Adapting to Live in a Hypersaline Environment

Scientists surveying sea snakes at the western boundary of their geographic range, in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, have published a paper in ZooKeys which serves as a replacement for outdated identification guides. Alongside their zoological findings is a new example of species adaptation when met with a changing environment. This new information can help scientists to understand and anticipate some biogeographical responses to climate change.

In their field work, the Iranian and French researchers encountered a Günther’s sea snake along with the nine previously identified species of sea snake in the two gulfs. The Günther’s sea snake was the “first [to be found] in this area”, as the Persian Gulf is beyond what was thought to be its geographical range (Rezaie-Atagholipour et al, 159). Of a few possible explanations, like a new ecological pressure forcing the snake west or a change in the environment of the gulf to become suitable for the species, the most sensible theory is that the snake adapted to survive in the Persian Gulf. It has remained warm and salty – “hypersaline” in the authors’ words – and yet the Günther’s sea snake now swims in those waters.

Lateral view of the head of Günther snake (Microcephalophis cantoris). Source: Rezaie-Atagholipour et al., 2016).

Lateral view of the head of Günther snake (Microcephalophis cantoris). Source: Rezaie-Atagholipour et al., 2016).

Zhai Yun Tan, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, has tied these findings to rising sea levels. As sea levels rise, coastal wetlands become more saline, down to their soil and groundwaters. These ecosystems, like mangrove forests for instance, are often rich in biodiversity and scientists are unsure how climate change and rising sea levels will influence coastal ecology. The science is sound in the case for combating climate change and without serious changes these ecosystems will experience soil degradation, outright habitat loss, and local extinctions. However, the discovery of the Günther’s sea snake specimen in the Persian Gulf suggests that some species will be able to adapt to the ecosystems in which biodiversity is lost and only some life can survive.

Study areas in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman in the Indo-West Pacific. Map: Rezaie-Atagholipour et al., 2016.

Study areas in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman in the Indo-West Pacific. Map: Rezaie-Atagholipour et al., 2016.

More:

Rezaie-Atagholipour, M., P. Ghezellou, et al. 2016. Sea snakes (Elapidae, Hydrophiinae) in their westernmost extent: an updated and illustrated checklist and key to the species in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. ZooKeys 622: 129-164.

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