Five dazzling new species of eyelash vipers discovered in Colombia and Ecuador

The groundbreaking discovery was made official in a study published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics.

A group of scientists led by researchers of Khamai Foundation discovered five dazzling new species of eyelash vipers in the jungles and cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. This groundbreaking discovery was made official in a study published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics.

Prior to this research, the captivating new vipers, now recognized as among the most alluring ever found, were mistakenly classified as part of a single, highly variable species spanning from Mexico to northwestern Peru. The decade-long study initiated with an unexpected incident wherein one of the authors was bitten by one of these previously undiscovered species.

 Distribution of the palm pitvipers of the Bothriechis schlegelii species complex, including the five new species described in Arteaga et al. 2014.

Eyelash vipers stand out due to a distinctive feature: a set of enlarged spine-like scales positioned atop their eyes. These “lashes” bestow upon the snakes a formidable and fierce appearance, yet the true purpose of this feature remains unknown. What is definite, however, is that certain populations exhibit longer, and more stylized eyelashes compared to others. The variations in the condition of the eyelashes led researchers to hypothesize the existence of undiscovered species.

The clue that led the researchers to suspect that there were new species of eyelash vipers was the fact that some populations in the cloud forests of Ecuador had almost no “lashes.” Photos by Lucas Bustamante and Jose Vieira.

Eyelash vipers are also famous for another feature: they are polychromatic. The same patch of rainforest may contain individuals of the turquoise morph, the moss morph, or the gold morph, all belonging to the same species despite having an entirely different attire. “No two individuals have the same coloration, even those belonging to the same litter (yes, they give birth to live young),” says Alejandro Arteaga, who led the study.

For some of the species, there is a “Christmas” morph, a ghost morph, and even a purple morph, with the different varieties sometimes coexisting and breeding with one another. The reason behind these incredible color variations is still unknown, but probably enables the vipers to occupy a wide range of ambush perches, from mossy branches to bright yellow heliconias.

Where do these new snakes live?

Three of the five new species are endemic to the eastern Cordillera of Colombia, where they occupy cloud forests and coffee plantations. One, the Rahim’s Eyelash-Pitviper, stands out for occurring in the remote and pristine Chocó rainforest at the border between Colombia and Ecuador, an area considered “complex to visit” due to the presence of drug cartels. The Hussain’s Eyelash-Pitviper occurs in the forests of southwestern Ecuador and extreme northwestern Peru. The researchers outline the importance of conservation and research in the Andes mountain range and its valleys due to its biogeographic importance and undiscovered megadiversity.

The Chocó rainforest is home to four vipers of the Bothriechis schlegelii species complex, including two new species discovered by Arteaga et al. 2024. Photo by Lucas Bustamante

What’s with the venom?

“The venom of some (perhaps all?) of the new species of vipers is considerably less lethal and hemorrhagic than that of the typical Central American Eyelash-Viper,” says Lucas Bustamante, a co-author of the study. Lucas was bitten in the finger by the Rahim’s Eyelash-Pitviper while taking its pictures during a research expedition in 2013. “I experienced intermittent local pain, dizziness and swelling, but recovered shortly after receiving three doses of antivenom in less than two hours after the bite, with no scar left behind,” says Bustamante.

Researcher Alejandro Arteaga examines the fangs of Central American Eyelash-Pitviper (Bothriechis nigroadspersus) in the Darién jungle of Panamá.

How threatened are these new species?

One of the study’s key conclusions is that four of the species in the group are facing a high risk of extinction. They have an extremely limited geographic range and 50% to 80% of their habitat has already been destroyed. Therefore, a rapid-response action to save the remaining habitat is urgently needed.

Red-wine morph of the Central American Eyelash-Pitviper (Bothriechis nigroadspersus), photographed in the Caribbean Island Escudo de Veraguas, off the coast of Panamá. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Who is honored with this discovery?

