Snake Study Breaks New Research Ground

Alex Pyron, a GW assistant biology professor, studied snakes’ DNA to learn the history of Sri Lanka’s native species.

alex pyron snake study sri lanka
Alex Pyron, Robert F. Griggs Assistant Professor of Biology.
March 13, 2013

By Kurtis Hiatt

Alex Pyron’s research focuses on the slithering subjects of some people’s nightmares.

The GW assistant biology professor studies snakes, determining how one might be related to another and, in some cases, uncovering a new reptilian group altogether—like when he and a team of researchers discovered a new genus of the blindsnake on the island country of Sri Lanka, just off the southern coast of India.

Using DNA sequencing to determine its relationship to other snakes, Dr. Pyron thought the blindsnake the team uncovered—right in the yard of an environmental agency office—would be a new species. It turned out to be much bigger than that.

“When we sequenced it, we discovered that it was an entirely new lineage of blindsnake,” Dr. Pyron said. “It’s still a blindsnake, but a new genus, a group of blindsnakes that had never been discovered or described.”

Along with the discovery of the new group, Dr. Pyron and researchers confirmed the identity of 60 known species of snakes in Sri Lanka, using DNA sequencing technology on 40 of them to help researchers understand how various snakes are related to each other and their evolutionary relationship to other species around the world.

Their findings, which appear in the March edition of the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, show just how rich snake biodiversity is on the island.

“We found that Sri Lanka has been colonized by snakes at least five times by totally different snake groups, which have each diversified heavily within the island,” said Dr. Pyron, a Robert F. Griggs Assistant Professor of Biology.

That means that even though researchers know a lot about the snakes on the island, there’s still more to be discovered—and previous research to be corrected.

“The DNA data are telling us new stories about how they are related, completely contradicting what we thought we knew,” he said. “It tells us that Sri Lanka is a much bigger hotspot for biodiversity than previously known, and harbors massive richness.”

Researchers can also use the findings to draw conclusions about evolutionary biology and species diversity more broadly.

For his part, Dr. Pyron will continue studying species diversity in Sri Lanka with a new $16,000 award from the National Geographic Society. It’s just that this time, he’ll be studying lizards.