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  Smallest snake-Leptotyphlops carlae sets world record

 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- S. Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University, has discovered a 4 inches long species of snake-which sets the world record for the smallest species of snake.
 Photo: The snake is small enough to curl up on a US quarter.
Photo by B.Hedges/ PSU  
(enlarge photo)

  "I was thrilled when I turned over that rock and found it," Dr Hedges told BBC News. "After finding the first one, we turned hundreds of other stones to find another one." In total, Dr Hedges and his herpetologist wife found only two females.

  Hedges said the snake, which is so diminutive it can curl up on a U.S. quarter, is the smallest of the roughly 3,100 known species of snakes.

   Hedges, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University, said the snake was found slithering beneath a rock near a patch of Barbadian forest.  

  The newly identified species, Leptotyphlops carlae, measures just 3.9 inches long and was found under a rock on the western Atlantic island of Barbados.

   "New and interesting species are still being discovered on Caribbean islands, despite the very small amount of natural forests remaining," said Hedges, who christened the miniature brown snake "Leptotyphlops carlae" after his herpetologist wife, Carla Ann Hass.

   Full-grown adults typically stretch less than 4 inches long.

   Two other extremely small snakes, L. bilineatus from Martinique and L. breuili from Saint Lucia, were identified nearby, suggesting that the world's three smallest snakes are all Caribbean threadsnakes.

   The Barbadian snake apparently eats termites and insect larvae, but nothing is yet known of its ecology and behavior. Genetic tests identified the snake as a new species, Hedges said. It is not venomous.

   This new discovery is described in the journal Zootaxa.

    Hedges previously identified the world's smallest frog and lizard on Caribbean islands. He explained that the process of naming the smallest requires measuring adult individuals -- ideally at least one male and one female -- and then comparing the average size to all other known species.

   He determined the Barbados threadsnake is the smallest of more than 3,100 known snakes. The snake may even be as miniscule as nature could go for snakes since, if it were any smaller, he believes its young would have nothing to eat. As it stands, Hedges thinks it primarily consumes the tiny larvae of termites and ants.

   Females of this smallest species produce just one slender egg. In contrast to larger species that may lay up to 100 eggs in a single clutch, with each egg measuring just a fraction of the mother's body, this snake produces a single hatchling that is half its mother's size.

   "The fact that tiny snakes produce only one massive egg -- relative to the size of the mother -- suggests that natural selection is trying to keep the size of hatchlings above a critical limit in order to survive," he explained.

   Hedges added that, because of the snake's small size, "almost anything could be a predator, including centipedes and spiders."

   Researchers believe that the snake - a type of thread snake - is so rare that it has survived un-noticed until now.

   But with 95% of the island of Barbados now treeless, and the few fragments of forest seriously threatened, this new species of snake might become extinct only months after it was discovered.
   Dr Hedges added that the snake's size might limit the size of its clutch. "If a tiny snake were to have more than one offspring, each egg would have to share the same space occupied by the one egg and so the two hatchlings would be half the normal size."

   The hatchlings might then be too small to find anything small enough to eat. This has led the researchers to believe that the Barbadian snake is as small as a snake can evolve to be.
  Tuesday, August 5, 2008

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