New Species of Rat Snake Discovered

An international team of scientists has described a cryptic new species of rat snake in the genus Elaphe.

The Urartian rat snake (Elaphe urartica) in Armenia. Image credit: Boris Tuniyev.

The Urartian rat snake (Elaphe urartica) in Armenia. Image credit: Boris Tuniyev.

Elaphe is a snake genus with distribution in temperate, subtropical, and tropical zones of both eastern and western hemisphere.

The genus is comprised of about 15 species, with most occurring exclusively in Asia.

The type species of the genus is the blotched rat snake (Elaphe sauromates), a non-venomous snake found in the Balkans, Anatolia, Caucasus, Ponto-Caspian steppes, and Levant.

“We studied the biogeography of Elaphe sauromates using both molecular and morphological data,” said lead author Dr. Daniel Jablonski of Comenius University and colleagues.

“We found that the taxon is, in fact, comprised of two distinct evolutionary lineages and the cryptic lineage represents a new.”

“It represents a cryptic species whose ancestors presumably diverged from their common ancestor with Elaphe sauromates around the Miocene-Pliocene boundary.”

The researchers named the new species Elaphe urartica. The common name is the Urartian rat snake.

“The specific epithet is a feminine adjective derived from the name of the ancient kingdom of Urartu that flourished in the Armenian Highlands and around lake Van, an area of recent distribution of Elaphe urartica, in the 9th–6th century BCE,” they explained.

“We are choosing this name out of respect for Peter Simon Pallas, who proposed the name for Elaphe sauromates, now the sister species of Elaphe urartica, which most likely refers to Sarmatians, a confederation of nomadic peoples inhabiting vast portions of the recent range of Elaphe sauromates between the 5th century BCE and 4th century CE.”

The total length of the new species usually does not exceed 4 feet (1.2 m), snout-vent length usually less than 3.3 feet (1 m), tail length less than 10 inches (25 cm).

“The snake is distributed in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Iran and Iraq,” the scientists said.

“Its geographic range is bordered by the Armenian Plateau, south-eastern foothills of the Great Caucasus, Alazan Valley, Kur-Aras, Lenkoran Lowlands, and the area of Qobustan.”

The discovery is reported in the journal PeerJ.

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D. Jablonski et al. 2019. The biogeography of Elaphe sauromates (Pallas, 1814), with a description of a new rat snake species. PeerJ 7: e6944; doi: 10.7717/peerj.6944

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