Banded sea kraits, one of the most venomous snakes, swim in shallow waters of the western Pacific and eastern Indian oceans. Researchers have for the first time created a database that shows where these toxic snakes can be found.
Using museum records, field surveys and scientific studies, scientists from Case Western Reserve University mapped the snakes' distribution on the finest scale possible. Their analyses included a total of 694 sighting records, almost all of which occurred in coastal waters.
Their database has a variety of implications: it will boost conservation efforts, guide researchers who may be interested in the medicinal qualities of the snakes' venom, help environmentalists want to learn more about their ecology and tourists who want to see the animals up close.
"These snakes harbor potential for research in biomedicine," explained Iulian Gherghel, a Ph.D. student in biology at Case Western Reserve University. "The venom has proteins that may be useful in the future development of drugs for treating cancer, neurological disorders and heart disease."
When sea kraits are swimming in the ocean, they are sunning themselves on island coasts from southwestern Japan to Indonesia and from the Andaman Islands to Fiji. The snakes belong to a genus known as Laticauda, which is closely related to cobras, which are found in Asia and Africa, and coral snakes, which are found in the southern U.S.
The snakes hunt in ocean water and return to land to mate, lay eggs, and drink fresh water. Sea kraits are thought to have developed their powerful venom in part due to their very specialized diet: seven species of sea kraits feed almost exclusively on eels.
Researchers also noted that brightly banded sea kraits occupy a very narrow niche in the ecosystem, making them vulnerable to climate change.
"Without measures to protect them and their habitat, they are likely to be highly affected by global warming," Gherghel added. "That may destroy the opportunity to discover new drugs as well as the opportunity to enjoy these animals in the wild - at a distance."
Of the data collected on these snakes, the banded sea krait (L. colubrina) was the most common, with 448 sightings in unique locations noted over the greatest range. On the other hand, the flat-tail sea krait (L. schistorhynchus) was the least common, found on only six occurrences and over the smallest range.
Their findings were recently published in the journal ZooKeys.