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Phenotypic and lineage diversification of natricine snakes

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NATRICINE (Phenotypic and lineage diversification of natricine snakes)

Reporting period: 2017-10-11 to 2019-10-10

NATRICINE was a study of the macroevolution of a major group (240 extant species) of snakes. The overarching project aim was to determine the extent to which lineage and phenotype diversification is impacted by dispersal to new regions (potentially providing ecological opportunity) and by evolutionary transitions between ecotypes. The overarching aim was tackled via four main research objectives: (1) molecular phylogenetics to determine the interrelationships among >70% of all natricine species; (2) historical biogeography to identify ancestral areas and the location and timing of major dispersal events; (3) phenotypic disparity and diversity analyses to quantify the main axes of natricine variation in time and space; (4) quantitative analyses to test whether different ecotypes and geographical groups have undergone different rates of lineage and phenotype diversification. NATRICINE also aimed to provide advanced training to an early-career postdoctoral researcher, and to facilitate transfer of skills and knowledge between this researcher and his host institution.

Biodiversity forms the basis of the vast array of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being and the health of the planet. Understanding biodiversity is one of the first step towards its conservation. Some natricine snakes are poisonous and venomous, and thus have potential biomedical interests.

NATRICINE was successful because it achieved the project goals. 1. An early career researcher received advanced training in independent project management, grant writing, science communication and state of the art research methods and techniques. The researcher transferred expertise in Indian reptile biology to host institution. Biogeographic and evolutionary hypotheses were tested by gathering and analysing data. Results have been disseminated at conferences, through submission of manuscripts to scientific journals, and depositing data with publicly availably repositories.
NATRICINE has achieved its goals. 81% (198 species) of the known diversity of natricines were studied in this project. During the duration of this project the Individual Fellow (IF) visited six other museum collections (2 in Europe, 2 in USA & 2 in India) and loaned samples from six other museums for morphological data collection. Morphological data was collected from 1348 specimens and 2D morphometric data was generated from 240 specimens. 747 individual sequences from 96 samples were generated during this project. The IF got training in CT scanning, 3D surface scanning, proposal writing, public engagement and macroevolutionary quantitative analysis.

One of the primary objectives of NATRICINE was to generate a densely sampled phylogeny. With the help of multiple collaborators and museum tissue loans this was achieved (81% species covered). 747 individual DNA sequences from 96 samples were generated during this project. A new genus and a new species of natricine was discovered and described in a scientific journal, and an additional paper described a new subfamily of snakes for a genus that had previously been argued to be a natricine. The IF presented the results of this study as a presentation “Ecomorphological diversity patterns in natricine snakes” at the Evolution conference in Providence, Rhode Island, USA and at the Systematics Association conference in Bristol, UK.

Data: morphological data were generated from 1348 specimens and 2D morphometric data were generated from 240 specimens. 200 literature data were verified for ecological and distributional information for 200 species of natricine snakes. The IF visited two museums in each of Europe (Natural History Museum in Berlin & Paris), USA (Smithsonian, Washington, DC & American Museum of Natural History, New York) and India (Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata & Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai) to examine specimens and generate morphological data. Furthermore, samples were loaned from six other museums for morphological study. 3D surface scanning was carried out for 30 specimens. MicroCT scans of the skulls and lower jaws of 103 natricine specimens (91 species) were generated.

In addition to the three taxonomy/systematics papers already published, a further three have been submitted and are in review. Three further manuscripts are in an advanced state of preparation, and all will be submitted to peer reviewed journals before April 2020: 1. Biogeography and systematic relationships of Sub-Saharan African natricine snakes, (2) Global natricine phylogeny and trait evolution & (3) Convergence in ecomorphological diversity in natricine snakes. DNA sequence data generated in this study will be deposited in GenBank as well the Natural History Museum’s data portal. Morphological data will be added as a supplementary material along with these manuscripts. Considering the extensive taxon sampling, the data sets and results are unique in documenting and understanding the origins of natricine ecomorphological diversity.

The IF benefitted from the extensive training and interactions with his hosts and developed and/or enhanced skills in project management, writing grant proposals and advanced data analysis. Furthermore, the IF participated in two public engagement events through the host institution’s Nature Live platform and European Researcher’s Night. The international exposure the IF received in this project will have long lasting impact on his career.
Understanding and documenting biodiversity is the need of the hour. The phylogenetic part of this study and accompanying systematic revision highlights the unique lineages and their distribution, which will help in conservation projects. The IF examined 1348 natricine snakes from different museums and sexed ~900 of these, and re-identified many. These data will be shared with the respective museum curators which can be added to the catalogue or register which will be used by researchers in future. Some natricine snakes are poisonous and venomous, additional sequence data generated by this study was able to resolve relationships of the poisonous and venomous snakes in the phylogeny. Snakes of the genus Rhabdops have nuchal poison glands (unique for snakes) and identification of this gland was achieved for the first time for tens of museum specimens.

Snakes (especially poisonous and venomous species) are fascinating to the public, and NATRICINE proved to be an excellent vehicle to increase public understanding of science.

The IF’s advanced training in phylogenetic and macroevolutionary analysis, and 3D surface scanning and microCT scanning of preserved specimens will be of great help in his research in future. During the course of this project the IF also received training in grant writing from multiple senior researchers from the host institution. Since starting the project, the IF submitted four external funding applications and was successful in three of them. This, further reflects on the success of this project in training an IF in advancement of his research career.
IF interacting with public about NATRICINE on European Researchers nights at NHM, London
IF presenting his poster at the Systematic Association Conference held in June 2019 at Bristol, UK
IF interacting with Marc Tachelet from EC about NATRICINE on European Researchers nights 2018