A New Snake in Berlin

Ria Winters - AFC
March 6, 2012 share
Artists for Conservation

New species are not just discovered in the wild; sometimes it happens that a rare find is made in a depot of a long lost and forgotten specimen. This happened with a very rare member of the enigmatic family of "splitjaw snakes", Latin name: Bolyeriidae.

This blog leads - again - to Mauritius. The reason for my repeated mind travel to this country lies in the fact that so many unusual species have evolved there. No matter where you look, the species of the Mascarenes all have their own peculiarities.

It is not an exaggeration that these snakes are the clear winners in that region of having grown through their very own course of evolution resulting in an odd structure of their jaws.

Their upper jaw bone is split into front and back halves that are hinged together at a point just below the eye. The front of the mouth can bend up and down while the back teeth stay in place. This is very different from other snake species that unhinge their jaws from the skull in order to swallow prey.

There are only two monotypic genera in this family, the Round Island Burrowing Boa, Bolyeria multocarinata and the Round Island Keel-scaled Boa, Casarea dussumieri which is mostly just called Round island boa.

These snakes have long been considered to be a member of the Boa family but its odd jaw was so unusual that it was placed in its own family of "Bolyeriidae". Their common names still include the word "boa".

Unfortunately the Burrowing Boa is now believed to be extinct. It has not been seen for many years. Its cousin, the Round Island Boa, still survives on the volcanic cone of Round Island, north of Mauritius.

Their only distant relatives are the recently discovered genus Xenophidion schaeferi, a spinejaw snake from peninsular Malaysia. The Round Island Boa's of Mauritius and the Malaysian spinejaw snakes both contain only two species.

The fact they may share a common ancestor that lived on Gondwana a few hundred million years ago is pretty awesome! Especially when you realize they survived on just a small rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

But now we turn to Berlin. In 2004, in between the 160.000 specimens of the herpetology collection of the Humboldt University, now owned by the Berlin Natural History Museum, a wrongly labelled snake was discovered and redefined as one of a handful of specimens remaining in the world of Bolyeria multocarinata, the extinct Round Island Burrowing Boa.

The color in life has been described as light brown with small blackish spots dorsally and pink marbled with blackish ventrally. Very little is known about it, except that it had a burrowing existence in the top soil of Round Island.

For a year I had been working on a publication of the Mauritian fauna. For my watercolor of this snake I had only a few clues to go on. The painting had to be finished a couple of months ago to meet a deadline. Only later I had the opportunity to visit the herpetology department in Berlin and see the specimen for myself. I could compare fiction with fact and was relieved and a little surprised to see my painting was not far off. The spots were a little smaller than I thought and the head was also smaller; it had a more pointed shape. 

Luckily the publisher of the book was late which created time to adapt my watercolor; I made small changes to the head and spots. My revised painting was just in time for the publication. Unfortunately conservation was not in time to save this remarkable snake. By the time scientists wondered why it was never seen anymore it was already extinct.

Ria is a past AFC Flag Expedition artist. She traveled to Mauritius in May 2009. Visit Ria's Flag Exepedtion site

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