Two of the new species of vipers, the Rahim’s Eyelash-Pitviper (Bothriechis rahimi) and the Hussain’s Eyelash-Pitviper (B. hussaini), are named in honor of Prince Hussain Aga Khan and Prince Rahim Aga Khan, respectively, in recognition of their support to protect endangered global biodiversity worldwide through Focused On Nature (FON) and the Aga Khan Development Network. The Shah’s Eyelash-Pitviper (B. rasikusumorum) honors the Shah family, whereas the Klebba’s Eyelash-Pitviper (B. klebbai) and the Khwarg’s Eyelash-Pitviper (B. khwargi) honor Casey Klebba and Dr. Juewon Khwarg, respectively, for supporting the discovery and conservation of new species.

Turquoise morph of the Ecuadorian Eyelash-Pitviper (Bothriechis nitidus). This species is endemic to the Chocó rainforest in west-central Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

What is next?

Khamai Foundation is setting up a reserve to protect a sixth new species that remained undescribed in the present study. “The need to protect eyelash vipers is critical, since unlike other snakes, they cannot survive without adequate canopy cover. Their beauty, though worthy of celebration, should also be protected and monitored carefully, as poachers are notorious for targeting charismatic arboreal vipers for the illegal pet trade of exotic wildlife,” warns Arteaga. Finally, he and his team encourage the support of research on the venom components of the new species of vipers. This will promote their conservation as well as help communities that regularly encounter eyelash pitvipers.

Original source:

Arteaga A, Pyron RA, Batista A, Vieira J, Meneses Pelayo E, Smith EN, Barrio Amorós CL, Koch C, Agne S, Valencia JH, Bustamante L, Harris KJ (2024) Systematic revision of the Eyelash Palm-Pitviper Bothriechis schlegelii (Serpentes, Viperidae), with the description of five new species and revalidation of three. Evolutionary Systematics 8(1): 15-64. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.8.114527

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The most beautiful Vanilla: an unusual new species from Brazil’s Campos Rupestre

Brazilian Campos Rupestres have many endemic species, and a new study published in the journal PhytoKeys has just added one more.

One of the most beautiful vanilla orchid species in the Neotropical region grows in one of the most hostile environments in the Brazilian Cerrado, the Brazilian Campos Rupestres of the Espinhaço Range. “The Espinhaço refuges evolved between the Atlantic Forest and Amazonia Biomes as a consequence of extreme environmental conditions and climatic fluctuations during the Tertiary and Quaternary periods,” explains Emerson Ricardo Pansarin, one of the researchers behind the discovery of a new vanilla orchid.

Vanilla rupicola.

Brazilian Campos Rupestres have many endemic species, and a new study published in the journal PhytoKeys has just added one more.

What makes Vanilla rupicola remarkable is the fact that it grows on rock outcrops. “In this locality, Vanilla rupicola shows a reptant habit on rock outcrops and rooting in rock clefts. The elevation is from 800 to 1300 m a.s.l.,” the researchers write in their paper. Its flowers produce a sweet fragrance that can be noticed during the hottest hours of the day.

Habit of Vanilla rupicola on the rock outcrops of the Espinhaço Range, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Note the creeping stem on the rock.

“For years we traveled through the mountains of the Espinhaço Range until we found the flowering population,” says Emerson Ricardo Pansarin.

Vanilla rupicola.

Vanilla rupicola emerges in an essentially Amazonian clade. It seems plausible that the ancestor of this new taxon derived from an Amazonian taxon adapted to the environmental conditions of the Espinhaço Range and evolved in this particular environment,” he adds.

Vanilla rupicola is a rare species currently known to grow in a mountain-chain of Diamantina, in the ERMG Espinhaço Range, and the researchers tentatively classify it as Endangered.

Research article:

Pansarin ER, Menezes ELF (2023) A new remarkable Vanilla Mill. (Orchidaceae) species endemic to the Espinhaço Range, Brazil: its phylogenetic position and evolutionary relationships among Neotropical congeners. PhytoKeys 227: 151-165. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.227.101963

Pensoft’s science illustrator Denitsa Peneva wins first place at a prestigious international contest

“Dormice of Europe (Gliridae)” – an illustration combining watercolour and pencil – and Denitsa Peneva won at the Illustraciencia competition in the “Nature Illustration” category.

