The deadliest sea snake is actually two look-alike species
Sea snakes have some of the most potent venoms of any snake, but most of the 60 or so species are docile, rare, or sparing with their venom. The beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa) is an exception. It lives throughout Asia and Australasia, has a reputation for being aggressive, and swims in estuaries and lagoons where it often gets entangled in fishing nets. Unwary fishermen get injected with venom that’s more potent than a cobra’s or a rattlesnake’s. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this one species accounts for the vast majority of injuries and deaths from sea snake bites.
We present a striking case of phenotypic convergence within the speciose and taxonomically unstable Hydrophis group of viviparous sea snakes. Enhydrina schistosa, the ‘beaked sea snake’, is abundant in coastal and inshore habitats throughout the Asian and Australian regions, where it is responsible for the large majority of recorded deaths and injuries from sea snake bites. Analyses of five independent mitochondrial and nuclear loci for populations spanning Australia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka indicate that this ‘species’ actually consists of two distinct lineages in Asia and Australia that are not closest relatives. As a result, Australian “E. schistosa” are elevated to species status and provisionally referred to Enhydrina zweifeli. Convergence in the characteristic ‘beaked’ morphology of these species is probably associated with the wide gape required to accommodate their spiny prey. Our findings have important implications for snake bite management in light of the medical importance of beaked sea snakes and the fact that the only sea snake anti-venom available is raised against Malaysian E. schistosa.
Highlights ► We present a striking case of phenotypic convergence within viviparous sea snakes. ► Enhydrina schistosa is distributed throughout the Asian and Australian seas. ► We analysed five independent mitochondrial and nuclear loci. ► Enhydrina schistosa consists of two independent lineages in Australia and Asia.
Keywords: Convergent evolution; Molecular phylogenetics; Cryptic species; Sea snakes; Venom
Ukuwela, de Silva, Mumpuni, Fry, Lee & Sanders. 2012. Molecular evidence that the deadliest sea snake Enhydrina schistosa (Elapidae: Hydrophiinae) consists of two convergent species. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2012.09.031
The deadliest sea snake is actually two look-alike species http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/11/20/the-deadliest-sea-snake-is-actually-two-look-alike-species/