Taxonomy and natural history of the Australian bandy-bandy snakes (Elapidae: Vermicella) with a description of two new species



The Australian elapid snake genus Vermicella has traditionally included three taxa: annulata, multifasciata, and snelli. These animals have a history of unstable taxonomy and nomenclature, with rearrangements based mainly on subjective evaluations by different authorities rather than on acquisition of new data. We have quantified characters of external morphology to examine patterns of phenotypic variation in 425 museum specimens of Vermicella. Our aims were to understand better the nature of morphological variation in the genus, and the taxonomic implications of this variation, using univariate and multivariate statistical techniques. Based on our results, we recognize each of the three currently described taxa as separate species, and describe two additional species. Vermicella multifasciata is restricted to those specimens from the Darwin area that display exceptionally high numbers of, and very thin, body bands, and is sympatric with a new species described in this paper. Vermicella snelli is restricted to northern Western Australia and a second species from the Alice Springs area of the Northern Territory that displays fewer body bands is described.

Males have fewer ventral scales and more subcaudal scales than females in the four species, with sample sizes large enough for meaningful statistical analyses, and V. annulata females have more body and tail bands than conspecific males. In conjunction with the taxonomic study, we also examined reproductive biology and diet of Vermicella. Females reach larger adult body sizes than males in V. annulata, V. intermedia, and probably the other species as well. Gut contents of four species suggest that they feed solely on blind snakes of the genus Ramphotyphlops. Clutch sizes for the smaller species of Vermicella are low, ranging from one to four, while published data for the larger V. annulata shows clutch size to vary from two to 13. Based on published work, it appears that the affinities of Vermicella may lie with Simoselaps in Australia and/or some Melanesian elapids.