Endemic frogs in Himalayan region exhibit site fidelity

The Murree Hills Frog and Hazara Torrent Frog show minimum movement out of their habitat, which makes them more unique from an ecology and conservation perspective

Amongst tetrapods, amphibians entail the highest number of threatened and data deficient species, which has put them in the limelight of research in animal ecology and conservation. Endemic species have evolved and adapted to a particular set of environmental conditions. Hence, these are more vulnerable to environmental changes and are susceptible to population declines because of their restricted distribution ranges.

Murree Hills Frog (Nanorana vicina). Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi

The Murree Hills Frog and Hazara Torrent Frog are endemic to Pakistan and South Asian countries. They are associated with the torrential streams and nearby clear water pools situated at high elevation. These frogs are susceptible to threats like habitat degradation, urbanization, and climate change. A recent study published in the-open access journal Biodiversity Data Journal reports that these endemic frogs do not show much movement within and outside their habitat.

Hazara Torrent Frog (Allopaa hazarensis). Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi

“We have, for the first time, used radio-transmitters (VHF) on frogs endemic to Himalayan region to understand their ecology,” explains Dr. Muhammad Rais, Assistant Professor at the Herpetology Lab in the Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi, and lead author of the study. “Surprisingly, the Murree Hills Frog and Hazara Torrent Frog depend heavily for their survival on particular stream(s).”

“We suggest carrying out additional long term studies by incorporating multiple adjacent stream systems to better understand dispersal and colonization in these frogs,” he says in conclusion.

Research article:

Akram A, Rais M, Saeed M, Ahmed W, Gill S, Haider J (2022) Movement Paradigm for Hazara Torrent Frog Allopaa hazarensis and Murree Hills Frog Nanorana vicina (Anura: Dicroglossidae). Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e84365. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e84365

Small, rare crayfish thought extinct is rediscovered in cave in Huntsville city limits

Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller’s team found individuals of the Shelta Cave Crayfish in 2019 and 2020 excursions into Shelta Cave – its only home.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (June 1, 2022) – A small, rare crayfish thought to be extinct for 30 years has been rediscovered in a cave in the City of Huntsville in northern Alabama by a team led by an assistant professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller’s team found individuals of the Shelta Cave Crayfish, known scientifically as Orconectes sheltae, in 2019 and 2020 excursions into Shelta Cave – its only home.

The Shelta Cave Crayfish is known to exist only in Shelta Cave. Courtesy Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller

Dr. Niemiller, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, is co-author of a paper on the findings in the journal Subterranean Biology. Besides Dr. Niemiller, authors are UAH’s Katherine E. Dooley and K. Denise Kendall Niemiller, and Nathaniel Sturm of the University of Alabama.

The crayfish’s home is a 2,500-foot cave system that’s owned and managed by the National Speleological Society (NSS) and is unobtrusively located beneath the organization’s national headquarters in northwest Huntsville and is surrounded by subdivisions and bustling roadways.

Map of Shelta Cave showing the distribution of aquatic habitat during high water levels and the location of Shelta Cave Crayfish observations (black crayfish symbol) during the study. Map modified with permission of the Alabama Cave Survey.

“The crayfish is only a couple of inches long with diminutive pincers that are called chelae,” Dr. Niemiller says. “Interestingly, the crayfish has been known to cave biologists since the early 1960s but was not formally described until 1997 by the late Dr. John Cooper and his wife Martha.”

But the aquatic ecosystem, including the Shelta Cave Crayfish, crashed sometime in the early 1970s. The crash may be related to a gate that was built to keep people out of the cave and yet still allow a grey bat maternity population to still move freely in and out.

Even before the decline in the aquatic cave community, the Shelta Cave Crayfish was never common compared to the other two species, Southern Cave Crayfish (Orconectes australis) and Alabama Cave Crayfish (Cambarus jonesi).

“To the best of our knowledge, only 115 individuals had been confirmed from 1963 through 1975. Since then, only three have been confirmed – one in 1988 and the two individuals we report in 2019 and 2020,” Dr. Niemiller says.

