The newly-identified barred grass snake has been hiding in plain sight
Scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany analysed genetic information from over 1,600 grass snakes, and discovered that the barred grass snake – previously thought to be a subspecies of the common grass snake – is actually a separate species. It was previously named Natrix natrix helvetica as the common grass snake is Natrix natrix; it’s now been recognised as a distinct group with the name Natrix helvetica.
Genetic samples were taken from a variety of sources, including from old museum specimens. These preserved snakes not only added to the pool of information the scientists analysed, but also provided historical insights. Both species are found in the UK and across Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany; in fact, they’re one of the most widespread snakes in Europe.
They can both be over a metre (three feet) long and are found close to water in the south of England, but there are some big differences in the appearance. While the common grass snake is a dark green, the ‘new’ snake is grey, and lacks the vibrant yellow collar. Unsurprisingly considering its name, the barred grass snake has black stripes along its body, unlike the streaks and spots of its common relative.
Barred grass snake (left, credit: Wolfgang Böhme) and common grass snake (right, credit: Melita Vamberger)
Grass snakes eat fish and amphibians, and can sometimes wander into gardens with ponds in their search for food. They’re not venomous so there’s no need for alarm if you come across one and, no matter how scared you are of snakes, don’t be tempted to try and scare it or kill it – they’re protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
A reduction in suitable habitat and predation by animals like foxes and owls mean that their UK populations are struggling. Now that two species have been established, scientists will have to re-evaluate the population numbers of each and assess whether one is more threatened than the other.
With the revelation that there’s been an unidentified snake species slithering around under our noses, what are scientists going to discover next?