The Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig

is a research museum of the Leibniz Association

Systematics of blindsnakes

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Project title: 
Comparative osteology and phylogenetic systematics of the blind snake family Leptotyphlopidae (Squamata: Serpentes: Scolecophidia)
ZFMK Project lead: 
Object of research: 
Snakes, Leptotyphlopidae, Scolecophidia, Blindsnakes

Description

The 142 currently recognized species of the family Leptotyphlopidae comprise the smallest of all snake species (usually less than 30 cm in total length) and are among the least studied and poorest known groups of reptiles. Due to their fossorial and nocturnal lifestyle, observations on wild individuals are rare and they have been little collected. These head-first burrowing snakes have a reduced body plan, and much of their divergence, and their evolutionary success, have been associated with modifications of their tiny heads (often just 2-3 mm in length). They are extremely difficult to identify, as most species look superficially alike, and only a limited suite of diagnostic characters to differentiate the species is available.

Until now almost only external traits such as shape and scalation of the head or number of dorsal body scales have been used for differentiation, but the values are overlapping in many species. Only very few phylogenetic analyses exist, which included just a small number of species and often only a single specimen per species.

Nevertheless, recently published molecular analyses uncovered hidden cryptic diversity in the Leptotyphlopidae. Thus, there is a strong need for the establishment of further diagnostic characters of systematic and taxonomic value. Due to the rarity of the specimens the focus should be on the examination of characters which can be visualized with non-destructive methods.

Hence, this project aims to contribute substantial molecular and morphological information of most representatives of the family in order to provide the first taxonomically comprehensive study on the variability and phylogeographic structure of the family Leptotyphlopidae. In doing so, it is intended to solve a century-old taxonomic problem and allow a better understanding of this complicate group to facilitate species identification even for scientists who are not specialists in this group.

Generic, inter- and intraspecific relationships of the family shall be examined with the aid of modern, non-destructive technologies (high resolution computerized microtomography (microCT), geometric morphometrics) by combining molecular and morphological data (including osteological characters) in a large phylogenetic analysis of the majority of species and populations including primary types or topotypes.

Additionally, the family Leptotyphlopidae shall serve as a model system to test whether non-invasive CT-imaging and geometric morphometrics can generally be used to morphologically differentiate members of taxonomically extremely complicate and presumably highly cryptic vertebrate groups.

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Curator Herpetology
Radiation Protection Officer
Animal Welfare Officer
+49 228 9122-234
+49 228 9122-212
c.koch [at] leibniz-zfmk.de

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