New species from a new country: A newly described gecko from Timor-Leste, the 4th youngest country in the world

For the first time, a new species of bent-toed gecko was described from the country, hinting at the unexplored diversity in the region.

Nestled amongst a chain of islands in the southern reaches of Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands that also include Bali and Komodo, the latter of which is home to the Komodo Dragon. In May 2002, Timor-Leste (officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) became the first sovereign nation in the 21st century and is currently the 4th youngest country in the world.

A view from the road between Dili and Baucau, Timor-Leste. Photo by Graham Crumb shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Even though the country lies in the highly biodiverse region of Wallacea, its biodiversity is relatively poorly known, partly because decades of pre-independence violence and conflict have hindered biological surveys. In August 2022, a partnership between the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Singapore), Conservation International, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of Timor-Leste conducted preliminary biological surveys across the eastern part of the island. The surveys specifically targeted remote and underexplored areas, such as the isolated mountain of Mundo Perdido (“Lost World” in Portuguese) and Nino Konis Santana National Park (NKS)—the first and largest national park in Timor-Leste.   

An aerial view of Nino Konis Santana National Park, Timor-Leste. Photo by UN Photo/Martine Perret under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

NKS is an enormous park that covers 1,236 square kilometers of land and is mainly characterized by lowland tropical forests. In it, there are several limestone caves of archaeological importance,  and it was in one of those caves that a new gecko species was found.

While surveying the Lene Hara cave during the day, a member of the research team caught a glimpse of a lizard scurrying on the ground before disappearing into a crevice. Dr. Chan Kin Onn, a herpetologist at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the lead author of a study published in ZooKeys, sprung into action. Soon, he found himself wedged into a tight crevice in hopes of capturing the lizard.

Lene Hara cave, where the new species was found. Photo by Tan Heok Hui

“I couldn’t get to the lizard because the crack was too narrow, but I saw the rear half of its body and could tell that it was a bent-toed gecko from the genus Cyrtodactylus. New species of bent-toed geckos are being discovered all across Southeast Asia and due to the remoteness of the cave, the potential for this gecko to be a new species was high,” explained Dr. Chan.

Several hours later, under the cover of darkness, the team was back in the cave, this time equipped with flashlights. “Bent-toed geckos are usually nocturnal and can be skittish during the day. Our best chance at capturing them would be at night,” says Dr. Chan.True enough, after just one hour of looking, they collected ten specimens. A few weeks later, the gecko from Lena Hara cave was confirmed to be a new species based on DNA analysis and external morphological characteristics.

The new species of bent-toed gecko, Cyrtodactylus santana. Photo by Chan Kin Onn

The new species is named Cyrtodactylus santana, in reference to Nino Konis Santana National Park. The park’s name honors Nino Konis Santana, a freedom fighter who led the Falintil militia against the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.

Even though past surveys have documented several populations of bent-toed geckos in Timor-Leste, none of them had been identified to the species level and thus, remain unnamed. Cyrtodactylus santana is the first bent-toed gecko in Timor-Leste formally described as a species.

The expedition also discovered several interesting plants and crabs that are currently being examined, all of which have the potential to be new species. “We have barely scratched the surface of Timor-Leste’s biodiversity. New discoveries can have profound impacts, because Timor-Leste is a substantial landmass bounded by deep sea trenches and is located at the fringe of the Wallacean Biodiversity Hotspot and Weber’s Line, a transitional zone between Oriental and Australasian fauna” remarked the researchers. Understanding the biodiversity of Timor-Leste could provide key insights into the divergence, evolution, and distribution of species, they believe.

Research article:

Chan KO, Grismer LL, Santana F, Pinto P, Loke FW, Conaboy N (2023) Scratching the surface: a new species of Bent-toed gecko (Squamata, Gekkonidae, Cyrtodactylus) from Timor-Leste of the darmandvillei group marks the potential for future discoveries. ZooKeys 1139: 107-126. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1139.96508

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Oldest Pterodactylus fossil found in Germany

The fossil, just described in a study in the journal Fossil Record, is about one million years older than other Pterodactylus specimens.

Pterosaurs, the flying reptiles of the dinosaur era, originated in the Late Triassic (227 million years ago) and became extinct at the end-Cretaceous extinction event (66 million years ago). With wing spans ranging from 1 to 12 meters, they dominated the world’s skies for more than 160 million years.