“After a couple of decades of no confirmed sightings and the documented dramatic decline of other aquatic cave life at Shelta Cave, it was feared by some, including myself, that the crayfish might now be extinct.”

While it’s encouraging that the Shelta Cave Crayfish still persists, he says scientists still haven’t rediscovered other aquatic species that once lived in the cave system, such as the Alabama Cave Shrimp and Tennessee Cave Salamander. 

“The groundwater level in Shelta Cave is the result of water that works its way naturally through the rock layers above the cave – called epikarst – from the surface,” says Dr. Niemiller. “However, urbanization in the area above the cave system may have altered rates at which water infiltrates into the cave and also increased rates of pollutants, such as pesticides and heavy metals entering the cave system.”

The crayfish was rediscovered during an aquatic survey aimed toward documenting all life that encountered in the cave system.

“I really wasn’t expecting to find the Shelta Cave Crayfish. My students, colleagues and I had visited the cave on several occasions already leading up to the May 2019 trip,” Dr. Niemiller says. “We would be fortunate to see just a couple of Southern Cavefish and Southern Cave Crayfish during a survey.”

Dr. Matthew L. Niemiller snorkels in Shelta Cave, where a species of crayfish believed to be extinct was rediscovered. Photo by Amata Hinkle

While snorkeling in about 15 feet of water in North Lake located in the Jones Hall section of the cave, Dr. Niemiller spotted a smaller-sized cave crayfish below him.

“As I dove and got closer, I noticed that the chelae, or pincers, were quite thin and elongated compared to other crayfish we had seen in the cave,” he says. “I was fortunate to swoop up the crayfish with my net and returned to the bank.”

“The second Shelta Cave Crayfish that we encountered was in August 2020 in the West Lake area,” he says.

The team had searched much of the area and didn’t see much aquatic life. As they started to make their way out the lake passage to return to the surface, Nate Sturm, a master’s student in biology at the University of Alabama who had accompanied the lab for the trip, noticed a small white crayfish in an area that the team had previously walked through.

To aid identification, the team analyzed short fragments of mitochondrial DNA in the tissue samples collected.

“We compared the newly generated DNA sequences with sequences already available for other crayfish species in the region,” Dr Niemiller says. “A challenge we faced was that no DNA sequences existed prior to our study for the Shelta Cave Crayfish, so it was a bit of a process of elimination, so to speak.”

Outside of the dissertation work done by Dr. Cooper, little about the life history and ecology of the species is known.

 “Groundwater is critically important not just for the organisms that live in groundwater ecosystems, but for human society for drinking water, agriculture, etc.,” Dr. Niemiller says.

“The organisms that live in groundwater provide important benefits, such as water purification and biodegradation,” he says. “They also can act like ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ indicators of overall groundwater and ecosystem health.” 

Research article:

Dooley KE, Niemiller KDK, Sturm N, Niemiller ML (2022) Rediscovery and phylogenetic analysis of the Shelta Cave Crayfish (Orconectes sheltae Cooper & Cooper, 1997), a decapod (Decapoda, Cambaridae) endemic to Shelta Cave in northern Alabama, USA. Subterranean Biology 43: 11-31. https://doi.org/10.3897/subtbiol.43.79993

About The University of Alabama in Huntsville

Launched from America’s quest to conquer space, The University of Alabama in Huntsville is one of America’s premier doctoral-granting, research-intensive universities. Located in the second largest research park in the United States, UAH has robust capabilities in astrophysics, cybersecurity, data analytics, logistics and supply chain management, optical systems and engineering, reliability and failure analysis, rotorcraft and unmanned systems, severe weather, space propulsion and more. UAH prepares students for demanding positions in engineering, the sciences, business, nursing, education, the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Read the full press release by The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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Are zoos inadvertently complicit in wildlife trade? The case of a rare Borneo lizard

Should zoos display legally protected species that have been smuggled out of their range countries? A new study suggests that a pause and rethink may be needed, as it reports that accredited zoos have acquired a rare and legally protected reptile, the earless monitor lizard endemic to Borneo, without any evidence that the animals were legally exported.

