Foreign Media: Rare iridescent snake discovered in Vietnam

American and Vietnamese scientists have discovered a rare species of burrowing snake, the only of its kind in the world that locates in small-scale patter and shines with an iridescent coloration.
December 10, 2020 | 15:35
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The iridescent scales of the newly discovered Achalinus zugorum (American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists)

A team of scientists researching biodiversity stumbled across a stunning new species of snake almost by accident in the lush green forests of northern Vietnam, according to The Independent.

The team of US and Vietnamese scientists were researching the ecology of landscapes among limestone karst formations, rivers, and valleys of a heavily forested part of northern Vietnam last year. They undertook night hikes which took them wading along rivers and streams and wandering through jungles, catching and recording information about a broad variety of the region’s flora and fauna.

But it was only while they were on their way to a survey site that the scientists spotted a snake on the road and stopped to investigate it.

The creature had dark iridescent scales, which shifted almost like a hologram from electric blue to acid green in the light, and they were laid out in an unusual pattern.

Instead of the scales lying one across the other as is usual among snakes, the ridged scales lay in what is known as a “keeled” pattern, and gives rise to the nickname “odd-scaled snakes”.

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A new species of burrowing snake has been discovered in Vietnam that sports the odd scale pattern and shines with a stunning iridescent coloration.

CNN reported that the scientists defined the finding belongs to the rare genus Achalinus, also known as "odd-scaled snakes" because their scales spread out instead of overlapping like most snakes. Until now, there were only 13 known species within the genus, six of which are from Vietnam.

"In 22 years of surveying reptiles in Vietnam, I have collected only six odd-scaled snakes," said Truong Nguyen, vice director of the Institute for Ecology and Biological Resources at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, in the Smithsonian blog. "This is one of the most poorly studied groups of reptiles."

The researchers hope this snake, which they named Achalinus zugorum in honor of the Smithsonian's retired curator of reptiles and amphibians, can fill in some of those gaps. The Achalinus genus branched from the evolutionary tree earlier than other groups, meaning they look and behave very differently from many other snakes -- and can carry vital information about snake evolution.

After their initial survey, the researchers brought the specimen back to the Smithsonian, where they sampled and sequenced the snake's DNA. The snake will soon be sent back to Vietnam.

In the study, the research group also highlighted the dangers threatening Vietnam's biodiversity and ecosystems, such as quarrying, deforestation, and species over-harvesting.

"It's happening so quickly that we can't keep up," said Miller, the Smithsonian researcher. "Some of the species unique to this region are gone before they're even described."

Discoveries such as these can better inform conservation policies and management strategies, the study added -- the only way to "assure the long-term survival of these enigmatic snakes in the face of existential threats."

According to Saigoneer, Achalinus zugorum was named in honor of retired Smithsonian curator George Zug and his wife, Patricia Zug. Nguyen says: “Scientists from the Smithsonian and the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, have known each other for several years via George Zug. We built a partnership around biodiversity research and conservation in Vietnam, so we are happy to name a new species after professor Zug and his wife.”
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