The first described and named pterosaur – and namesake of the whole group – is Pterodactylus from the famous Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria, southern Germany. Originally described in 1784 by the Italian naturalist Cosimo Alessandro Collini, the fossil was considered to be an aquatic animal for 25 years, before Georges Cuvier found out it was a flying reptile belonging to a new, previously unrecognized group.

The oldest specimen of this iconic pterosaur was recently found near Painten, a small town in the southern part of the Franconian Alb in central Bavaria. The fossil, described in a study in the journal Fossil Record, is about one million years older than other Pterodactylus specimens.

The specimen was unearthed in 2014 during excavations in an active limestone quarry. It took more than 120 hours of meticulous mechanical work using pneumatic tools and needles before the researchers could study it. The research team behind the discovery are Felix Augustin, Andreas Matzke, Panagiotis Kampouridis and Josephina Hartung from the University of Tübingen (Germany) and Raimund Albersdörfer from the Dinosaurier Museum Altmühltal (Germany).

“The rocks of the quarry, which yielded the new Pterodactylus specimen, consist of silicified limestone that has been dated to the upper Kimmeridgian stage (around 152 million years ago)”, explains Felix Augustin of the University of Tübingen, who is the lead author of the study. “Previously, Pterodactylus had only been found in younger rocks of southern Germany belonging to the Tithonian stage that follows after the Kimmeridgian”.

The specimen is a complete, well-preserved skeleton of a small-sized individual. “Only a very small portion of the left mandible as well as of the left and right tibia is missing. Otherwise, the skeleton is nearly perfectly preserved with every bone present and in its roughly correct anatomical position”, the researchers write in their study.

With a 5-cm-long skull, the Painten Pterodactylus represents a rare “sub-adult” individual. “Generally, the Pterodactylus specimens are not evenly distributed across the full size range but predominantly fall into distinct size-classes that are separated by marked gaps. The specimen from Painten is a rare representative of the first gap between the small and large sizes,” explains Augustin. “The Painten Pterodactylus was of an intermediate, and rarely found, ontogenetic age at the time of its death, between two consecutive year-classes.”

The Painten quarry has yielded many other “exquisitely preserved fossils”, including ichthyosaurs, turtles, marine and terrestrial crocodile-relatives, and dinosaurs.  Many of them, like this new pterosaur specimen, are on display in the new Dinosaurier Museum Altmühltal in Denkendorf (Bavaria, Germany).

Research article:

Augustin FJ, Kampouridis P, Hartung J, Albersdörfer R, Matzke AT (2022) The geologically oldest specimen of Pterodactylus: a new exquisitely preserved skeleton from the Upper Jurassic (Kimmeridgian) Plattenkalk deposits of Painten (Bavaria, Germany). Fossil Record 25(2): 331-343. https://doi.org/10.3897/fr.25.90692

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Interview: description of two African shovel-snout snakes from Angola

The small number of collected samples, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades.

Recently, our journal ZooKeys published a paper describing two new species of African Shovel-snout snakes: Prosymna confusa, endemic to dry habitats in southwestern Angola, and P. lisima, associated with the Kalahari sands.

We interviewed the authors of the study to find out how they made this discovery and what it means for biodiversity. Werner Conradie (South Africa), the leader of the project, collected most of the specimens and did all the morphological examinations and taxonomy work. Chad Keates (South Africa) conducted the molecular analysis, Javier Lobon-Roviara (Spain) did the CT-scanning skull reconstruction, and Ninda Baptista (Angola) performed fieldwork.

Interview with Werner Conradie, Chad Keates, Ninda L. Baptista, and Javier Lobón-Rovira

Why has the taxonomy of African Shovel-snout snakes been so complicated?

While widespread, the group is infrequently encountered, resulting in a relatively low number of samples being collected through time. This, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades. While we finally seem to have a grip on the higher-level taxonomy (their relatedness to other snakes), their relations among each other remain incomplete. One thing is for sure, the next few years will likely result in the discovery and description of many more.

Live P. confusa. Photo by Bill Branch

Please walk us through your research process.

Similar to solving a puzzle, the process starts off by acquiring the pieces. The pieces come in the form of samples, collected by us and by scientists, accessioned in museums all over the world. Once all the pieces are in one place, it becomes our job to piece them all together and build a picture of the taxonomy of the group. We start in the corners, ironing out our hypotheses. Once we have the outline, a theory of the species composition of the group, we get to work building the puzzle using evidence from multiple different species concepts.

