Scientists Discover Reason Behind Snakes' 'Shrinking Heads'

21 March 2013

Did you know that some species of animal can look drastically different in appearance, yet have nearly identical genes?

An international team of scientists led by Dr Kate Sanders from the University of Adelaide, and including Dr Mike Lee from the South Australian Museum, has uncovered how some sea snakes have developed 'shrunken heads' – or smaller physical features than their related species.

Their research is published today in the journal Molecular Ecology.

A large head – "all the better to eat you with" - would seem to be indispensable to sea snakes, which typically have to swallow large spiny fish. However, there are some circumstances where it wouldn't be very useful: sea snakes that feed by probing their front ends into narrow, sand eel burrows have evolved comically small heads.

The team has shown normal-shaped sea snakes can evolve such "shrunken heads" very rapidly. This process can quickly lead to speciation (one species splitting into two). The small-headed populations are also much smaller in absolute size than their ancestors, and these shape and size differences mean they tend to avoid interbreeding with their large-headed ancestors.

Dr Lee says, "A team led by my colleague Dr Kate Sanders (University of Adelaide) has been investigating genetic differences across all sea snakes, and we noticed that the blue-banded sea snake (Hydrophis cyanocinctus) and the slender-necked sea snake (Hydrophis melanocephalus) were almost indistinguishable genetically, despite being drastically different in size and shape.

"The slender-necked sea snake is half the size, and has a much smaller head, than the blue-banded sea snake."

"This suggested they separated very recently from a common ancestral species and had rapidly evolved their different appearances. One way this could have happened is if the ancestral species was large-headed, and a population rapidly evolved small heads to probe eel burrows - and subsequently stopped interbreeding with the large-headed forms."

Dr Lee says that snakes seem to have a very great ability to change their head shapes and body sizes. For instance, in Australia, snakes with small heads relative to body size are less likely to be poisoned by cane toads as they are unable to eat a toad big enough to poison them. Researchers have also shown that red-bellied blacksnakes have indeed evolved smaller heads and larger bodies within about 70 years of exposure to cane toads.

Dr Sanders says the research could have wider implications in other scientific studies: "our results highlight the viviparous sea snakes as a promising system for studies of speciation and adaptive radiation in marine environments."

The team's latest study is reason to believe that animals are very good at physically adapting to their environments – even if it doesn't mean a great deal of genetic change in the process.