A new species of egg-eating sea snake has been recently discovered in a formalin-filled jar in the Copenhagen Natural History Museum, Denmark.
The only specimen of the Mosaic sea snake, Aipysurus mosaicus, was found by chance by Prof John Elmberg of the Kristianstad University in Sweden and Prof Arne Rasmussen of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Conservation.
The scientists examined formalin-filled jars of snakes at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen and found two sea snakes with the same name on the label, which had been there since being sent home by the great collectors of the eighteen hundreds.
“But they looked different and didn’t seem to belong to the same group of snakes. That was where the detective work began. After comparing the sea snakes with other similar species in other museums in Europe it was even more obvious that we had found a new distinct sea snake,” explained Prof Elmberg, who co-authored a paper reporting the discovery in the journal Zootaxa (full paper available from the Kristianstad University).
“Museums are probably full of undiscovered species, and are an invaluable archive worthy of protection, just like the jungle itself,” Prof Elmberg added.
The Mosaic sea snake was named after its unusually patterned skin, which looks just like a Roman floor mosaic, lives in one of the world’s most endangered environments – the tropical coral reefs around Northern Australia and Southern New Guinea.
“Sea snakes are a good indicator of how the coral reefs and other precious ecosystems are doing. If there are snakes left in the environment it shows that the reefs are healthy and intact,” Prof Elmberg said.
“There are millions of sea snakes, but how they live, where and at what depth is difficult to know exactly because these snakes are so difficult to study.”
Some species of sea snake are considered as having the strongest venom of all snakes, but because the species that the scientists discovered is one of the few that feed on fish eggs, it has only very small fangs and is therefore virtually harmless. Of all the 3,000 snake species in the world, only 80 or so live in the oceans.
“This discovery also highlights very clearly the importance of the museum’s treasure trove of biodiversity. There are lots of species still to be discovered in the world’s museums, which unfortunately often struggle to finance their operations,” Prof Elmberg concluded.
Bibliographic information: Kate L. Sanders et al. 2012. Aipysurus mosaicus, a new species of egg-eating sea snake (Elapidae: Hydrophiinae), with a redescription of Aipysurus eydouxii (Gray, 1849). Zootaxa 3431: 1–18