We use genetics, morphology, ecology, and skull osteology and through fitting these concepts together we start to see our species and the boundaries between them. Large chunks of the puzzle begin to take shape, revealing our picture with ever-increasing clarity. As we find, orientate, and fit the last pieces of our puzzle through the creation and completion of the manuscript, we finish the puzzle and in doing so provide you with the complete picture: the updated taxonomy of Angolan shovel-snout snakes.

When did you realize you were dealing with new-to-science species?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the idea grew from the moment Werner Conradie picked up the first snake whilst on the first expedition with the Okavango Wilderness Project, back in 2016. Funded by National Geographic and managed by the Wild Bird Trust, this paper would not be possible without them, because without the transport and logistical support, most of our dataset would never have been found.

What makes these new species unique?

With the aid of modern nano computerised tomography scanning technology, we observed that one of the new species has a well-developed postorbital bone. We still don’t know the purpose of this postorbital bone and why it is absent in the others. We believe it might serve as additional muscle attachment points that aids them on feeding on different kinds of lizard eggs than the others.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

This is also the first new species of Shovel-snouted snake described in nearly 30 years.

In the late 1980’s Zimbabwean herpetologist, Donald Broadley noted that eastern populations of the Angolan Shovel-snouted snake may be a different species. It took nearly 50 years before more material was collected and with the aid of modern technology, like genetic analysis and CT-scanning, we could show he was correct and described it as a new species.  

What can you tell us about their appearance and behavior?

The Shovel-snouted snakes are unique snakes with a beak-like snout that allow them to dig into sandier soils. Thus most of the time they are below the surface and only come out after heavy rains. They also possess unique backward pointed lancet-shaped teeth that they use for cutting open lizard eggs. These snakes specialize in feeding mostly on soft-shell lizard eggs. They find a freshly laid clutch of eggs and one by one, they swallow them whole. They cut them laterally so that the yolk can be released.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

Do they interact with people?

These snakes may be encountered by people tending to their lands or crossing the road, but, for the most part, they are incredibly secretive. Because of their ability to burrow in soft soils, these animals are infrequently encountered, only forced to the surface during heavy rain and by the urge to breed and to feed. If encountered, however, these snakes pose absolutely no harm, as they possess no venom. When threatened, these animals may wind themselves into a tight coil to protect their heads.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

What is the ecological role of these snakes?

Much like most small vertebrates, these animals form an important component of the food web. They consume lizard eggs, exerting a regulatory force on newborn lizards, and serve as food for larger snakes, rodents, and birds. Animals like these form the bedrock of any healthy ecosystem as they contribute to energy exchanges and the flow of nutrients down and up and down again.

Bonus question: how did you get involved in herpetology?

Everyone in the group has a soft spot for reptiles and amphibians’. Irrespective of our contrasting upbringing and our nation of origin, we all came to herpetology independently. While it is hard to unpack the moment that we all fell in love with these weird and wonderful creatures, one thing is for sure, it’s a lifetime commitment.

About the Authors

Werner Conradie holds a Masters in Environmental Science (M. Env. Sc.) and has 17 years of experience with southern African herpetofauna, with his main research interests focusing on the taxonomy, conservation, and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. Werner has published numerous principal and collaborative scientific papers, and has served on a number of conservation and scientific panels, including the Southern African Reptile and Amphibian Relisting Committees. He has undertaken research expeditions to many African countries including Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Werner is currently the Curator of Herpetology at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld), South Africa.

Chad Keates is a post-doctoral fellow at the African herpetology lab at Port Elizabeth museum (Nelson Mandela University, based in the SAIAB Genetics Platform). Having recently completed his PhD in Zoology, Chad’s research focusses are African herpetofauna and their evolutionary and ecological structuring. In Chad’s short professional career, he has published several principal and collaborative peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters. Chad is also a strong advocate for reptile and amphibian awareness and regularly conducts walks, talks and presentations as well as produces numerous popular scientific outputs on the subject. He has undertaken numerous expeditions to many African countries such as Angola, Zambia and South Africa with a variety of both professional and scientific organisations.

Ninda Baptista is an Angolan biologist, holds an MSc degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Lisbon, and is currently enrolled for a PhD in Biodiversity, Genetics and Evolution in the University of Porto, addressing the diversity of Angolan amphibians. Over the last 12 years she has worked on environmental consulting, research and in-situ conservation projects in Angola, including priority areas for conservation such as Kumbira, Mount Moco and the Humpata plateau. She conducted herpetological surveys throughout the country and created a herpetological collection (Colecção Herpetológica do Lubango), currently deposited in Instituto Superior de Ciências da Educação da Huíla (ISCED – Huíla). Ninda is an author of scientific papers and book chapters on Angolan herpetology and ornithology. She also works on scientific outreach, producing magazine articles, books for children and posters about the country’s biodiversity in collaboration with Fundação Kissama.

