A team of researchers has just discovered that a common species of kingsnake actually consists of three genetically distinct species. The yellow-bellied kingsnake, found throughout the Eastern United States, has evolved into separate species due to the variety of environments near the Mississippi River. The details are in a paper that was recently published in the January 2017 edition of the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
The yellow-bellied kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster), also known as the prairie kingsnake, is found in the Midwest and most of the Eastern United States. L. calligaster is nonvenomous but may excrete a smelly musk if mishandled. Their diet consists mainly of rodents and other snakes. Previously, it was believed that there was just one species of yellow-bellied kingsnake, with three subspecies.
Researchers from New York discovered that L. calligaster was actually three separate species, not simply subspecies. The species are genetically distinct and live in different ecosystems around the Mississippi River. Scientists had speculated that the river itself was dividing the snakes and causing genetic variation. This new study, however, shows otherwise. The three new species are actually divided based on the type of environment, not physical barriers.
The new species are L. calligaster, found in prairielands west of the Mississippi, L. occipitolineata, found in Florida wetlands, and L. rhombomaculata, found in forests to the east of the Mississippi. The three species fill different ecological niches and the research team found that they branched off in the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene.
The team’s findings show that a common North American snake is actually three separate species, all living in diverse environments. This raises some conservation concerns since L. occipitolineata populations are low and rapidly dropping due to urbanization in their Florida habitat. Now that scientists are aware that L. occipitolineata is a genetically separate species, efforts can be made to protect them.
A.D. McKelvy et al. Ecological divergence in the yellow-bellied kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) at two North American biodiversity hotspots. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (2017).