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New Study Reclassifies Three Types of Florida Snake

Researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History have recently finished a study that reclassifies three types of kingsnakes found in Florida as species.

Dr. Kenneth Krysko, the collection manager of the Division of Herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, conducted the study using DNA and morphology, which is the study of forms of living organisms.

“Our DNA work strongly correlated with the ranges of the former subspecies [of kingsnake], so we elevated all of them to species level,” Krysko said.

Krysko began the research on kingsnakes about a decade ago for his doctorate but recently continued the research again. He added more genes to the study to aid in research.

“I’ve been studying kingsnakes longer than anyone else has, so over 20 years now,” Krysko said.

Leroy Nuñez, an employee at the Herpetology Department of the Florida Museum of Natural History who recently graduated from the University of Florida with a master's degree, also contributed to the kingsnake study.

“We looked at several different genes, including mitochondrial and nuclear genes,” Nuñez said.

For the study, researchers used 66 total kingsnake specimens collected from around the country and from the Florida Museum of Natural History. They extracted DNA from tissue samples of the snakes and ran multiple analyses for each.

Catherine Newman, a graduate student at Louisiana State University, completed the niche modeling for the study.

“Kenny contacted me, because I knew him previously and he knew I worked on ecological niche modeling in the past, so he contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in doing it for the kingsnake project they were working on,” Newman said.

Newman’s niche modeling contribution involved taking the kingsnake specimen data, such as latitude and longitude coordinates of kingsnakes that Krysko had collected, and running it through a program with climate layers, temperature and precipitation from the year 1950 to 2000. The result of niche modeling shows where the climate is suitable for two of the kingsnake lineages and where they overlap.

The three new species of kingsnake are the Florida kingsnake or Lampropeltis floridana, the Eastern kingsnake or Lampropeltis getula and the Easter Apalachicola Lowlands kingsnake or Lampropeltis meansi.

The three kingsnake lineages were previously considered subspecies, before being elevated to species status after the study was conducted.

“For whatever reason, people don’t feel comfortable calling them species either due to lack of data that would determine them as species or for whatever reason,” Nuñez said.

According to Nuñez, the elevation of these types of kingsnakes is a great example of how rich and diverse Florida's biology is.

“Florida is not like anywhere else in the United States or in the world, really,” Nuñez said. “And I feel that people don’t really appreciate that.”

Kingsnakes in general are considered ophiophagus, meaning they eat other snakes, which is where they got the name “kingsnake.” Although kingsnakes as a whole are fairly docile and nonvenomous, the three species differ genetically, morphologically, geographically and physically.

“The Florida kingsnake is found only in peninsular Florida, the eastern kingsnake is only found in northern Florida and the panhandle, and that ranges all the way up to southern New Jersey on the eastern seaboard, and the Apalachicola Lowlands kingsnake is only found in Apalachicola National Forest and just south of there,” Krysko said.

Krysko and the other researchers began studying the kingsnake out of interest.

“It’s just a great snake,” Krysko said. “A great group of snakes I should say.”

Savanna Kearney is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached on Twitter @savannakearney.