The earless monitor lizard occurs only on the island of Borneo and has been described as a “miniature Godzilla” and “the Holy Grail of Herpetology.” Discovered by western scientists almost 150 years ago, for most of this period the species was known largely from pickled specimens in natural history collections, and wasn’t recorded from the wild for decades. In the 1970s, the three countries that make up Borneo – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – added it to their protected species lists. This means that the species can neither be legally traded within these countries, nor legally exported out of them.

Earless monitor lizard. Photo by Chien C. Lee, Wild Borneo.

Despite legal protection and lack of export permissions, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have long been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards out of Indonesia and Malaysia, eventually bringing them to Europe. This greatly accelerated in 2012, when the species’ rediscovery was announced in a scientific journal. In 2016, all 183 countries that are signatory to the Convention on international trade in endangered species agreed to regulate global trade in earless monitor lizards in order to limit the negative effects of smuggling on wild populations. Agreed export numbers were set at zero.

Enforcing the laws has proven to be challenging, however, and to date only two smuggling attempts have been thwarted. In both cases, German smugglers were apprehended at Indonesian airports while attempting to move respectively eight and seventeen earless monitor lizards out of the country.

The first zoo that proudly announced it had obtained earless monitor lizards was Japan’s iZoo in 2013. This zoo is not accredited, and the ways in which the animals were obtained remain questionable. In Europe, the first zoos to openly display earless monitor lizards were located in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. The animals were obtained from what zoos referred to as “private individuals” or “dedicated hobby breeders”, and, in one instance, from iZoo. Just like in Japan, how these animals ended up in Europe is questionable, but perhaps not illegal – and it is evident that no export permits were ever issued.

In recent years, more and more zoos in Europe, and since the beginning of this year also in the United States, have started displaying earless monitor lizards. Some cases were part of zoo exchanges, others were obtained from private individuals, and a handful were placed in zoos by authorities after they were seized, but it is clear that many were at one point illegally exported out of Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei, or were illegally imported into non-range countries.

The acquisition of these protected lizards by zoos is neither in line with the intentions of national laws of their countries of origin, nor with international wildlife trade regulations. Moreover, it is diametrically opposed to the commitments the international zoo community has made to address illegal wildlife trade.

“To me, the current situation concerning the purchasing and proudly displaying of earless monitor lizards by accredited zoos can be compared with a road safety organisation posting online videos of its CEO doing wheelies on a motorbike and then adding that it was done on a private road where neither wearing a helmet nor having a driver’s licence is required,” said Vincent Nijman of the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group, author of the study that was published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation. “Both may be legal in a technical sense, but the optics are not good.”

“Modern, scientifically managed zoos are increasingly organising themselves with set ethical values and binding standards which go beyond national legislation on conservation and sustainability, but, unfortunately, this still only counts for a small proportion of zoos worldwide,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Executive Director of Monitor Research Conservation Society. “Zoos that continue to obtain animals that have been illegally acquired, directly or indirectly, are often fuelling the illegal wildlife trade, supporting organised crime networks and possibly contributing to the decline in some species.”

Seven years ago, the price for a single earless monitor lizard was in the order of EUR 8,000 to 10,000 , so any zoo or hobbyist wanting to have one or more pairs had to make a serious financial commitment. These high prices put a restriction on the number of people that wanted to acquire them and could afford them. It probably also gave potential buyers a tacit reminder that the trade was illicit. In recent years, however, prices have come down, to less than EUR 1,000. Now that earless monitor lizards are more affordable, and with accredited zoos giving a sense of legitimacy, Nijman is concerned that it might become more and more acceptable to keep these rare animals as pets.

“When I grew up in the 1970s, it was still perfectly acceptable for what we now see as accredited zoos to regularly buy rare and globally threatened birds, mammals and reptiles from commercial animal traders. Few questions were asked about the legitimacy of this animal trade. This has dramatically changed for the better, and now many of the animals we see in zoos today have been bred in captivity, either in the zoo itself, or in partner zoos”, Nijman said. He added that in many ways zoos are a force for good in the global challenge to preserve species and conserve habitats. “It is imperative that these efforts are genuinely adopted by all in the zoo community, and, when there is doubt about the legitimacy of animals in trade, that a cautionary approach is adopted.”

