An island snake, lost and found

May 23, 2014 • 3:54 pm

by Greg Mayer

Islands that have never been connected to a continent, often called oceanic islands, must receive their flora and fauna over water, by what Darwin termed “occasional means of transport”. Such means include floating (e.g. coconuts), wind (e.g. spiders), rafting (e.g. iguanas), ice floes (e.g. arctic foxes), and, of course, flying (e.g. birds and bats). Because the ability to disperse is rather unevenly distributed across a continental fauna, the animals of oceanic islands are usually a rather distinctive subset of what is found on the nearest continents. Insular faunas have bats and birds, often lizards and snakes, occasionally mice and rats, but only very rarely amphibians or larger terrestrial mammals.

Another feature of insular faunas is that they are rich in endemics (forms peculiar to the island), because of the rarity of gene flow from the mainland. Unfortunately, these endemic forms, having evolved in isolation with an unusual fauna around them (lacking in predators, for example), often succumb to the environmental changes wrought by man when their islands are discovered and colonized. There have been some cases where island species thought extinct have been rediscovered alive, most famously perhaps the case of the giant lacertid lizards of the Canary Islands. A case from the Revillagigedo Islands in the Mexican Pacific poses an interesting twist on the rediscovery story.

Clarion nightsnake (Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha unaocularis) on Clarion Island by Daniel Mulcahy.
Clarion nightsnake (Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha unaocularus) on Clarion Island by Daniel Mulcahy.

In a paper in PlosOne, Daniel Mulcahy and colleagues from the Instituto de Ecología in Xalapa, Veracruz, México and the U.S. National Museum (including my old friend and mentor George Zug) report the rediscovery of an extant population of the Clarion Island nightsnake (Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha unaocularus). The only previous specimen known had been collected by the intrepid naturalist William Beebe in 1936, and had been scientifically described as an endemic form on the basis of this specimen by Wilmer Tanner in 1944.

What makes this case different from the more usual rediscovery is that in 1955, because no further specimens had been found, Bayard Brattstrom suggested that the original specimen had come from the Mexican mainland, and that the locality data on Beebe’s specimen was in error. Thus the Clarion nightsnake disappeared not into the roll of the extinct, but into the roll of the never existed! So, for nearly 80 years, until 2013, no one had found a Clarion nightsnake, and for most of that time no one thought there even was such a thing.

Mulcahy and colleagues did two things. First, rereading Beebe’s writings about his Clarion expedition, it was clear to them that Beebe had not made an error in labeling where his snake was from– he was very explicit about having found the snake on Clarion, and not the mainland. Second, in 2013 they went to Clarion, and armed with Beebe’s book, they quickly found the right place, and the snakes. They found eleven in all, collected five, and took blood samples and photos of the rest. Thus, knowing the right place and time of day to look, the species proves to be locally common.

Clarion Island, by Daniel Mulcahy.
Clarion Island, by Daniel Mulcahy.

Based on their morphological and DNA analyses, Mulcahy and colleagues have raised the Clarion snake from a subspecies to a species, but as we’ve discussed before on WEIT the ranking of divergent allopatric forms is a judgment call, and not really the take home message here. Rather it’s a genuine rediscovery (not a shift in taxonomic rank) of an island endemic, which is potentially threatened by several factors, including introduced animals. Mulcahy and colleagues make several recommendations to help insure the snake’s survival.

The Revillagigedo Islands (from Wikipedia).
The Revillagigedo Islands (from Wikipedia).


Beebe, C.W.  1938. Zaca Venture.  Harcourt, Brace, New York.

Brattstrom, B.H. 1955. Notes on the herpetology of the Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico. American Midland Naturalist 54:219-229.

Mulcahy, D.G., J.E. Martínez-Gómez, G. Aguirre-León, J.A. Cervantes-Pasqualli, and G.R. Zug. 2014. Rediscovery of an endemic vertebrate from the remote Islas Revillagigedo in the eastern Pacific Ocean: the Clarión nightsnake lost and found. Plosone 9(5): e97682 (8 pp). pdf

Tanner, W.W. 1944. A taxonomic study of the genus Hypsiglena. Great Basin Naturalist 5: 25–92. pdf

h/t Jim Ebsary

8 thoughts on “An island snake, lost and found

  1. Although this is far from my specialties (chemistry, law), a fascinating story – thanks, Greg. I wonder how many other of these “microspecies” have been formed on various islands, and how many have died out because of human visitation.

    1. Flightless rails (Rallidae) on Pacific islands represent a large percentage of recorded vertebrate species extinctions in the last millennium (hundreds of species). It’s relatively easy to identify a medium-sized bird from subfossil bone in midden deposits, whereas small recently-extinct island-endemic snakes and lizards are less likely to be preserved, or recognised as different from common/widespread species.

  2. Thank you for this! Very interesting! It’s a beauty too. I wish there were better photos of it online – there aren’t many of them! The eyes look really orange in this photo, but other photos show them with the brownish/grey eyes you would expect.

    1. Hypsiglena has metallic-looking eyes that can look copper or golden in the right light. The eyes are also striking because they have vertical pupils.

      The Reptiles of AZ website has photos of three species of Hypsiglena from Arizona. Taxonomy of this genus varies depending on the source you read, so I won’t get into that.

      Hypsiglena is one of my favorite snakes. One of my cats once found one curled up behind a shelf in our house. It was unharmed and I released it outside under one of our native oaks.

    1. Inside the snake. Notice how the loop at the far left of the photo looks suddenly fatter…

  3. Mulcahy and colleagues make several recommendations to help insure the snake’s survival.

    Good, and a proverbial Clarion call.

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