Department of Biology News
UT Arlington professor discovered new snake species inside belly of another
A UT Arlington professor who’s been studying reptiles and amphibians for decades has named a new type of snake he found in the belly of another snake.
In a paper published last month, biology professor Jonathan Campbell made his discovery from 40 years ago official: He had found a new species and genus of snake. Though he said he has discovered around 200 new species of snakes, this one marks the last before Campbell’s retirement this week.
He and two other herpetologists, Eric Smith and Alexander Hall, named the snake Cenaspis aenigma, which means “mystery dinner snake.”
Campbell, who has been at UT Arlington for 37 years, found the snake-inside-a-snake in a remote part of Mexico, about 30 miles from a small town called Rizo de Oro in the state of Chiapas. There are only two ways to get there: You can walk or ride a mule up the mountain.
Some people he had befriended in the area pointed Campbell to a Central American coral snake they had killed, and Campbell noticed its belly looked full.
So he collected the dead snake and took it back to the U.S. with him in 1976, where he dissected it and inside found a 10-inch long snake.
What’s amazing about the discovery wasn’t that the snake was found in the belly of another snake. Coral snakes, the one that ate the "mystery dinner snake," are known to eat other snakes. (It makes sense, Campbell said: If you're a coral snake, another snake is the easiest shape of food for you to eat.)
"What makes this one special is that it came from a very, very remote area that few people have been into," Campbell said. "And as it turns out, it's a little snake that you can't place in any group."
He said it was a "bizarre" snake in terms of its anatomy — the snake he found is a male with a reproductive system unlike any known genus of snake.
In at least a dozen visits back to the area with other researchers, Campbell and his team never found another one of those snakes.
"We found more of the coral snakes, but we haven't found any more of the little snake that is so unusual," Campbell said.
That's because the little snake likely lives underground and eats spiders and insects, he said.
The snake is preserved in a jar full of ethanol in the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Center on UT Arlington's campus, where it's one specimen among roughly 225,000 others. It's the largest collection of its kind in Texas, and "every critter in there has got a story," Campbell said.
Its jar is adorned with a red ribbon, signifying that the particular specimen inside was one that helped researchers define a new species.
Some specimens the researchers at UT Arlington have collected themselves. Others are gifts from zoos or the result of swaps with other reptile and amphibian collections. All of the specimens are dead — some are killed so they can be preserved, but many, like the snake-within-a-snake, are found dead. The researchers at UT Arlington do plenty of "salvage work," Campbell said.
Campbell marvels at the creatures in rows and rows of shelves at the center and says he could tell a story about every species there. He credits his fascination with herpetology — and more broadly, nature — to growing up in Mexico and several Central American countries.
He's often asked, when he's talking about a snake or a possum or even an armadillo: Well, what good are they?
"Well, you know, what good is the Mona Lisa?" he said. "They have intrinsic value and aesthetic value. I wish more people could appreciate the aesthetic beauty of nature in general."
Campbell plans to stick around UT Arlington even after he retires this week. He's finishing a book about the herpetology of Mexico that he's been working on for about 45 years, which he said will eclipse everything else he's ever done.
While Campbell works on that, he hopes the publication of the paper about his latest snake species discovery encourages other researchers to keep hunting for a live Cenaspis aenigma, so the species can be studied further.
-- Written by Dana Braham, Dallas News