Original source:

Nijman V (2021) Zoos consenting to the illegal wildlife trade – the earless monitor lizard as a case study. Nature Conservation 44: 69-79. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.44.65124

Under Extinction Pressure: Rare Australian bee found after 100 years

A widespread field search for a rare Australian native bee (Pharohylaeus lactiferus) that had not been recorded for almost a century found the species has been there all along – but is probably under increasing pressure to survive. Prior to this study, only six individuals had been found, with the last published record of this Australian endemic bee species, from 1923 in Queensland.

Male Pharohylaeus lactiferus bee. Photo by James Dorey.

A widespread field search for a rare Australian native bee (Pharohylaeus lactiferus) that had not been recorded for almost a century found the species has been there all along – but is probably under increasing pressure to survive. Prior to this study, only six individuals had been found, with the last published record of this Australian endemic bee species, from 1923 in Queensland.

“This is concerning because it is the only Australian species in the Pharohylaeus genus and nothing was known of its biology,”

Flinders University researcher and biological sciences PhD candidate James Dorey says in the new scientific paper in the peer-reviewed, open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

The ‘hunt’ began after bee experts Olivia Davies and Dr Tobias Smith raised the possibility of the species’ extinction based on the lack of any recent sightings. The ‘rediscovery’ followed an extensive sampling of 225 general and 20 targeted sampling sites across New South Wales and Queensland.

Along with extra bee and vegetation recordings from the Atlas of Living Australia, which lists 500 bee species in New South Wales and 657 in Queensland, the Flinders researchers sought to assess the latest levels of true diversity, warning that habitat loss and fragmentation of Australia’s rainforests, along with wildfires and climate change, are likely to put extinction pressure on this and other invertebrate species.  

“Three populations of P. lactiferous were found by sampling bees visiting their favoured plant species along much of the Australian east coast, suggesting population isolation,”

Mr Dorey reports.

Highly fragmented habitat and potential host specialisation might explain the rarity of P. lactiferus.

Additionally, the scientists remind of previous findings that Australia has already cleared more than 40% of its forests and woodlands since European colonisation, leaving much of the remainder fragmented and degraded.

“My geographical analyses used to explore habitat destruction in the Wet Tropics and Central Mackay Coast bioregions indicate susceptibility of Queensland rainforests and P. lactiferus populations to bushfires, particularly in the context of a fragmented landscape,”

Mr Dorey says.

The study also warns the species is even more vulnerable as they appear to favour specific floral specimens and were only found near tropical or sub-tropical rainforest – a single vegetation type.

“Collections indicate possible floral and habitat specialisation with specimens only visiting firewheel trees (Stenocarpus sinuatu), and Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius), to the exclusion of other available floral resources.”

Known populations of P. lactiferus remain rare and susceptible to habitat destruction (e.g. caused by changed land use or events such as fires), the paper concludes.

“Future research should aim to increase our understanding of the biology, ecology and population genetics of P. lactiferus.”

Female Pharohylaeus lactiferus bee. Photo by James Dorey.

“If we are to understand and protect these wonderful Australian species, we really need to increase biomonitoring and conservation efforts, along with funding for the museum curation and digitisation of their collections and other initiatives,”  

Mr Dorey says.

Research paper:

Dorey JB (2021) Missing for almost 100 years: the rare and potentially threatened bee, Pharohylaeus lactiferus (Hymenoptera, Colletidae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 81: 165-180. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.81.59365

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New tarantula species from Angola distinct with a one-of-a-kind ‘horn’ on its back

A new to science species of tarantula with a peculiar horn-like protuberance sticking out of its back was recently identified from Angola, a largely underexplored country located at the intersection of several Afrotropical ecoregions.

Collected as part of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, which aims to uncover the undersampled biodiversity in the entire Okavango catchment of Angola, Namibia and Botswana, thereby paving the way for sustainable conservation in the area, the new arachnid is described in a paper published in the open-access journal African Invertebrates by the team of Drs John Midgley and Ian Engelbrecht.

