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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Galápagos Racers: answers to your questions about the BBC Planet Earth II iguana chase scene

This post will soon become available in Spanish

Galápagos Racers (Pseudalsophis occidentalis)
on Fernandina Island, from the BBC's Planet Earth II footage
If you haven't seen the incredible footage of the "iguana chase scene" from the BBC's Planet Earth II Islands episode, I encourage you to watch it right away. In addition to being a highly dramatic cinematographic masterpiece, it raises a number of interesting questions about the biology of the snakes in the clip. For a few days after it aired, the Internet was buzzing with these questions, and I've cataloged the answers to some of the most popular ones below. If you have one that isn't listed, feel free to ask it in the comments! And, if you want to know more about the process I used to dig up some of this information, check out my tutorial for teaching oneself about obscure snakes.

What kind of snakes are they?

Throughout the clip, Attenborough calls them "racer snakes"1, but herpetologists would normally call the snakes on the screen Galápagos Racers. Although these snakes are called "racers", they're not closely related to North American racers (genus Coluber); it's been about 45 million years since these two snakes last shared a common ancestor.

Galápagos Racers belong to the genus Pseudalsophis. Depending on which sources you consult, there are between 4 and 7 species of Pseudalsophis in the Galápagos, as well as one in mainland South America.

Pseudalsophis slevini eating a gecko on Pinzón Island
Just like Galápagos tortoises, finches, and many other organisms, there are different species of Galápagos Racers on the different Galápagos Islands (one of the concepts that sparked Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection). The film was made on Fernandina, the youngest, westernmost, and most volcanically-active island in the Galápagos. Fernandina has two species of snakes, Pseudalsophis slevini and Pseudalsophis occidentalis. The snakes in the film must be Pseudalsophis occidentalis, because they are too large and not boldly banded enough to be P. slevini. You can read the original descriptions of both species here.

None of the sources reporting which species is shown in the film are authoritative, but without exception when the species is given it is given as Pseudalsophis biserialis. This is not correct under any modern taxonomy, although there is also a good explanation for why it is mistakenly being used—P. occidentalis was briefly a subspecies of P. biserialis, but has mostly been and is now treated either as a subspecies of P. dorsalis or as its own species. See below for much more (probably too much) detail.

Why are there so many of them?

Galápagos Racer (P. dorsalis) among adult Marine Iguanas
on Santa Cruz, which are much too large for it to eat
Most snakes are not social, and because they must swallow their food whole they cannot share prey. These snakes are not found at such high densities year-round, but rather aggregate around consistent Marine Iguana nesting sites in May when the eggs are hatching.

Just as when baby sea turtles emerge from their nests, predators congregate at the temporary buffet, returning afterwards to their usual densities. Around the world, there are numerous examples of avian and snake predators exploiting emerging hatchling iguanas. Researchers working at other iguana nesting sites in the Bahamas, the West Indies, and Venezuela have hypothesized that snakes and other predators also converge on the nesting sites of these other iguanas to exploit the temporary food source. Another example of snakes congregating around abundant prey resources is that of Puerto Rican and Cuban boas, which aggregate around the openings of massive bat caves.

The rest of the year, Galápagos Racers eat lava lizards, geckos, insects, marine fishes, and hatchling birds, as well as introduced rats and mice.

Are they really hunting in a pack?

Almost certainly not. Again, most snakes are not social, and because they must swallow their food whole they cannot share prey. Pack-hunting behavior is unknown in snakes.

Two P. occidentalis trying to eat the same iguana
Jaw-walking is a fixed action pattern in snakes and they
may eat things that only vaguely resemble their food
once they start jaw-walking them.
From Planet Earth II Behind the Scenes
Some species have surprisingly social behaviors. It would be really interesting to examine social behavior in these snakes. To my knowledge no one has done so. Although they obviously cannot share a single food item, but if they are foraging in the same time and place on a limited resource, there might be an opportunity for the evolution of social cues. At least one paper suggested that this might be the case with a pit viper. Even though the BBC videographers saw snakes actively fighting over the same prey items and in some cases eating one another, it's possible that more closely-related snakes are less likely to fight over food or eat one another, or that males are less likely to compete with or try to eat females. These are testable hypotheses. However, these are not well-studied snakes. I don't think they are helping each other, but there's a lot that we don't know about snakes. Some snakes exhibit dominance hierarchies, and one study suggested that individual recognition occurs and persists over time in gartersnakes.