Javier Lobón-Rovira is PhD student at Cibio, Portugal, working to unveil evolutionary pattern in southern Africa gekkonids. As Biologist he has worked in different conservation projects and groups around the globe, including reptiles and amphibians at Veragua Rainforest Foundation, Costa Rica or big mammals in Utah, USA. However, as photographer, he has collaborated with different Conservation NGOs in Africa, America and Europe and manage to publish on International Journals as National Geographic, Africa Geographic or Nature’s Best Magazine. 

Read the study:

Conradie W, Keates C, Baptista NL, Lobón-Rovira J (2022) Taxonomical review of Prosymna angolensis Boulenger, 1915 (Elapoidea, Prosymnidae) with the description of two new species. ZooKeys 1121: 97-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.85693

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Celebrating World Lizard day with amazing discoveries

This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

World Lizard Day is a great way to raise awareness of these curious reptiles and their conservation needs; it is also a good excuse to look at pretty lizard pictures! Today, we’re doing a bit of both.

At Pensoft, we’ve published many new lizard species, some of them rare and truly fascinating. This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

The Dracula lizard

This beautiful lizard, described in 2018, comes from the Andean slopes of southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. It inhabits evergreen low montane forests, and is only known from a relatively small territory of approximately 1582 km2. Its prey most often consists of insects, spiders and worms.

Contrary to what you might think, this species was not named after the eponymous vampire count, but rather after some beautiful tropical flowers.

The specific epithet dracula refers to the Dracula Reserve, which is located within the lizard’s distribution and near its type locality. The Reserve protects an area with a high diversity of orchids of the genus Dracula.

Published in ZooKeys.

The tiny chameleon

This lizard friend, known as Brookesia tedi, is less than 3 cm long! It is more than ten times smaller than the longest known chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti. Its size makes it difficult to find, and as a result, challenging to study. Its description, published in 2019, helped resolve a 50-year old identity question.

Living at 1300 m above sea level on the Marojejy massif in northeastern Madagascar, Brookesia tedi lives is brown in colour, its tail and the back of its head grey.

The researchers consider it Vulnerable but worry that improper protection on Marojejy, as well as fires, could rapidly drive the species to becoming Critically Endangered.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

The charismatic wood lizard

Enyalioides feiruzae is a colourful and highly variable lizard – especially its males, who can have brownish turquoise, gray, or greenish brown backs traced with pale lines. Females, in turn, can be greenish brown or floury brown, with faint dark brown lines on their back, limbs and tail, and spots on the sides. The team behind its discovery spent seven years in the area searching for amphibians and reptiles before describing it.

The species comes from the Tropical Andes, and more specifically – from the Huallaga River basin, an area which is still poorly studied because for a long time it was disturbed by civil wars.

The Feiruz wood lizard was named after another reptile, Feiruz the iguana – “muse and lifelong friend”.

The spotted monitor lizard

Mussau is a small island in northeastern Papua New Guinea. The top predator on it? A lizard.

Varanus semotus has been isolated from related species for an estimated one to two million years, with its closest relatives several hundred kilometers away.

Even so, science discovered it only recently.

The one-meter-long lizard has a black body with yellow and orange markings and a pale yellow tongue, with a turquoise to blue tail. These animals “will eat just about anything they can catch and kill,” study author Valter Weijola told the Washington Post.

As the only large terrestrial generalist predator and scavenger on the island, Varanus semotus may fill an important ecological function, making it of particular conservation concern.

Published in ZooKeys.

The black iguana

What makes Iguana melanoderma so distinct is its black color; in fact, it only gets blacker with age. The species was discovered in Saba and Montserrat islands, the Lesser Antilles (Eastern Caribbean), to which it is endemic.

However, it is threatened by unsustainable harvesting (including pet trade), and competition and hybridization from invasive alien iguanas from South and Central America.

A greater focus on biosecurity, the minimization of hunting, and habitat conservation, would help its conservation, the researchers write in their paper.

In Saba, Iguana melanoderma lives on cliffs, in trees and bushes, in shrublands, and deciduous woodlands. It lives in a foggy and cool environment up to about 500 m a.s.l. and sunbathes as soon as the sun rises.

Published in ZooKeys.