Although the new spider (Ceratogyrus attonitifer sp.n.) belongs to a group known as horned baboon spiders, the peculiar protuberance is not present in all of these species. Moreover, in the other species – where it is – the structure is completely sclerotised, whereas the Angolan specimens demonstrate a soft and characteristically longer ‘horn’. The function of the curious structure remains unknown.

The new tarantula’s extraordinary morphology has also prompted its species name: C. attonitifer, which is derived from the Latin root attonit– (“astonishment” or “fascination”), and the suffix –fer (“bearer of” or “carrier”). It refers to the astonishment of the authors upon the discovery of the remarkable species.

“No other spider in the world possesses a similar foveal protuberance,” comment the authors of the paper.

Individual of the newly described species in defensive posture in its natural habitat. Photo by Kostadine Luchansky.

During a series of surveys between 2015 and 2016, the researchers collected several female specimens from the miombo forests of central Angola. To find them, the team would normally spend the day locating burrows, often hidden among grass tufts, but sometimes found in open sand, and excavate specimens during the night. Interestingly, whenever the researchers placed an object in the burrow, the spiders were quick and eager to attack it.

The indigenous people in the region provided additional information about the biology and lifestyle of the baboon spider. While undescribed and unknown to the experts until very recently, the arachnid has long been going by the name “chandachuly” among the local tribes. Thanks to their reports, information about the animal’s behaviour could also be noted. The tarantula tends to prey on insects and the females can be seen enlarging already existing burrows rather than digging their own. Also, the venom of the newly described species is said to not be dangerous to humans, even though there have been some fatalities caused by infected bites gone untreated due to poor medical access.

In conclusion, the researchers note that the discovery of the novel baboon spider from Angola does not only extend substantially the known distributional range of the genus, but can also serve as further evidence of the hugely unreported endemic fauna of the country:

“The general paucity of biodiversity data for Angola is clearly illustrated by this example with theraphosid spiders, highlighting the importance of collecting specimens in biodiversity frontiers.”

Apart from the described species, the survey produced specimens of two other potentially new to science species and range expansions for other genera. However, the available material is so far insufficient to formally diagnose and describe them.

The newly described baboon spider species (Ceratogyrus attonitifer), showing the peculiar soft and elongated horn-like protuberance sticking out of its back. Photo by Dr Ian Enelbrecht.

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Original source:

Midgley JM, Engelbrecht I (2019) New collection records for Theraphosidae (Araneae, Mygalomorphae) in Angola, with the description of a remarkable new species of Ceratogyrus. African Invertebrates 60(1): 1-13. https://doi.org/10.3897/afrinvertebr.60.32141

Bee diversity and richness decline as anthropogenic activity increases, confirm scientists

The researchers compared wild bee communities in the tropical dry forest of Mexico living in three habitat conditions: preserved vegetation, agricultural sites and urbanised areas

Changes in land use negatively affect bee species richness and diversity, and cause major shifts in species composition, reports a recent study of native wild bees, conducted at the Sierra de Quila Flora and Fauna Protection Area and its influence zone in Mexico.

Having registered a total of 14,054 individual bees representing 160 species, 52 genera, and five families over the span of a year, the scientists conclude that the studied preserved areas demonstrated “significantly greater” richness and diversity.

In their paper, published in the open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research, a research team from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, led by Alejandro Muñoz-Urias, compare three conditions within the tropical dry forest study site: preserved vegetation, an agricultural area with crops and livestock, and an urbanised area.

This bee species (Aztecanthidium xochipillium) is known exclusively from Mexico.

The researchers confirm earlier information that an increase in anthropogenic disturbances leads to a decrease in bee richness and diversity. While availability of food and nesting sites are the key factors for bee communities, changes in land use negatively impact flower richness and floral diversity. Thereby, turning habitats into urbanised or agricultural sites significantly diminishes the populations of the bees which rely on specific plants for nectar and pollen. These are the species whose populations are threatened with severe declines up to the point of local extinction.