Few scientists are currently studying these snakes. It's a testament to the BBC that they are consistently able to film natural phenomena that are still unknown to science. Hopefully this tape will stimulate some research on this exact question, and on the ecology of Galápagos Racers. When I wrote about Galápagos Racers in 2013, not much was known about their ecology, and that's still the case. It's amazing that so little research has been done on these snakes, particularly in contrast to Galápagos tortoises and marine iguanas (not to mention finches and other non-avian reptiles).

Why don't the female Marine Iguanas just lay their eggs somewhere else, closer to the ocean maybe?

Fates of rock iguana hatchlings, over half of which were
eaten by Cubophis and Epicrates snake predators in their
first month of life. From Knapp et al. 2010
Marine Iguanas have to dig nests and lay their eggs in soft sand, away from the rocky, tidal foraging grounds of the adults. They choose protected lava reefs for this purpose, which are in short supply on most islands. One estimate suggested that the cost of migrating to their nesting sites represented half the reproductive effort of female Galápagos land iguanas.

Many species of reptiles nest in areas where they otherwise do not spend much time, especially aquatic species (reptile eggs need to "breathe" air and cannot be laid underwater). Female Marine Iguanas may all use the same nesting sites because those are the only sites available, or they may choose to nest near one another because, just like with sea turtles, synchronous hatching of the young increases their probability of survival.

In a study of Bahamian rock iguanas (Cyclura cychlura), snake predation was the most likely cause of mortality for newborn iguanas dispersing away from their nests. They estimated that about 20-30% of hatchling iguanas survived their first month, and those that moved quickly and linearly away from their nests were the most likely to survive, perhaps because predators had learned to hang around the nesting area. Another study of Galápagos land iguanas showed that predation attempts by Galápagos hawks were more than three times as likely to be successful when the body temperature of the iguana hatchlings was below 90°F. And, baby Galápagos marine iguanas that hung around their hatching area had about a 10% lower survival rate than those that moved to the coast, which the researchers attribute mostly to higher risk of predation at the nesting area.

Studies on the population biology of Marine Iguanas have shown that most of their mortality is caused by "predation, starvation (sometimes as a result of being trapped by a rock), crushing by a rock, being beaten against rocks by the sea, and suffocation in collapsed nest burrows. Animals may also die after being swept out to sea by offshore currents". So, actually, predation may be the best way for them to go. Besides Galápagos Racers, their other predators include Galápagos Hawks, Short-eared Owls, crabs, and Giant Hawk-fish.

Are they venomous/dangerous to humans?

No. Like many snakes, Galápagos Racers are rear-fanged. This means that, although technically they are venomous, they don't pose a danger to humans. Rear-fanged snakes mostly have grooved teeth (rather than hollow fangs) on the back of their upper jaw (as opposed to the front); they can use these teeth to get venom into their prey once they are biting it, but they cannot strike out and deliver venom the way a viper can. A small minority of rear-fanged snakes have delivered medically-significant bites to humans, but almost all of these take place in a captive setting. You can read more about the different types of snake fangs here.

I didn't know there were snakes in the Galápagos. How did they get there?

Map showing the estimated age of each of the
Galápagos Islands. From Ali & Aitchison 2014
Galápagos Racers colonized the Galápagos Islands from mainland South America, just like all of the other Galápagos fauna and flora. The modern Galápagos Islands formed from volcanoes over the past 4 to 5 million years, although some of them have been building beneath the ocean surface for up to 15 million years. It is thought that there have been islands in the Galápagos for at least 8 million years, but the oldest islands have eroded and are now back beneath the ocean surface.

Because the Galápagos Islands are located only six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, it is easier for them to be colonized by plants and animals from the mainland than for a more remote island chain such as Hawaii (which is >2,500 miles away from the nearest snake-inhabited landmass).

Molecular dating of the divergence time between Galápagos Racers and their closest mainland relative, Pseudalsophis elegans, suggests that it has been about 15 million years since they last shared a common ancestor. This suggests that the mainland ancestor of Galápagos Racers probably went extinct sometime over the last 15 million years, and that the ancestors of Galápagos Racers probably colonized the Galápagos Islands before any of the current islands existed (as is also the case for the Marine Iguanas). Until genetic work is done, we won't know how many times snakes colonized the Galápagos archipelago or how many distinct lineages there are. [Edit 12/30/2016: I have recently learned that Massey University ecologist Luis Ortiz-Catedral and his colleagues are working to understand the evolution of all the species in the genus Pseudalsophis and definitively answer this question.]

Could the film have been staged?

Obviously the scenes are spliced together, but in my opinion there's no chance the Galápagos National Park would allow something like this to be staged. They are among the strictest places in the world for researchers to conduct scientific work. However, more recent episodes of Planet Earth II have been criticized for incorporating fake sound effects.

