Three new species of snakes have been discovered in tombs

In November 2021, Alejandro Arteaga He and his team traveled to the Southern Cloud Forest Ecuador On a mission to find frogs that feared to be lost due to extinction. Unfortunately, scientists failed to find one. But a chance encounter on the way home leads the team to a different kind of discovery.

Disappointed and hungry, Arteaga and his crew stop in the small town of Amaluza in search of a meal.

says Arteaga, research biologist at The Khamay Foundation, a new NGO that aims to protect biodiversity in Ecuador. “There really is no such thing as a restaurant where you can get your food, so you basically need to knock on doors. And if there are people there, they will be happy to cook for you and tell you stories.”

A local woman welcomed the travelers, and as she began preparing locally caught trout, she overheard the crew talking about amphibians and snakes.

“Then she told us she often saw snakes in the local cemetery, while visiting her deceased family members,” Artega recalls. (Read how cemeteries have a surprising amount of biodiversity.)

Based on the chef’s description, Arteaga suspected they might be ground eels of the genus atractus– Secret animals spend a lot of time underground and have not been scientifically recorded in that region of Ecuador. Rejuvenated, the crew decided to take a small detour and spend a few hours to navigate through the hillside graveyard.

“We actually found two snakes buried in the loose soil next to the graves,” Arteaga says, adding that no graves were excavated or disturbed during the search.

The team astounded the yellow-bellied pythons, devoting more time to the Andean region, and even collecting samples of eels collected by a local teacher named Diego Pinyan. Finally, the expedition led to the description of three species of terrestrial snakes new to science, according to a study Published on September 15 in the magazine ZooKeys.

Scientists suggest naming new species Discovery; which have particularly small eyes and a yellow belly with a black streak; a. zgapwho has a yellow belly without a streak, and A. michaelsabini, It is “the fattest of the lot,” says Arteaga. (Michael Sabin, the snake is named after him, is a young naturalist whose family has protected more than 264,365 acres of critical habitat with a focus on amphibians and reptiles.)

“It is important that we never ignore the observations or beliefs of local people, because they may hide impressive discoveries,” Arteaga says.

hidden snakes

If this is the first time you’ve heard of land snakes, you’re not alone.

“It wouldn’t be wrong to say it’s the least studied group of snakes on the planet,” Arteaga says. For example, neither the males nor the young of some species have been recorded.

This is partly because the 146 known species of terrestrial snakes live underground, in deep rock crevices, often within distant cloud forests. They are all from Central and South America.

But with the new discovery, man-made habitats, such as small town cemeteries and churches, could also be added to that list. In this region of Ecuador, Arteaga says snakes may be drawn to such places precisely because they are calm and relatively unfazed by people, who often kill snakes out of fear.

And fortunately for people who live alongside terrestrial snakes, they are completely harmless.

“If only you were an earthworm!” jokes Paulo Roberto Milo Sampaioa researcher for land snakes at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and was not involved in the new study.

“It is always exciting to find new species,” says Milo Sampaio, adding that nearly half of all known species atractus The species has only been described in the last 40 years. (Read about a new species of terrestrial snake named after a Greek monster in the underworld.)

“Now in Ecuador, Alejandro Artega and his team have a huge advantage in being able to conduct their research in the new tropics, where there is a lack of funding and logistical difficulties for fieldwork,” he says by email.

More research is needed?

However, Milo Sampaio also expressed concerns about the paper’s methodology, specifically its heavy reliance on genetics to analyze the three new species. (See 22 amazing snake photos.)

When describing a new species, scientists generally rely on a combination of genetic analysis and morphology – or physical features of an animal – to determine how it differs from its relatives.

in case if A. michaelsabiniFor example, Milo Sampaio says that the physical appearance of the reptile is very similar to the already described land snake, A. rouleiAnd the So it’s too early to say it’s definitively a new species. Likewise, he says Discovery It is also similar to another well-known variety known as shining.

For his part, Arteaga says he and his team plan to study more terrestrial snake morphology in a follow-up paper, which is already in the works.

Earth Snakes to the Rescue

Although terrestrial snakes are still unknown, Arteja expects to have a significant impact on human health.

“At first glance, terrestrial snakes are not very colorful and may not appear to have the same biomedical importance as things like vipers and coral snakes,” whose venoms are often studied, Artega. (Read more about the search for new and better antivenoms.)

“But the main predator of land snakes is those venomous coral snakes.”

For this reason, scientists suspect that terrestrial snakes have evolved some kind of biological resistance to coral snake venom. Studying the blood of terrestrial snakes could lead to breakthroughs in the development of antivenoms that could help people bite coral snakes. Ecuador, for example, It has the highest rates of snakebites in South Americawith between 1,400 and 1,600 incidents per year.

So it’s possible that a creature found dug among the tombstones may one day be the key to keeping people away from the cemetery.

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