Dormice of Europe (Gliridae)” – an illustration combining watercolour and pencil – and its author Denitsa Peneva won at the Illustraciencia competition in the “Nature Illustration” category. This year, the contest saw over 500 works.

Since 2009, the annual international event convened by the Spanish National Research Council and the Catalan Association of Scientific Communication has been recognising scientific illustrations with the aim to popularise science within the wider society. 

Denitsa’s illustration depicts five dormouse species known from Europe: the Roach’s mouse-tailed or ground dormouse (Myomimus roachi), the forest dormouse (Dryomys nitedula), the European edible dormouse (Glis glis), the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) and the garden dormouse (Eliomys quercinus). Each of the rodents is seen on a plant that is typical either for its habitat or diet. Respectively, one of the species – which is a carnivore – is shown next to a snail.

Curiously, “Dormice of Europe (Gliridae)” was inspired by last year’s 11th International Dormouse Conference, which took place in Svilengrad, Bulgaria. The locality was not chosen at random. It had just recently been found to house a large population of the rarest dormouse species for Europe. At the time, the Roach’s mouse-tailed or ground dormouse (Myomimus roachi), a species endemic to the Balkans, had not been encountered for almost 40 years.



You can follow the work by Denitsa on her Facebook page.

Two striking new species of carnivorous plants discovered in the Andes of Ecuador

The two new species of butterworts were discovered in poorly explored, remote areas in the Amotape-Huancabamba zone, a biodiversity hotspot in southern Ecuador.

A team of botanists from Ecuador, Germany, and the United States has described two new species of carnivorous plants with striking appearance. They are part of the butterworts (genus Pinguicula), a group of flowering plants with about 115 species that can catch and digest small insects with their sticky leaves. Whereas the majority of butterwort species is distributed in the northern hemisphere, these new species were discovered in the high Andes of southern Ecuador, close to the border with Peru.

Pinguicula ombrophila sp. nov. Photograph by Álvaro J. Pérez.

Carnivorous plants use animals (usually small insects) as an additional source of nutrients to compensate the nutrient deficiency of the substrate they’re growing in. This gives them a competitive advantage over other plants and enables them to thrive in challenging habitats. The tropical high Andes have a variety of such habitats, for example marshland and rocky slopes covered in constant rain and clouds.

The two new species described in the study, Pinguicula jimburensis and Pinguicula ombrophila, were found on the shore of a highland lagoon at 3400 m and on a nearly vertical rock face at 2900 m, respectively. Their small-scale habitats lie within the so-called Amotape-Huancabamba zone, which encompasses large portions of southern Ecuador and northern Peru. This area is characterized by exceptional biodiversity, due in part to the fact that the rugged terrain and varied climate of the Andes provide so many microhabitats.

Pinguicula jimburensis sp. nov. Photograph by Kabir Montesinos.

“And as small and scattered as the species’ suitable habitats are, so is the species composition,”

says senior author Tilo Henning of Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), who is a specialist in this plant family in this region.

His colleague Álvaro Pérez of the Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Ecuador and his team were the first to discover the plants. They then got in touch with Henning.

“Both of these new species are only known from a single location, where only a few dozens of plant individuals occur in each case.”

For one of them, only one population with about 15 mature individuals was discovered, making it vulnerable even if it is hidden in an isolated, difficult-to-access area. This narrow endemism (limited distribution in a particular area) is typical of the Amotape-Huancabamba zone, and there are many more new plant and animal species awaiting discovery, Henning says.

With the description of these two new species, the number of Pinguicula species recorded in Ecuador has tripled, as previously only P. calyptrata was known, discovered by none other than Alexander von Humboldt. The authors are convinced that there are many more new species awaiting formal scientific recognition, but admit that lately it has been a race against time.

“The results presented in this study show that the assessment of the Neotropical biodiversity is far from complete. Even in well-known groups such as the carnivorous plants, new taxa are continuously discovered and described, in particular from remote areas that become accessible in the course of the unlimited urban sprawl,” Henning, Pérez, and their colleagues write in a scientific article dedicated to the new plants that was published in the peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys. “This is both encouraging and worrying at the same time“.