One of the few phylogenies to include Galápagos Racers
Broadly, Pseudalsophis is nested within a large clade of Caribbean, Central, and South American xenodontine snakes including, among numerous others, the genus Alsophis, which once contained Galápagos Racers and after which their current genus is named. They have been in a variety of genera since their description, especially Dromicus, which is no longer in use, from 1876 to 1997.

In 1973, herpetologist Charles Myers wrote: "The classification of colubrid snakes in general, and of South American colubrids in particular, is in a notoriously unsatisfactory state." Unfortunately, we are not that much better off today when it comes to Galápagos Racers. It seems pretty clear that the nearest relative of P. biserialis, P. dorsalis, and P. occidentalis is Pseudalsophis elegans, the only species in the genus found on the mainland (in Ecuador, Peru, and extreme northern Chile). Beyond that, there isn't a lot of clarity about their next-closest relatives. They are possibly most closely related to obscure South American "groundsnakes" in the genus Psomophis, or to the even more obscure genus Saphenophis, which was described by Myers as "quite lacking in peculiar or unique features" and so named "in allusion to one incontrovertible fact about these snakes...from the Greek saphenes (evident truth, clear) + ophis (a serpent), meaning 'clearly a snake'". We don't really have a great hypothesis about how the different lineages of Galápagos Racers are related to one another, or even if they are all descended from a single common ancestor, because we only have DNA from one of them so far.

Hypothesized scenario for the evolution of Pseudalsophis snakes
So far, we have no DNA evidence that would support or refute this model
From Ali & Aitchison 2014
Two reviews based on morphology addressed this question in the late 1990s. The first (Thomas 1997) focused exclusively on Galápagos Racers and suggested that P. biserialis, P. dorsalis, and P. occidentalis are descended from a shared common ancestor with P. elegans, but that P. hoodensis is more closely related to the mainland species Philodryas chammissonis, and that P. slevini and P. steindachneri are most closely related to Caribbean species. The other study (Zaher 1999), which looked at hemipene morphology over a much larger group of snakes, disagreed, finding a shared derived character—an inflated papillate ridge, placed far medially, on the medial surface of the lobes—linking the Galápagos Racers together with the mainland species P. elegans. Statements that Galápagos Racers have “very similar hemipenes” notwithstanding, Zaher was criticized for not describing the specific characters uniting the Galápagos species to the exclusion of others.

Maglio (1970) noted that the tooth counts and arrangement and the and shape of the premaxilla bone was most similar among the three Galápagos species that he examined (P. biserialisP. dorsalis, and P. slevini), and different from the West Indian species that Taylor later suggested are P. slevini's closest relatives. More recently, a study led by Grazziotin claimed that they "unequivocally support...Zaher's (1999) hypothesis based on morphology that continental Pseudalsophis elegans is closely related to the Galápagos Island species of Xenodontinae (herein represented by Pseudalsophis dorsalis), rather than to West Indian Alsophis and Antillophis, and mainland Philodryas (Thomas, 1997)." However, they obviously didn't read Thomas's paper very carefully, because he also hypothesizes that P. dorsalis is closely related to P. elegans, and the Grazziotin paper didn't sequence any DNA from P. slevini, P. steindachneri, or P. hoodensis, and therefore didn't test any hypotheses about them.

As for whether or not the snakes in Planet Earth II should be called P. occidentalis or P. dorsalis occidentalis, that's really a lumper/splitter question. But, both the IUCN and the 2014 edition of Snakes of the World recognize P. occidentalis as a full species; it was originally described as such by Van Denburgh in 1912, sunk to a subspecies of P. dorsalis by Mertens in 1960, and re-elevated to a full species in a 1999 paper by Zaher that was not primarily concerned with taxonomy and appears to have subsequently been neglected. The Reptile Database is currently a holdout for the subspecies designation, which has not been disputed but which is also not explicitly supported by unambiguous data. Perhaps wisely, the official webpage of Galápagos National Park chooses not to use scientific names and refers to the Fernandina racers as the "western subspecies". The truth is that, until more research is done, we won't be able to settle on an accurate taxonomy for these snakes.

1 This sounds a bit redundant to a snake biologist, but it isn't incorrect. The one thing that I wish BBC programs would do is identify the species in them more precisely. I'm advocating for a "biologist mode" that can be activated which would show the location and identity of species in all clips, similar to the old MTV show Pop-up Video.


Thanks to Andy Kraemer and Jim Moulton for the use of their photographs.


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Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.