Bonus: Illegal lizard trade might be closer than you think

Dubbed “miniature Godzilla” and “the Holy Grail of Herpetology,” the earless monitor lizard is endemic to Borneo. Legally, it can neither be traded within Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, nor exported out of them.

Even so, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have long been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards, eventually bringing them to Europe.

A new study reported that accredited zoos have acquired individuals of the protected lizard, without any evidence of legal export.

“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,” Vincent Nijman, author of the study, told us.

Published in Nature Conservation.

Lizards go north: Balkan wall lizard population found all the way in the Czech Republic

The northernmost population of the Balkan lizard, recently discovered in the Czech Republic, has proven to be genetically unique and variable.

The Czech Republic is a zoologically well-studied area, and its reptile fauna is not very rich. Therefore, the recent discovery of a new reptile species for the country, the Balkan wall lizard (Podarcis tauricus), came as a big surprise. This lizard inhabits areas of the Central and Western Balkans as far as Crimea, with isolated areas of occurrence in Hungary and northern Romania, so how did it get as far north as the Czech Republic? Fortunately, the genetics in much of the lizard’s range are relatively well-studied. Finding out where lizards from the Czech Republic fit genetically could reveal the origins of this northernmost population.

Podarcis tauricus in the wild – Váté písky near Bzenec, Czech Republic.

An analysis published by Czech herpetologists in the journal Biodiversity Data Journal shows that the lizards from the Czech population are genetically variable; therefore, the population was not established by the introduction of a single gravid female.

Geographical distribution of Podarcis tauricus. The green arrow shows the northernmost known locality (Váté písky, Czech Republic).

The population also has genetic “markers” not yet found elsewhere, although it is clearly related to populations from the Central and Western Balkans and Hungary. These findings suggest that this could be an original, possibly relict population.

Haplotype network, designed from 24 haplotypes of the cytb locus from 167 individuals of Podarcis tauricus and Podarcis gaigeae (Psonis et al. 2017; this study). Colours correspond to the country of the specimen’s geographical origin and each circle corresponds to a haplotype. The circle size is proportional to the number of individuals with the same haplotype. The number of individuals per haplotype is indicated. Due to the unequal size of cytb sequences from Psonis et al. (2017), only a fragment of 257 bp which was common for all 167 sequences was used for the haplotype network reconstruction. For this region of cytb locus, the sequences of our individuals from Czech Republic are identical to 18 individuals from Albania, Hungary, Kosovo and Serbia.

However, we cannot rule out recent introductions or spontaneous northward dispersal of the lizard associated with global climate change. Exotic species of animals and plants appear in the Czech Republic through various routes and tracing their origin is not always easy. Both intentional and unintentional introductions have been recorded for some reptiles, while some previously southern vertebrate and invertebrate species spread to the north spontaneously.

The first genetic data on the origin of the northernmost population of the Balkan wall lizard suggest that the lizard can spread to the north naturally; however, further investigations are needed to support this tentative conclusion. 

Research article:

Rehák I, Fischer D, Kratochvíl L, Rovatsos M (2022) Origin and haplotype diversity of the northernmost population of Podarcis tauricus (Squamata, Lacertidae): Do lizards respond to climate change and go north? Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e82156. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e82156

Top new species discoveries for the first half of 2022

The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

In the world of biodiversity science, 2022 started with some great discoveries and a lot of hope. Here at Pensoft, we get to see a new species (or more!) make an appearance into the scientific world almost every day. The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

With the first half of the year already behind us, here are the stellar new species that took the world by storm as soon as we published them.

The magical fairy wrasse

This rainbow-coloured fish is called Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, or Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse, and it was found in the Maldives’ reefs. It can live 160 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface in unexplored coral ecosystems dubbed “the twilight zone”. 

It was discovered within California Academy of SciencesHope for Reefs initiative, which is aimed at better understanding and protecting coral reefs around the world.

“Nobody knows these waters better than the Maldivian people,” says senior author and Academy Curator of Ichthyology Luiz Rocha. “Our research is stronger when it’s done in collaboration with local researchers and divers.”

Apart from its striking appearance, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa also gained popularity as the first new-to-science species to be described by a Maldivian scientist.

“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives, even those that are endemic, without much involvement from local scientists, says study co-author and Maldives Marine Research Institute biologist Ahmed Najeeb. “This time it is different.”

It is also one of the first species to have its name derived from the local Dhivehi language, ‘finifenmaa’ meaning ‘rose’, a nod to both its pink hues and the island nation’s national flower.