“Relentless urban sprawl and the accompanying destruction of habitats pose a massive threat to biodiversity in general, and to the tightly-knit and specialized organisms that depend on their fragile microhabitats in particular,”

Henning points out.

Although the two new species are relatively safe from direct human interference – as they both occur within protected areas – human-induced climate change is increasingly affecting ecosystems regardless of location, especially those that rely on regular precipitation, such as mountain wetlands.

The dependence on a constant climate is even reflected in the name of one of the two new species: Pinguicula ombrophila means “rain-loving butterwort”, as the plant prefers very wet conditions, receiving moisture from the waterlogged paramo-soil and enjoying the frequent rain and fog typical for this area.

Pinguicula ombrophila sp. nov. Photograph by Álvaro J. Pérez.

Additional information:

The expedition to Cerro Plateado in 2016 was supported by Secretaría de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación de la República del Ecuador (SENESCYT, Arca de Noé Initiative; S. R. Ron and O.Torres–Carvajal, Principal Investigators) and in 2021 by the International Palm Society (IPS) Endowment Fund and by Claes Persson (University of Gothenburg), the expedition also received partial funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No. 865787, GLOBAL project). The Open Access Fund of the Leibniz Association covered the publication costs for the article.


Original source:

Pérez ÁJ, Tobar F, Burgess KS, Henning T (2023) Contributions to Ecuadorian butterworts (Lentibulariaceae, Pinguicula): two new species and a re-evaluation of Pinguicula calyptrata. PhytoKeys 222: 153-171. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.222.98139

You can also follow PhytoKeys on Twitter and Facebook.

Seeing off 2022 with another selection of awesome new species

A list of the most exciting biodiversity wins we’ve published in the second half of 2022.

Another year rolled by and we at Pensoft have a lot to celebrate! This year, we marked our 30th birthday, and what a ride it’s been! We thank all of you for sticking around and helping us put biodiversity science in the spotlight where it deserves to be.

The holiday season is always great fun, but for us, every biodiversity or conservation win is reason enough to celebrate. And we’ve had so many this year! We already showed you our top species for the first half of 2022. Here’s an update for the second half with the most exciting new species that we’ve published across our journals:

The elusive owl from a remote island

The Principe scops-owl (Otus bikegila) was discovered on the small island of Príncipe, just off Africa’s western coast. Its existence had been suspected since 1998, but locals said its presence on the island could be traced back to 1928.

The bird is endemic to the island of Príncipe. Furthermore, the research team behind its discovery noted that it can be found only in the remaining old-growth native forest on the island, in an area that largely remains uninhabited.

Otus is the generic name given to a group of small owls sharing a common history, commonly called scops-owls. They are found across Eurasia and Africa, and include such widespread species as the Eurasian scops-owl (Otus scops) and the African scops-owl (Otus senegalensis).

The species epithet “bikegila”, in turn, was chosen in homage of Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, nicknamed Bikegila – a former parrot harvester from Príncipe Island and now a park ranger on the island.The new species quickly became insanely popular, generating memes (a true sign of its popularity!). One website even described it as “a flying meme-generator that sounds like a newborn puppy.”

Published in ZooKeys.

The underground carnivore

Nepenthes pudica is a carnivorous plant that grows prey-trapping contraptions underground, feeding off subterranean creatures such as worms, larvae and beetles.

It belongs to pitcher plants – a group of carnivorous plants with modified leaves (called pitfall traps or pitchers) that help them catch their prey.

Pitcher plants usually produce pitfall traps above ground at the surface of the soil or on trees. N. pudica is the first pitcher plant known to catch its prey underground.

At first, the researchers thought the deformed pitcher protruding from the soil that they saw had accidentally been buried. Only later, when they found additional pitcherless plants, did they consider the possibility that the pitchers might be buried in the soil.

Then, as one of the researchers was taking photos, he tore some moss off the base of a tree and found a handful of pitchers.

The unique plant, however, could already be under threat. As it only lives in one small area of Indonesia, scientists believe it should be classed as Critically Endangered.

Published in PhytoKeys.

