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Open Access Research article

Snake mitochondrial genomes: phylogenetic relationships and implications of extended taxon sampling for interpretations of mitogenomic evolution

Desirée A Douglas1* and David J Gower2

Author affiliations

1 Division of Evolutionary Molecular Systematics, Department of Cell and Organism Biology, University of Lund, Sölvegatan 29, 22362 Lund, Sweden

2 Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Genomics 2010, 11:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-14

Published: 7 January 2010



Snake mitochondrial genomes are of great interest in understanding mitogenomic evolution because of gene duplications and rearrangements and the fast evolutionary rate of their genes compared to other vertebrates. Mitochondrial gene sequences have also played an important role in attempts to resolve the contentious phylogenetic relationships of especially the early divergences among alethinophidian snakes. Two recent innovative studies found dramatic gene- and branch-specific relative acceleration in snake protein-coding gene evolution, particularly along internal branches leading to Serpentes and Alethinophidia. It has been hypothesized that some of these rate shifts are temporally (and possibly causally) associated with control region duplication and/or major changes in ecology and anatomy.


The near-complete mitochondrial (mt) genomes of three henophidian snakes were sequenced: Anilius scytale, Rhinophis philippinus, and Charina trivirgata. All three genomes share a duplicated control region and translocated tRNALEU, derived features found in all alethinophidian snakes studied to date. The new sequence data were aligned with mt genome data for 21 other species of snakes and used in phylogenetic analyses. Phylogenetic results agreed with many other studies in recovering several robust clades, including Colubroidea, Caenophidia, and Cylindrophiidae+Uropeltidae. Nodes within Henophidia that have been difficult to resolve robustly in previous analyses remained uncompellingly resolved here. Comparisons of relative rates of evolution of rRNA vs. protein-coding genes were conducted by estimating branch lengths across the tree. Our expanded sampling revealed dramatic acceleration along the branch leading to Typhlopidae, particularly long rRNA terminal branches within Scolecophidia, and that most of the dramatic acceleration in protein-coding gene rate along Serpentes and Alethinophidia branches occurred before Anilius diverged from other alethinophidians.


Mitochondrial gene sequence data alone may not be able to robustly resolve basal divergences among alethinophidian snakes. Taxon sampling plays an important role in identifying mitogenomic evolutionary events within snakes, and in testing hypotheses explaining their origin. Dramatic rate shifts in mitogenomic evolution occur within Scolecophidia as well as Alethinophidia, thus falsifying the hypothesis that these shifts in snakes are associated exclusively with evolution of a non-burrowing lifestyle, macrostomatan feeding ecology and/or duplication of the control region, both restricted to alethinophidians among living snakes.