This beautiful fish is already being exploited through the aquarium hobbyist trade, a fact described as “unsettling” by the people who discovered it.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Taylor Swift millipede

How often is it that a millipede makes top news headlines? Well, Nannaria swiftae sure did.

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., described the new species in April, naming it after singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. “Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” Derek Hennen says, admitting he has been her fan for years.

N. swiftae joins 16 other new species of twisted-claw millipedes described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. To find them, researchers traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs. They then sequenced the DNA of the species they found and described them scientifically. They looked at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections!

These little-known invertebrates are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Most twisted-claw millipedes live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter. They also have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Greta Thunberg frog

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been namesakes with a frog for half a year now. In 2018, Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting an auction offering naming rights for some new-to-science species, including Pristimantis gretathunbergae, a black-eyed rainfrog from in eastern Panama.

The undisclosed auction winner wanted to name the frog in honor of Thunberg and her work in highlighting the urgency in preventing climate change. She has impressed global leaders and her work is drawing others to action for the climate.

The international team that discovered the new rainfrog was led by Abel Batista, Ph.D. (Panama) and Konrad Mebert, Ph.D. (Switzerland). They found the frog on Mount Chucanti, a sky island surrounded by lowland tropical rainforest in eastern Panama. Reaching its habitat in the cloud forest required access via horseback through muddy trails, hiking up steep slopes, by-passing two helicopters that crashed decades ago, and camping above 1000 m elevation.

Unfortunately, the frog’s remaining habitat is severely fragmented and highly threatened by rapid deforestation for plantations and cattle pasture. Rising temperatures are another threat as they could destroy its small mountain habitat. The Mount Chucanti region already has lost more than 30% of its forest cover over the past 10 years, and the scientists insist that conservation of the remaining habitat is critical to ensure the survival of the frog.

Published in ZooKeys.

The chocolate frog

Since we’re on the subject of frogs, how about one that almost looks like it’s not real?

Instantly gaining popularity as Chocolate Frog, Synapturanus danta is a curious little frog that was recently discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. Local people had long known about this tiny, burrowing frog with a long snout; one local name for it is rana danta, “tapir frog”, for its resemblance to the large-nosed Amazonian mammal.

“These frogs are really hard to find, and that leads to them being understudied,” says Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the authors of the study describing the frog. “It’s an example of the Amazon’s hidden diversity, and it’s important to document it to understand how important the ecosystem functions.”

While the frogs are hard to see, they’re not hard to hear. “We just kept hearing this beep-beep-beep coming from underground, and we suspected it could be a new species of burrowing frog,” says Thompson. “But how do we get to it?”

Local guides who were familiar with the frogs led the researchers to peatland areas– wetlands carpeted with nutrient-rich turf made of decaying plant matter. “After 15 to 20 minutes of digging and looking for them, I heard Michelle screaming, and to me that could only mean that she and David had found the first adult,” says Germán Chávez, a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author.

The researchers used the physical specimens of the frogs, along with the recordings of their calls and an analysis of the frogs’ DNA, to confirm that they were a new species. They named them Synapturanus danta – Synapturanus is the name of the genus they belong to, and danta is the local word for “tapir.”

Published in Evolutionary Systematics.

The fabulous flaming-red snake

This magnificent non-venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was discovered in Paraguay. It belongs to the genus Phalotris, a group of snakes from central South America noted for their striking coloration with red, black, and yellow patterns.

Jean-Paul Brouard, one of the involved researchers, came across an individual of the new species by chance while digging a hole at Rancho Laguna Blanca in 2014. Together with his colleagues Paul Smith and Pier Cacciali, he described the discovery, naming the new snake Phalotris shawnella.

The species name recognizes two children – Shawn Ariel Smith Fernández and Ella Bethany Atkinson – who were born in the same year as the Fundación Para La Tierra (2008). They inspired the founders of the NGO to work for the conservation of Paraguayan wildlife, in the hope that their children can inherit a better world.

This new Phalotris snake is particularly attractive and can be distinguished from other related species in its genus by its red head in combination with a yellow collar, a black lateral band and orange ventral scales with irregular black spots.

Only known from three individuals, this species is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay. Its extreme rarity led the authors to consider it as “Endangered”, according to the conservation categories of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means it is in imminent danger of extinction in the absence of measures for its protection.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

India’s relic forests reveal a new species of leopard gecko

The Painted Leopard Gecko is already under a threat of extinction, as it is being collected for the pet trade and may even be smuggled illegally.

Deep in the forests of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in India lives a colourful gecko species that only now revealed its true identity. Meet Eublepharis pictus, also known as the Painted Leopard Gecko.

