pitchers remain hidden from sight.

Nepenthes pudica is endemic to Borneo.

“This discovery is important for nature conservation in Indonesian Borneo, as it emphasises its significance as a world biodiversity hotspot. We hope that the discovery of this unique carnivorous plant might help protect Bornean rainforests, especially prevent or at least slow the conversion of pristine forests into oil palm plantations,”

concludes Wewin Tjiasmanto of Yayasan Konservasi Biota Lahan Basah, who helped discover the new species.

***

Research article

Dančák M, Majeský Ľ, Čermák V, Golos MR, Płachno BJ, Tjiasmanto W (2022) First record of functional underground traps in a pitcher plant: Nepenthes pudica (Nepenthaceae), a new species from North Kalimantan, Borneo. PhytoKeys 201: 77-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.201.82872

***

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The tallest begonia species in all Asia found in Tibet, China

Chinese researchers have discovered the tallest Begonia recorded in Asia. The plant belongs to a new species aptly called Begonia giganticaulis.

With over 2050 known species, Begonia is one of the largest plant genera. Since most begonias are small weeds, a begonia taller than a human is a very unusual sight. However, the newly discovered Begonia giganticaulis is one of the few exceptions.

In 2019, Dr. Daike Tian and his colleagues initiated a field survey on wild begonias in Tibet, China. On September 10, 2020, when Dr. Tian saw a huge begonia in full bloom during surveys in the county of Mêdog, he got instantly excited. After checking its flowers, he was confident it represented a new species.

From a small population with a few dozens of individuals, Dr. Tian collected two of the tallest ones to measure them and prepare specimens necessary for further study. One of them was 3.6 meters tall, the thickest part of its ground stem close to 12 cm in diameter. To measure it correctly, he had to ask the driver to stand on top of the vehicle. In order to carry them back to Shanghai and prepare dry specimens, Dr. Tian had to cut each plant into four sections.

A Begonia giganticaulis plant is cut up for easier transportation
A Begonia giganticaulis plant is cut up for easier transportation. Photo by Daike Tian

To date, this plant is the tallest begonia recorded in the whole of Asia.

Begonia giganticaulis, recently described as a new species in the peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys, grows on slopes under forests along streams at elevation of 450–1400 m. It is fragmentally distributed in southern Tibet, which was one of the reasons that its conservation status was assigned to Endangered according to the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria.

The research team pose with a specimen of Begonia giganticaulis at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden.
The research team pose with a specimen of Begonia giganticaulis at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden. Photo by Meiqin Zhu

After being dried at a herbarium and mounted on a large board, the dried specimen was measured at 3.1 m tall and 2.5 m wide. To our knowledge, this is the world’s largest specimen of a Begonia species. In October 2020, the visitors who saw it at the first Chinese begonia show in Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden were shocked by its huge size.

Currently, the staff of Chenshan Herbarium is applying for Guinness World Records for this specimen.

Research article:

Tian D-K, Wang W-G, Dong L-N, Xiao Y, Zheng M-M, Ge B-J (2021) A new species (Begonia giganticaulis) of Begoniaceae from southern Xizang (Tibet) of China. PhytoKeys 187: 189-205.https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.187.75854

All articles published in Pensoft journals at your fingertips with the Researcher app

Following a recent integration with the novel, social network-style research discovery app Researcher, the scholarly platform ARPHA has taken yet another step to ensure scholarly publications from across its open-access, peer-reviewed journal portfolio are as easy to find and read as possible. Now, research papers published in all Pensoft’s and all other journals hosted on ARPHA Platform can reach the 1.8 million current users of Researcher directly on their smartphones.

Following a recent integration with the novel, social network-style research discovery app Researcher, the scholarly publishing platform ARPHA has taken yet another step to ensure scholarly publications from across its open-access, peer-reviewed journal portfolio are as easy to find and read as possible. Now, research papers published in all Pensoft’s, as well as all other journals hosted on ARPHA, can reach the 1.8 million current users of Researcher directly on their screens.

Similarly to the world’s best known and used social media networks: Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, Researcher allows its users, scientists and academics, to follow their favourite scholarly journals and topics, in order to receive their content in a personalised newsfeed format, either on their phones or computers. Thus, they can stay up to date with the latest research in their scientific fields by simply scrolling down: much like what they are already used to in their everyday life outside academia. 

Similarly to the well-known social network apps, Researcher lets users bookmark papers to go back to later on and even invite friends to join the platform. Furthermore, the users can also synchronise their accounts with their ORCID iDs, in order to load their own papers on their profiles on Researcher. 

The Researcher app fetches new publications from all indexed journals several times a day, thus ensuring that a user’s newsfeed is updated in almost real time. Now, the ARPHA-hosted journals have joined the 17,000 academic outlets from across the sciences already sharing their publications on the app.

“At Pensoft, we are perfectly aware that good and open science practices go far beyond cost-free access to research articles. In reality, Open Science is also about easier findability and reusability, that is the probability one stumbles across a particular research publication, and consequently, cite and build on the findings in his/her own studies. By indexing our journals with Researcher, we’re further facilitating the discoverability of their content to the benefit of the authors who trust us with their work,”

says ARPHA’s and Pensoft’s founder and CEO Prof. Lyubomir Penev.

“We share ARPHA’s belief that Open Science means more than just free access – it means giving scholarly and scientific content the best chance to get in front the right reader at the right time. Our mission is to make sure that scientists and researchers never miss vital research. This partnership will ensure that distribution to our users across the world is built into the ARPHA platform – boosting discoverability and smoothing the path to impact,”

adds Olly Cooper, CEO of Researcher.

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