According to their data, about half of the bees recorded were Western honey bees (49.9%), whereas polyester bees turned out to be the least abundant (1.2 %).

On the other hand, some generalist bees, which feed on a wide range of plants, seem to thrive in urbanised areas, as they take advantage of people watering wild and ornamental plants at times where draughts might be eradicating native vegetation.

“That is the reason why bees that can use a wide variety of resources are often able to compensate when circumstances change, although some species disappear due to land use changes,” explain the scientists.

This is a tropical dry forest in the dry (left) and rainy season (right).

In conclusion, the authors recommend that the tropical dry forests of both the study area and Mexico in general need to be protected in order for these essential pollinators to be conserved.

“Pollinators are a key component for global biodiversity, because they assist in the sexual reproduction of many plant species and play a crucial role in maintaining terrestrial ecosystems and food security for human beings,” they remind.

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Original source:

Razo-León AE, Vásquez-Bolaños M, Muñoz-Urias A, Huerta-Martínez FM (2018) Changes in bee community structure (Hymenoptera, Apoidea) under three different land-use conditions. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 66: 23-38. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.66.27367

Museum collection reveals distribution of Carolina parakeet 100 years after its extinction

While 2018 marks the centenary of the death of the last captive Carolina parakeet – North America’s only native parrot, a team of researchers have shed new light on the previously known geographical range of the species, which was officially declared extinct in 1920.

Combining observations and specimen data, the new Carolina parakeet occurrence dataset, recently published in the open access Biodiversity Data Journal by Dr Kevin Burgio, , Dr Colin Carlson, University of Maryland and Georgetown University, and Dr Alexander Bond, Natural History Museum of London, is the most comprehensive ever produced.

The new study provides unprecedented information on the birds range providing a window into the past ecology of a lost species.

“Making these data freely available to other researchers will hopefully help unlock the mysteries surrounding the extinction and ecology of this iconic species. Parrots are the most at-risk group of birds and anything we can learn about past extinctions may be useful going forward,” says the study’s lead author, Kevin Burgio.

The observational recordings included in the study have been gleaned from a wide variety of sources, including the correspondence of well-known historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and the explorers Lewis and Clark.

The study team referenced recorded sightings spanning nearly 400 years. The oldest recorded sighting dates back to 1564, and was found in a description of the current state of Florida written by Rene Laudonniere in 1602.

Alongside the written accounts, the researchers included location data from museum specimens. These include 25 bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s Tring site, whose skin collection is the second largest of its kind in the world, with almost 750,000 specimens representing about 95 per cent of the world’s bird species. Thereby, the study proves what invaluable resources museum collections can be.

“The unique combination of historical research and museum specimens is the only way we can learn about the range of this now-extinct species. Museums are archives of the natural world and research collections like that of the Natural History Museum are incredibly important in helping to increase our understanding of biodiversity conservation and extinction,” says Alex Bond.

“By digitising museum collections, we can unlock the potential of millions of specimens, helping us to answer some of today’s big questions in biodiversity science and conservation.”

It is hoped that this research will be the beginning of a wider reaching work that will explore further into the ecology of this long lost species.

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Original source:

Burgio KR, Carlson CJ, Bond AL (2018) Georeferenced sighting and specimen occurrence data of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) from 1564 – 1944. Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e25280. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e25280

Naming rights for 5 new snail-sucking snake species auctioned to save rainforests in Ecuador

Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The existence of five delightfully weird snail-sucking snakes slithering through the forest floors of Ecuador was announced by a group of scientists in a study in the open access journal Zookeys.

Believe or not, there is an entire group of snakes for which snails are number one on their menu. This is why their jaws are modified in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell.

Dipsas bobridgelyi trying to suck a snail out of its shell. Photo by Matthijs Hollanders.

Luckily for us, these snakes are harmless to humans. However, humans are not harmless to them. Four out of the five newly discovered species are already facing the possibility of becoming extinct, as the forest remnants they call home are currently being destroyed.

In a bid to take care after the unfortunate reptiles, the scientists auctioned the naming rights for the new species at a recent event in New York City. The money are to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 ha (178 acre) plot of land where some of these species live.