In 2017, researchers Zeeshan A. Mirza of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and C. Gnaneswar of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai found a gecko in a water tank near a temple in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, during a field survey. Back then, they identified it as belonging to the East Indian Leopard Gecko species (Eublepharis hardwickii).

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Image by Sanjay Kumar & Avinash Ch.

“The species appears to be common in the hill forests, but its distinctness was only confirmed by other researchers,” Zeeshan Mirza explains.

In a phylogenetic study, where they looked for the evolutionary history and relationships within and between the leopard gecko species in the genus Eublepharis, the researchers found that what had until then been considered a southern population of East Indian Leopard Geckomight be distinct enough to represent a new species.

Once they had molecular data they could work with, the team made morphological comparisons between the species, looking at specimens across natural history museums.

Map of east India showing the distribution of E. hardwickii (black circles) and E. pictus (blue rhombus). Image of E. pictus by Gnaneshwar C. H.

“These lizards have conserved morphologies and most species are quite similar in general appearance,” Zeeshan Mirza elaborates. “With a few characters based on the number of specimens examined, we described the species and named it the Painted Leopard Gecko – in Latin, Eublepharis pictus, for its colouration.” They published their discovery in the open-access scientific journal Evolutionary Systematics.

With this new addition, the gecko genus Eublepharis now contains 7 species. Two of them – E. pictus and E. satpuraensis – were described by Zeeshan Mirza.

The Painted Leopard Gecko measures 11.7 cm in length, which is somewhat large for a leopard gecko. The Brahmani River, which runs through the Eastern Ghats, separates it geographically from the East Indian Leopard Gecko, with which it shares a lot of similar traits.

The new species lives in dry evergreen forests mixed with scrub and meadows. It is strictly nocturnal, actively foraging along trails in the forest after dusk. While looking for food, it has been observed licking surfaces as it moves, which suggests it might use its tongue as a sensory organ.

Even though the Painted Leopard Gecko seems to be widespread across the state of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh, the researchers worry about its conservation. “The species is collected for the pet trade and even now may be smuggled illegally,” they write in their paper, which is why they refrain from giving out the exact locations where it may be found.

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Photo by Zeeshan Mirza

The authors believe the species would stand more of a chance against humans if more people knew it was actually harmless. To protect it, they suggest listing it as Near Threatened based on IUCN conservation prioritisation criteria, until more is known about the size of its populations.

Further research may also encourage better protection of biodiversity in the area. “The Eastern Ghats are severely under-surveyed, and dedicated efforts will help recognize it as a biodiversity hotspot,” the authors conclude.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Gnaneswar C (2022) Description of a new species of leopard geckos, Eublepharis Gray, 1827 from Eastern Ghats, India with notes on Eublepharis hardwickii Gray, 1827. Evolutionary Systematics 6(1): 77-88. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.83290

Major highway in India threatens reptiles and amphibians

“Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists at Gauhati University (Assam, India) before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of those effects may take longer than others to identify and confirm.

This is how the research team of doctoral research fellow Somoyita Sur, Dr Prasanta Kumar Saikia and Dr Malabika Kakati Saikia decided to study roadkill along a 64-kilometre-long stretch of one of the major highways in India: the National Highway 715. 

What makes the location a particularly intriguing choice is that it is where the highway passess between the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Assam and the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary, thus tempting animals to move to and from the floodplains of Kaziranga and the hilly terrain of the Sanctuary to escape the annual floods or – on a daily basis – in search for food and mating partners.

In the beginning, they looked into various groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, before realising that the death toll amongst frogs, toads, snakes and lizards was indeed tremendous, yet overlooked. Their findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation.

“To our surprise, the death toll within that 64-kilometre stretch of the highway was indeed dramatic. We estimated that it has been over 6000 animals that have fallen under the wheels of motor vehicles within a single year. Prior to our study, similar research had focused on big charismatic species like the tiger, elephant and rhino, so when we took into account also the smaller animals: frogs, toads, snakes and lizards, the count went through the roof. Thus, we decided to make smaller species the focus of our work,”

comments Sur.

In conclusion, the scientists agree that roads and highways cannot be abandoned or prevented from construction and expansion, as they are crucial in connecting people and transporting goods and necessities. 

“Yet, we can definitely put some effort into designing and constructing them in a scientifically sound, eco-friendly and sustainable manner, so that they don’t become the bane for our ecosystems,”

the team concludes.

