Scientists find new snail-eating snakes, auction naming rights to save them

  • An expedition in Ecuador has uncovered five new species of snail-eating snakes.
  • Four out of the five species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss.
  • The researchers who conducted the expedition auctioned off their naming rights and used the funds to purchase and protect an area of forest where two of the most threatened new species are known to live.

Able to retreat into their hard shells, snails seem to have a pretty good defense against would-be predators. But there’s a type of snake that has evolved unique adaptations and behaviors to get around this problem: the aptly named snail-eating snake, which uses its long, delicate teeth and unique jaw structure to suck snails right out of their shells.

Snail-eating snakes can be found in tropical forests in many places around the world, including South America. Now, a team of scientists has announced the discovery of several more in Ecuador. Their description of the new snakes was published this week in the journal ZooKeys.

The scientists, from institutions in Ecuador and the U.S., found the new snakes in rainforest and dry tropical forest habitat during a four-year expedition that took place between 2013 and 2017. They compared the scales and DNA of snakes they collected during their expedition to more than 200 museum specimens of known species; their results indicate that five of the snakes they found were distinct enough to be considered new species.

But of the five species, four are threatened with extinction. Of these, three qualify as Vulnerable according to IUCN criteria, according to the researchers, and the fourth is likely to be listed as Endangered.

The species Dipsas klebbai is the only one of the newly described not currently threatened with extinction. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Habitat loss appears to be the main threat for these newly discovered snakes. In response, the researchers that found them decided to auction off naming rights in order to buy a plot of forest adjoining an existing reserve where two of the species live in the hopes of protecting it from further human encroachment. The venture proved successful, with funds from the auction used by Fundación Jocotoco to expand Buenaventura Reserve in southern Ecuador.

“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one, but, generally, such names have no formal validity,” said Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian-Venezuelan PhD student at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the leaders of the expedition. “Naming an entire species after someone you love or admire is different. With few exceptions, this is the name that both the general public and the whole scientific community will use. So, why not let people choose the name of a species in exchange for a donation that protects its habitat?”

The new species have thus been named Dipsad georgejetti, D. bevridgelyi, D. oswaldobaezi, D. klebbai, and D. bobridgelyi. This last species, which is the most threatened of the five, was named in honor of Robert S. Ridgley, an ornithologist and conservationist who helped establish Buenaventura. Dipsad bobridgelyi is one of the two species that lives in the reserve and in the newly protected plot of forest.

The new species Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot, according to the research team. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

The researchers write that these five new species may be just a drop in the bucket, and that they suspect “numerous” snail-eating snakes yet unknown to science may still be out there awaiting discovery. Conservationists say that more expeditions like this one are needed to uncover these species – before they vanish into extinction.

“Everybody knows elephants and orangutans,” said Martin Schaefer of Fundación Jocotoco who was not involved in the expedition, “but some reptiles and amphibians are even more threatened. Yet, we still lack even basic information needed to protect them better.

“This is why the work by scientists is so important; it provides the necessary information to guide our conservation decisions.”


Citation: Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail-eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79-147.

Banner image: The newly described species Dipsas bobridgelyi tries to suck a snail out of its shell. The species qualifies as Endangered. Photo by Matthijs Hollanders.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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