Three new snake species discovered in cemeteries

In November 2021, Alejandro Arteaga and his team traveled to the rainforests of southern Ecuador on a mission to find the toads that were feared lost to extinction. Unfortunately, the scientists couldn’t find one. But a chance encounter on the way home suggested a different kind of discovery to the team.

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

“This is how it usually happens in rural areas of Ecuador,” says Arteaga, a research biologist at the Khamai Foundation, a new non-governmental organization that aims to protect Ecuador’s biodiversity. “There really isn’t like a drive-through restaurant where you can get your own food, so you basically have to knock on doors. And if there are people there, they will gladly cook for you and tell you stories ”.

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

“And then he told us he often sees snakes in the local cemetery, while visiting his deceased family members,” recalls Arteaga. (Read how cemeteries have a surprising amount of biodiversity.)

Based on the chef’s description, Arteaga suspected they could be such ground snakes attraction—Secret animals that spend a lot of time underground and had never been scientifically recorded in that part of Ecuador. Rejuvenated, the crew decided to take a small detour and spend a few hours rummaging through the hillside cemetery.

“Here, we actually found two of the snakes buried in the soft ground next to the graves,” says Arteaga, who adds that no cemetery was excavated or disturbed during the search.

Stunned by yellow-bellied snakes, the team spent more time in the Andean region, even collecting snake samples collected by a local teacher named Diego Piñán. Overall, the expedition led to the description of three land snake species new to science, according to a study published Sept. 15 in the journal ZooKeys.

Scientists propose to name the new species A discovery; who has particularly small eyes and a yellow belly with a black line; A. zgapwho has a yellow belly with no line, e A. michele sabini, who is “the plumpest of the lot,” says Arteaga. (Michael Sabin, after whom the snake is named, is a young naturalist whose family protected over 264,365 acres of critical habitat with a focus on amphibians and reptiles.)

“It is important to never ignore the observations or beliefs of the local population, because they could hide impressive discoveries,” says Arteaga.

cryptic snakes

If this is your first time hearing about land snakes, you are not alone.

“It would not be inaccurate to say that they are the least studied group of snakes on the planet,” says Arteaga; for example, males or juveniles of some species have never been recorded.

This is partly due to the fact that the 146 known species of land snakes live underground, in deep rocky crevices, often within remote rainforests. They are all native to Central and South America.

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

And, luckily for the people who live next to land snakes, they are completely harmless.

“Unless you’re an earthworm!” jokes Paulo Roberto Melo-Sampaio, a land snake researcher at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who was not involved in the new study.

“The discovery of new species is always exciting,” says Melo-Sampaio, who adds that nearly half of those known attraction species have only been described in the past 40 years. (Read about a new species of terrestrial snake named after a Greek monster from the underworld.)

“Now in Ecuador, Alejandro Arteaga and his team have great credit for being able to carry out their research in the neotropics, where there is a lack of funds and logistical difficulties for field work,” he says via email.

Is more research needed?

Yet Melo-Sampaio also expressed concern about the document’s methodology, particularly its heavy reliance on genetics for analyzing the three new species. (See 22 Spectacular Snake Pictures.)

When describing a new species, scientists generally rely on a combination of genetic analysis and morphology, or the physical attributes of an animal, to determine that it is different from its relatives.

In case of A. Michaelsabinifor example, Melo-Sampaio states that the physical appearance of the reptile is very similar to an earth snake already described, A. Roulei, therefore it is too early to say that it is definitely a new species. Likewise, he says A discovery it also resembles another species known as A. shining.

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

Land snakes to the rescue

Although land snakes are still poorly understood, Arteaga predicts they could have a major impact on human health.

“At first glance, land snakes aren’t as colorful and may not appear to have the same biomedical significance as things like coral vipers and snakes,” whose venom is often studied, he says. Arteaga. (Read more about finding new and better poisons.)

“But the main predator of land snakes are those poisonous coral snakes.”

For this reason, scientists suspect that land snakes may have evolved to have some sort of biological resistance to coral snake venom. Studying the blood of land snakes, therefore, could lead to breakthroughs in the development of poisons that can help people bite coral snakes. Ecuador, for example, has one of the highest snakebite rates in South America, with between 1,400 and 1,600 accidents per year.

So it is possible that one day a creature found hidden among the gravestones may hold the key to keep people out of the graveyard.

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