‘Eureka moment’: KU graduate research assistant discovers new species, genus of snake

photo by: University of Kansas

Jeff Weinell, a KU graduate research assistant at the KU Biodiversity Institute, is lead author of a paper describing the Waray Dwarf Burrowing Snake as both a new genus and a new species in the peer-reviewed journal Copeia.

It just took a fresh pair of eyes for three preserved snake specimens to be recognized as something special — and entirely new.

In 2017, graduate research assistant Jeff Weinell realized that three snake specimens in the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum had been misidentified.

He had been studying a genus of snakes called Pseudorabdion and sequencing their DNA in order to understand their evolutionary relationships. When he got the results back, however, he realized that one specimen that had been identified as Pseudorabdion did not actually fit into the genus.

Weinell then sequenced DNA from other snakes in order to find out what the misidentified specimen might be related to. He discovered it was close to another genus of snakes, Oxyrhabdium, but not close enough to be the same.

“There was a moment where I knew it was a new species and I was extremely excited about that,” he said.

Since one specimen had been misidentified, Weinell thought there might be others, and ended up finding two more specimens that fit into a new genus and species now known as Levitonius mirus, or its common name, the Waray dwarf burrowing snake.

“It was one of those sort of classic science eureka moments,” said Rafe Brown, Weinell’s doctoral adviser and the curator-in-charge of the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. “When he started bringing the bits of data that suggested that he had found something really special in the collection — when the first hint of that data became available — it was absolutely thrilling.”

So thrilling, in fact, that, “We realized that it was something worth writing a paper about,” Weinell said.

On Dec. 23, a paper outlining the discoveries about the new snake species was published in the peer-reviewed journal Copeia, and Weinell was the lead author. In a Tuesday interview with the Journal-World, Weinell emphasized that his discovery would not have been possible if not for KU’s collection.

“Natural history museums and collections are very important because whenever you are doing the research in the field you may not recognize that something is new at the time. But given enough people, maybe years later…then you might recognize it as something that’s new,” he said.

Weinell chose to attend KU for his Ph.D. because of the university’s extensive collection of amphibians and reptiles from the Philippines, which is where the specimens of the new snake species came. According to the paper, the part of the Philippines in which the newly discovered snake species is thought to reside is home to about 112 species of snakes.

Levitonius mirus

The three specimens of the Waray dwarf burrowing snake that Weinell discovered were collected in 2006, 2007 and 2014 from their native habitats in the Samar and Leyte islands in the Philippines.

The distinguishing features of the new snake are its miniaturized size, shape of its skull and teeth and its small number of vertebrae. Because of these characteristics, Weinell and his coauthors believe the snakes live underground and eat earthworms. Their skulls are more solid than that of other snakes — their bones have fused together — and Weinell said he believes it is an adaptation of the snakes pushing the ground with their heads.

photo by: Weinell, et al.

Three example specimens of Waray Dwarf Burrowing Snake (Levitonius mirus).

In 2018, Weinell traveled to the Samar and Leyte islands but did not find more specimens of the Waray dwarf burrowing snake.

“We weren’t able to find it on that trip. We need to make another trip to verify that it (still) exists — learn more about it,” he said.

Weinell said the previous specimens that had been collected were found in expeditions that took place during the rainy season. For the underground species — “a lot of time the rain floods them out of the ground,” he said. Weinell hopes to return to the islands during the rainy season in order to have a better chance of finding them.

One of the most exciting parts of the discovery process for Weinell was getting to give the new species its scientific name.

“I think every biologist that has the opportunity to describe a species is always excited about that opportunity,” he said.

The genus name, Levitonius, is for Alan Leviton, a curator emeritus of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences who is known for his research on snakes in the Philippines, Weinell said. The species name, mirus, is Latin for remarkable.

“That’s kind of reflecting the fact that this was an unexpected find,” Weinell said.

The snake’s common name is a reference to the local community that lives in the region of the Philippines where the snakes are found: the Waray-Waray.

Brown said Weinell’s discovery is an example of the importance of going back and questioning former conclusions.

“Science needs to be revisited, and preferably, on a regular basis,” he said.

It is always humbling to discover the inaccuracies of past research, Brown said, but, “We’re not afraid to be wrong when the answer is something so much more exciting.”

Brown called Weinell’s finding a major discovery of a new branch on the snake evolutionary tree of life.

Weinell is hopeful that the snakes still exist in the Philippines today. He re-emphasized the importance of preserving specimens and having collections like those at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.

“Sometimes things might go extinct before they are ever recognized as existing in the first place,” he said. “By having these collections we can reduce the chances of that happening.”

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