• Cerberus rynchops;
  • Homalopsinae;
  • Asian water snake;
  • mtDNA;
  • Southeast Asia;
  • mangroves;
  • phylogeography


Aim  The biogeography of Southeast Asia has been greatly affected by plate tectonic events over the last 10 Myr and changing sea levels during the Quaternary. We investigated how these events may have influenced the evolution of Cerberus Cuvier, a marine coastal snake belonging to the Homalopsinae (Oriental-Australian Rear-fanged Water Snakes). This study is an expansion of a previous study on the biogeography and systematics of Cerberus.

Location  We obtained species from localities across the range of the widely distributed Cerberus: India, Sri Lanka, the Andaman islands, Myanmar, the Philippines, Borneo, Suluwesi, Sumatra, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Australia.

Methods  We analysed mtDNA sequences (12S, ND3, ATPase, 2338 nucleotide characters) from 21 localities. The sample consisted of 65 Cerberus rynchops (Schneider), three Cerberus australis (Gray) and four Cerberus microlepis Boulenger. One Homalopsis buccata (Linnaeus), one Bitia hydroides Gray, one Enhydris enhydris (Schneider), and two Enhydris plumbea (Boie) were used as outgroups.

Results  We produced phylogenetic trees based on parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian analysis. We did not find unambiguous support for the monophly of Cerberus. Cerberus austalis, H. buccata and all other Cerberus populations formed a three-way basal polytomy under parsimony and C. australis formed the sister group to a clade consisting of H. buccata and all other Cerberus in likelihood and Bayesian analysis. The non-Australian Cerberus were monophyletic and consisted of four primary biogeographical clades: Indian and Mayanmar, Philippines, Greater Sunda Islands and Suluwesi, and the Thai-Malay peninsula and Gulf of Thailand. The range of genetic divergence between these clades and Australian Cerberus was 0.06–0.12. Genetic divergence among clades to the west of Australia was less pronounced (Thai-Malay peninsula and Gulf of Thailand = 0.02–0.05; Sunda Islands and Suluwesi = 0.02–0.05; Philippines = 0.02–0.06; India and Myanmar = 0.04–0.06, Philippines = 0.02–0.5).

Main conclusions Gyi [University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History20 (1970), 47] recognized three species of Cerberus: C. australis (from Australia), C. microlepis (known only from Lake Buhi in the Philippines), and the widely distributed C. rynchops (India to Wallacea). We did not find strong support for the monophyly of the genus. Cerberus australis is highly divergent from all other Cerberus lineages sampled from this region. The geographically widespread C. rynchops is resolved into four biogeographical clades (Indian and Myanmar, Philippines, Greater Sunda Islands and Suluwesi, and the Thai-Malay Peninsula and Gulf of Thailand). We discuss how the dispersal biology of a salt-water tolerant, coastal marine taxon and the complex geological history of the region (Tertiary plate tectonic movements and Quaternary sea-level changes) could produce the observed patterns of diversification.