To do so, Fundación Jocotoco is to add the purchased plot to the Buenaventura reserve, in order to expand the only protected area where two of the new snakes are found, and prevent these endangered snake species from going extinct.

Dipsas bobridgelyi. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Three of the five species were discovered during a series of expeditions to three rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017, conducted by Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian–Venezuelan PhD student at the American Museum of Natural History and scientific director of Tropical Herping, who partnered with Dr. Alex Pyron, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA.

In another habitat type, the dry forest, Ecuadorian scientists Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), David Salazar-Valenzuela, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Juan Carlos Sánchez, Universidad del Azuay, Mario Yánez-Muñoz, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad  (INABIO), and Peruvian scientist Pablo Venegas, CORBIDI, noted the existence of the other two new species.

“We had to let people know that these cool snakes exist,” Alejandro said, “and that these species might soon stop to exist, and we need people’s help to protect the snake’s habitat.”

In order to confirm these five snakes as new species, the team of researchers, particularly Drs. Konrad Mebert, Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Nicolás Peñafiel, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Gabriela Aguiar, Tropical Herping, and Timothy Colston, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA, counted scales and gathered measurements from more than 200 museum specimens, and extracted DNA from nearly 100 snakes.

PhD student Alejandro Arteaga measured snake specimens at various museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Having made the highest bid at the auction, Rainforest Trust (RT) and Bob Ridgely got to name three of the five new snakes.

Thus, the species Dipsas georgejetti now honors George Jett, who supported the inception of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador; while Dipsas bobridgelyi is a tribute to Dr. Robert “Bob” S. Ridgely, a leading ornithologist and distinguished conservationist who helped the establishment of the Buenaventura reserve. Bob, who was at the auction, chose the name Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.

Dipsas georgejetti is found in only in dry forests in the coast of Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The remaining two snail-eating species, Dipsas oswaldobaezi and D. klebbai, were named after Dr. Oswaldo Báez and Casey Klebba, respectively, in recognition for their passion for Ecuador’s biodiversity and conservation.

Dipsas klebbai is the only one among the new species currently not threatened with extinction. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one,” Alejandro says, “but, generally, such names have no formal validity. 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?”

Dipsas oswaldobaezi photographed at Reserva la Ceiba. Photo by Jose Vieira.

The act of naming species is essential in raising awareness about the existence of a species and its risk of extinction, but it also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect the species.

“Naming species is at the core of biology,” says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco in Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

“Everybody knows elephants and orangutans,” says Dr. Martin Schaefer of Fundación Jocotoco, “but some reptiles and amphibians are even more threatened. Yet, we still lack even the basic information to protect them better. This is why the work by scientists is so important; it provides the necessary information to guide our conservation decisions.”

“Through photography or by joining a scientific expedition, the general public can learn more about hidden biodiversity and how threatened it is,” says Lucas Bustamante of Tropical Herping. “This is a model to obtain support for research and conservation while recruiting more environmental ambassadors.”

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Find out more about the Tropical Herping’s scientific discoveries and expeditions on Instagram and Facebook.

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Watch the video below to follow entomologist and science communicator Phil Torres as he joins Alejandro Arteaga for one of his expeditions to document what it takes to find a new snake.

Academic paper:

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. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523

Scientists dive into museum collections to reveal the invasion route of a small crustacean

Biological invasions are widely recognised as one of the most significant components of global change. Far-reaching and fast-spreading, they often have harmful effects on biodiversity.

Therefore, acquiring knowledge of potentially invasive non-native species is crucial in current research. In particular, it is important that we enhance our understanding of the impact of such invasions.

To do so, Prof Sabrina Lo Brutto and Dr Davide Iaciofano, both working at the Taxonomy Laboratory of the University of Palermo, Italy, performed research on an invasive alien crustacean (Ptilohyale littoralis) known to have colonised the Atlantic European Coast. Their findings are published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The studied species belongs to a group of small-sized crustaceans known as amphipods. These creatures range from 1 to 340 mm in length and feed on available organic matter, such as dead animals and plants. Being widely distributed across aquatic environments, amphipods have already been proven as excellent indicators of ecosystem health.