The graveyard-dwelling snake

In November 2021, biologist Alejandro Arteaga and his colleagues were traveling through the cloud forests of Ecuador looking for toads, when a local woman told them she had seen odd snakes slithering around a graveyard. Based on her description, the team suspected they might be ground snakes from the genus Atractus, which had never been scientifically recorded in that area of Ecuador.

Indeed, they were able to discover three new snake species living beneath graves and churches in remote towns in the Andes mountains.

The “small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking” snakes all belong to a group called ground snakes. In general, not a lot of people are familiar with ground snakes, as they usually remain hidden underground.

All three snakes were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics. Atractus zgap, pictured here,  was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. 

However, the majority of the native habitat of these new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they usually end up being killed on sight.

Published in ZooKeys.

The beautiful aquarium fish

2022 was a good year for fish diversity! In the first half, we had Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, in the second half we have Astronotus mikoljii.

Unlike some other participants in this list, this one took a while before it was confirmed as a new species: “We did not discover that it was a new species overnight,” says Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, one of the people behind its discovery.

A. mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it is highly appreciated and has been known by the common name of Oscar.

Moreover, the species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In the plains of Orinoco, it is considered a delicacy “due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture”.

Oscar Lasso-Alcalá has a special relationship with this fish. “It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet,” he says.

Published in ZooKeys.

The spiny-tailed gecko

gecko

Recently, Javier Lobon-Rovira, one of the people behind the discovery of this new gecko, told us what it was like to find this exciting new species: “That night we were tired, so we decided to have a short walk around the camp. And… there it was…! Like a ghost, this small, cryptic, and elusive gecko started  showing up in every big rock boulder.”

Kolekanos spinicaudus is part of Kolekanos, a unique and iconic gecko genus that is only known from southwestern Angola.

Until this discovery, Kolekanos only had one species in the genus, known only from ~200km south of the new discovery, but that species had feathers on its tail, not spines like K. spinicaudus. Immediately, the researchers knew they were dealing with a Kolekanos… but they were astonished to see the spines.

The scientific name “spinicaudus” refers to the unique appearance of the tail of this new species.

K. spinicaudus’s home in southern Angola remains poorly explored, even as it has been considered as an important source of diversification and endemism in West Africa.

Published in ZooKeys.

Honorable mention: the bee with a dog-like snout

“Insects in general are so diverse and so important, yet we don’t have scientific descriptions or names for so many of them,” says Dr Kit Prendergast, from the Curtin School of Molecular and Life Sciences.

The new bee species she discovered, Leioproctus zephyr is excellent proof that we still have a lot to learn about bee biodiversity.

The story behind  L. zephyr’s name is quite interesting – it was named after Zephyr the Maremma dog, Dr Prendergast’s fellow companion. The researcher says Zephyr played an important role in providing emotional support during her PhD. The name also references the dog-like “snout” in the bee’s anatomy that she found rather unusual.

The bee species  was in fact first collected in 1979, but it had to wait until 2022 to be officially described.

However, Dr Prendergast says its future remains uncertain, as it is highly specialised, and has a very restricted, fragmented distribution.

“The Leioproctus zephyr has a highly restricted distribution, only occurring in seven locations across the southwest WA to date, and have not been collected from their original location. They were entirely absent from residential gardens and only present at five urban bushland remnants that I surveyed, where they foraged on two plant species of Jacksonia.”

Published in Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

Honorable mention: Two scorpion species described by high-school citizen scientists

In 2019, California teenagers Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain were looking at entries on the naturalist social network iNaturalist, when they noticed a mysterious scorpion that a citizen scientist had encountered near a lake in the Mojave Desert. The species had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier.

The entry that they were looking at was a yet undescribed scorpion species whose name they would add to the fauna of California. Shortly after, they found another entry on iNaturalist that also appeared to be an unknown scorpion species.

The new species, Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus, are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California.

The budding naturalists published a formal description of the two species with the help of Lauren Esposito, PhD,  Curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences.

“These kids can find anything,” Dr Esposito told The Guardian. “You set them out in a landscape and they’re like: ‘Here’s every species of snake, here’s every scorpion, every butterfly,’ and it’s kind of incredible.”

