Our visitor hosts field a lot questions and one common query is this: “are there, or have there ever been snakes living in New Zealand?”
The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is a little more complicated
At the time when Australia and New Zealand split 85 million years ago, snakes were known roam this part of Gondwana land, so there is the possibility that scientists could find fossil evidence in New Zealand, though snake fossils have never been discovered. Snakes may have been here once; we just don’t have any fossil evidence.
For example, although not entirely analogous, we did have crocodiles in New Zealand about 16 million years ago in Central Otago when the climate was warm temperate to sub-tropical.
Today, two species of sea snakes, the yellowbelly sea snake or pelagic sea snake (Hydrophis platurus) and colubrine or the yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrine) are occasional visitors to our shores. Swept south from the warm tropical oceans where they live by ocean currents, most often they don’t survive our cold waters and have ended up in the collections of Auckland Museum.
In fact Auckland Museum is one of the few places in Aotearoa where you can find snakes, lots of snakes, we have over 160 specimens that come from all over the world.
For decades this collection has remained untouched, so when our natural sciences team received an offer from a Brazilian snake expert, Dr María Hoyos, to help us update the taxonomy and cataloguing of the collection, we jumped at the opportunity.
Acquired through field collecting, donations by private collectors, universities or the public, exchanges with other museums, and from species confiscated by customs, this amazing collection is made up of snakes adapted to a diverse range of environments including fresh and saltwater, forest, deserts and cold climates. As a result the differing species vary in all respects – some are coloured, striped, dark, some are long and some are especially small – measuring only 10 centimetres.
Natural history collections such as our snakes are not static collections and require regular reviewing to ensure the taxonomic classification of each species is keeping up with the work of scientists who are constantly working to improve understanding of species boundaries and relationships.
Crucially during María’s time as a Research Associate she has researched and consulted with specialists in taxonomy of snakes to verify the identification, names and taxonomic classification families of over 20 snakes.
During her time here, María has also had the task of delicately extricating snakes from wet tangles, so that they can be identified, labelled and re-housed into roomier quarters to prevent damage and, consequently, she’s developed best practice guidelines for their storage.
As kaitiaki to over 850,000 natural specimens, the Museum’s collection plays a critical role in informing science. The snakes in our collection – in partnership with other museum collections all over the world - present a critical inventory of biology to be used for research, public engagement, teaching and conservation.
Now the collection of snakes held at the Museum carries verified up-to-date information thanks to María, it is a strong source of data and information for researchers, scientists and students wanting to discover more about of snakes, their evolution and the families they form.