Snakes on a plain

In rare scientific advance, new snake family identified in Israel

Family Micrelapidae has only three species, one in region of Israel and two in East Africa; reptiles believed to have slithered off the snake evolutionary tree 50 million years ago

A Micrelaps snake. (David David/Tel Aviv University)
A Micrelaps snake. (David David/Tel Aviv University)

A new family of snakes has been identified, including members that live only in the region of Israel, in what researchers hailed as a rare development in modern science, Tel Aviv University said in a statement Thursday.

The family Micrelapidae was identified by an international study of researchers from Finland, the US, Belgium, Madagascar, Hong Kong and Israel that included Prof. Shai Meiri of TAU’s School of Zoology. The team published a January paper on the discovery in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

“As far as we know, the new family includes only three species, one in Israel and neighboring countries, and two in East Africa,” the statement said.

According to the researchers, Micrelaps snakes diverged from the rest of the evolutionary tree of snakes about 50 million years ago. Since then, they have evolved independently, as a distinct and separate family.

“Since most animals have already been classified into well-defined families, such a discovery of a new family is quite a rare occurrence in modern science,” said Meiri.

“Today we tend to assume that most large groups of animals, such as families, are already known to science, but sometimes we still encounter surprises, and this is what happened with Micrelapid snakes,” he said.

Prof. Shai Meiri of Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology, Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. (The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Tel Aviv University)

The snake is small and usually features black and yellow rings around its body.

Micrelaps were for years considered part of the largest snake family, the Colubridae, “but multiple DNA tests conducted over the last decade contradicted this classification,” Meiri said in the TAU statement.

Efforts to discover which family the snakes belonged to failed to identify a likely candidate.

Using special high-resolution magnetic imaging, known as micro-CT, the researchers examined the snake’s morphology and in particular its skull. In addition, deep genomic sequencing was applied to regions of the reptile’s DNA that take millions of years to show a change. DNA was also compared to other snake families that Micrelaps might belong to.

“In this way, we discovered in Micrelaps some unique genomic elements, which were not found in any of the other groups,” Meiri said.

The local species are found in Israel as well as northern Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, southern Syria and southern Lebanon, and the African species are seen in Kenya and Tanzania.

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