While notable for their adaptability and ecological plasticity, which secure their abundance in various habitats, these features also make amphipods especially dangerous when it comes to playing the role of invaders.

Having analysed specimens stored at the Museum of Natural History of Verona and the Natural History Museum in Paris, the scientists concluded that the species has colonised European waters 24 years prior to the currently available records.

The problem was that, back in 1985, when the amphipod was first collected from European coasts, it was misidentified as a species new to science instead of an invader native to the North American Atlantic coast.

A closer look into misidentified specimens stored in museum collections revealed that the species has been successfully spreading along the European coastlines.

Male of the invasive amphipod species (Ptilohyale littoralis), sampled in October 2015, from Bay of Arcachon, France.

Moreover, it was predicted that the amphipod could soon reach the Mediterranean due to the high connectivity between the sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean through the Straits of Gibraltar – a route already used by invasive marine fauna in the past.

In the event that the invader reaches the Mediterranean, it is highly likely for the crustacean to meet and compete with a closely related “sister species” endemic to the region. To make matters worse, the two amphipods are difficult to distinguish due to their appearance and behaviour both being extremely similar.

However, in their paper, the scientists have also provided additional information on how to distinguish the two amphipods – knowledge which could be essential for the management of the invader and its further spread.

The authors believe that their study demonstrates the importance of taxonomy – the study of organism classification – and the role of natural history collections and museums.

“Studying and monitoring biodiversity can acquire great importance in European aquatic ecosystems and coastal Mediterranean areas, where biodiversity is changing due to climate change and invasions of alien species,” Prof Lo Brutto says. “In this context, specific animal groups play a crucial role in detecting such changes and they, therefore, deserve more attention as fundamental tools in biodiversity monitoring.”

“Regrettably, the steadily diminishing pool of experts capable of accurately identifying species poses a serious threat in this field.”

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Original source:

Lo Brutto S, Iaciofano D (2018) A taxonomic revision helps to clarify differences between the Atlantic invasive Ptilohyale littoralis and the Mediterranean endemic Parhyale plumicornis(Crustacea: Amphipoda). ZooKeys, 754: 47-62. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.754.22884

Light at the end of the tunnel: Restored forest now shelters dozens of endangered species

During the last twenty years, scientists worked hard to protect and restore the scattered patches of a dilapidated forest and its surroundings of agricultural and fallow vegetation in southern Benin.

With the help of their locally recruited assistants, Peter Neuenschwander, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Benin, and Aristide Adomou, University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin, successfully thinned out the alien timber growing there and introduced 253 species, whose seeds and plantlets they had managed to collect from the last remnants of the original forest. Their research article is published in the open access journal Nature Conservation.

The team collecting seeds and plantlets in a neighbouring rainforestToday, the rehabilitated forest in Drabo harbours about 600 species of plants and constitutes a sanctuary for many animals, including the critically endangered and endemic red-bellied monkey.

Over the course of the last two decades, pantropical weedy species declined, while West-African forest species increased in numbers. Of the former, fifty-two species, mostly trees, shrubs and lianas, are listed as threatened – more than those in any other existing forest in Benin. Furthermore, some of the critically endangered species amongst them can be found exclusively in the last small, often sacred forests in Benin, which while covering merely 0.02% of the national territory, harbour 64% of all critically endangered plant species.

“The biodiversity richness of the rehabilitated forests of Drabo now rivals that of natural rainforest remnants of the region,” note the authors.

The newly restored forest in Drabo is relatively easy to access due to its proximity to large towns. It is intended to become an educational and research centre maintained by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. In fact, it already serves as an exemplary forest in the region.

With their initiative, the scientists and their followers demonstrate that by involving local communities and taking their customs into consideration, the safety of exposed precious ecosystems, even if located in a densely populated area, can be effectively assured.

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Original source:

Neuenschwander P, Adomou AC (2017) Reconstituting a rainforest patch in southern Benin for the protection of threatened plants. Nature Conservation 21: 57-82. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.21.13906