Museum data sheds light on coral snakes and their mimics

A U-M led team of herpetologists has just published a pair of papers dealing with the evolution of warning coloration and mimicry in New World snakes. The first is published in Nature Communications and deals with the evolutionary dynamics of coral snake-like coloration (red-and-black banding) in both space and time. The University of Michigan released a really nice multimedia feature on this paper, which includes some great video footage from our recent UMMZ Herpetology expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. One of my favorite subclips from the accompanying video comes at 1:55, where you can see some footage we shot of a harmless litter-dwelling snake (Atractus elaps) doing a spectacular imitation of a coral snake defensive display (see below). This display was quite convincing and inspired a considerable level of caution among our group of professional herpetologists!

The second paper, published in Evolution, deals with the genetics of coloration in the ground snake, Sonora semiannulata. We looked at some simple models for the inheritance of red and black pigmentation, which has implications for understanding the evolution of warning color patterns in snakes more generally.

What both of these papers have in common (other than their emphasis on beautiful color patterns in snakes!) is their extensive use of museum collections. This work would not have been possible without the vast storehouse of information contained in the herpetology collections at numerous natural history museums. The Nature Communications paper relied on geographic information from hundreds of thousands of snakes collected over more than a century. The Evolution paper used a phenotypic database derived from several thousand preserved Sonora specimens. Beyond the basic scientific results, these papers provide further evidence for the utility of museum collections in understanding basic evolutionary and ecological processes (a topic that will likely be a recurrent theme on this blog!).

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