Forbes and Jain were still in high school when they made their groundbreaking discoveries. Now they are in college: Forbes at the University of Arizona studying evolutionary biology and Jain at the University of California, Berkeley, for integrative biology.

Published in ZooKeys.

Scientists identify gaps in the protection of Vietnam’s amphibians

A new study assessing the status of amphibians in Vietnam found a high level of species richness and local endemism.

As was highlighted in the foreword to the renowned WWF Greater Mekong Report 2021, written by Prof. Dr. Thomas Ziegler, Curator for Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrates, at Cologne Zoo (Köln, Germany), there is an urgent need for more studies that identify the gaps in species conservation. 

In a new scientific article, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Nature Conservation, Ziegler and his team present precisely such an analysis, focusing on the world’s most threatened vertebrate class: the amphibians. The share of amphibian taxa classified as threatened with extinction – 41% – is a clear indicator for the decline in global biodiversity and a warning sign for significant environmental degradation. 

Ingerophrynus galeatus. Photo by Anna Rauhaus

The scientists examined the threat status of the Vietnamese amphibians, building on the bachelor thesis of Marie Krzikowski of the University of Cologne, Germany.

One of the amphibian breeding facilities at the Cologne Zoo’s Terrarium section with offspring (larvae, eggs, terrestrial subadults) of the threatened Vietnamese Crocodile Newt (Tylototriton vietnamensis), which is successfully bred at the Zoo.

They identified 275 amphibian species known from Vietnam, noting that the number is likely to go up. The country is classified as a biodiversity hotspot, and the rate of discovering new amphibian species remains relatively high. Of these 275 species, 95 (35%) species are endemic to the country, with more than half of them reported exclusively from a single locality, which makes them especially vulnerable to extinction. Vietnam’s Central Highlands were revealed as the region with the highest species diversity (130 species), the most regionally endemic species (26 of total 67 regionally endemic species), and the most species classified as threatened by the IUCN Red List (11 species), which highlights it as a site of particular amphibian conservation concern.

Tylototriton vietnamensis. Photo by Anna Rauhaus

In terms of threat status, 50 of the 275 species recorded so far from Vietnam (18%) are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as threatened with extinction. These include 27 endemic species. Most of them are frogs, followed by salamanders, where 60% of the listed species are classified as threatened with extinction.

Alarmingly, 13 endemic species, including two threatened species, have been recorded exclusively from unprotected areas. For two-thirds of Vietnam’s endemic amphibians, there is no conservation data available, as their IUCN Red List status is either missing or outdated.

Tylototriton ziegleri. Photo by Thomas Ziegler

According to data from the Zoological Information Management System, 29 (11%) of the total 275 species reported to occur in Vietnam are represented in global zoos, including five threatened species, with the highest diversity concentrated in zoos in Europe and North America. 

These facts, now compiled in the overview paper by Marie Krzikowski, Truong Q. Nguyen, Cuong T. Pham, Dennis Rödder, Anna Rauhaus, Minh D. Le and Thomas Ziegler, reveal for the first time some obvious gaps in conservation. Importantly, they will provide a directory to authorities, conservationists, rescue centers, and zoos, so that they can follow up with appropriate actions.

Paramesotriton deloustali. Photo by Thomas Ziegler

In particular, the conservation of microendemic species can only be addressed by organizations, NGOs or partner institutes on site, for example in the form of field work, regulatory support or protected area establishment. 

Where species are at risk of disappearing rapidly, for example, species with a very limited distribution range, the establishment of ex-situ programs by local partners in cooperation with international zoos could help, in addition to in-situ conservation measures as part of the IUCN’s One Plan Approach, which combines in-situ and ex-situ efforts and various expertises for the optimum protection of a species.

Research article:

Krzikowski M, Nguyen TQ, Pham CT, Rödder D, Rauhaus A, Le MD, Ziegler T (2022) Assessment of the threat status of the amphibians in Vietnam – Implementation of the One Plan Approach. Nature Conservation 49: 77-116. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.49.82145

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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