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Research article:

Sur S, Saikia PK, Saikia MK (2022) Speed thrills but kills: A case study on seasonal variation in roadkill mortality on National highway 715 (new) in Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape, Assam, India. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 87-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.73036

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Snake photo posted on Instagram leads to the discovery of a new species from the Himalayas

An image on Instagram prompted the discovery of a new species of Kukri snake from Himachal Pradesh, India. Intrigued by a post shared by a master student, the research team found and examined more specimens to discover they belonged to a yet undescribed species. Their study, published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics, highlights how little we still know about the biodiversity in the Western Himalayas.

Virender Kumar Kharadwaj

Intrigued by a photo shared on Instagram, a research team from India discovered a previously unknown species of kukri snake.

Staying at home in Chamba because of the COVID-19 lockdown, Virendar K. Bhardwaj, a master student in Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, started exploring his backyard, photographing everything he found there and posting the pictures online. His Instagram account started buzzing with the life of the snakes, lizards, frogs, and insects he encountered.

One of those photos – a picture of a kukri snake – popped up in the feed of Zeeshan A. Mirza (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore) and immediately caught his attention. After a chat with Harshil Patel (Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat), he decided to get in touch with Virendar and find out more about the sighting.

The snake, which Virendar encountered along a mud road on a summer evening, belongs to a group commonly known as Kukri snakes, named so because of their curved teeth that resemble the Nepali dagger “Kukri”. 

At first sight, the individual that Virendar photographed looked a lot like the Common Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis). However, a herpetologist could spot some unique features that raised questions about its identity. 

Kukri snake

Virendar uploaded the photo on 5 June 2020, and by the end of the month, after extensively surveying the area, he found two individuals – enough to proceed with their identification. However, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the research work as labs and natural history museums remained closed. 

Upon the reopening of labs, the team studied the DNA of the specimens and found out they belonged to a species different from the Common Kukri snake. Then, they compared the snakes’ morphological features with data from literature and museums and used micro computed tomography scans to further investigate their morphology. In the end, the research team were able to confirm the snakes belonged to a species previously unknown to science.

The discovery was published in a research paper in the international peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Systematics. There, the new species is described as Oligodon churahensis, its name a reference to the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where it was discovered. 

What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species… if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.

Zeeshan A. Mirza

“It is quite interesting to see how an image on Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that, until very recently, remained hidden to the world,” comments Zeeshan A. Mirza.

“What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species. Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.”

“Compared to other biodiversity hotspots, the Western Himalayas are still poorly explored, especially in terms of herpetological diversity, but they harbor unique reptile species that we have only started to unravel in the last couple of years,” Mirza adds.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Bhardwaj VK, Patel H (2021) A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary Systematics 5(2): 335-345. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564

Two new pit vipers discovered from Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Two new species of venomous snakes were just added to Asia’s fauna – the Nujiang pit viper from Tibet, and the Glacier pit viper found west of the Nujiang River and Heishui, Sichuan.

Guest blog post by Jingsong Shi

Two new species of venomous snakes were just added to Asia’s fauna – the Nujiang pit viper (Gloydius lipipengi) from Zayu, Tibet, and the Glacier pit viper (G. swild) found west of the Nujiang River and Heishui, Sichuan, east of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Our team of researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Bangor University published the discovery in the open-access journal ZooKeys. In this study, we performed a new molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Asian pit vipers.

Glacier pit viper (Gloydius swild)

The Nujiang pit viper has a greyish brown back with irregular black ring-shaped crossbands, wide, greyish-brown stripes behind the eyes, and relativity short fangs, while the Glacier pit viper is blueish-grey, with zigzag stripes on its back, and has relatively narrow stripes behind its eyes.

Nujiang pit viper (Gloydius lipipengi)

Interestingly, the Glacier pit viper was found under the Dagu Holy-glacier National Park: the glacier lake lies 2000 meters higher than the habitat of the snakes, at more than 4,880 m above sea level. This discovery suggests that the glaciers might be a key factor to the isolation and speciation of alpine pit vipers in southwest China.

The stories behind the snakes’ scientific names are interesting too: with the new species from Tibet, Gloydius lipipengi, the name is dedicated to my Master’s supervisor, Professor Pi-Peng Li from the Institute of Herpetology at Shenyang Normal University, just in time for Li’s sixtieth birthday. Prof. Li has devoted himself to the study of the herpetological diversity of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and it was under his guidance that I became an Asian pit viper enthusiast and professional herpetological researcher. 

Gloydius swild, the new species from Heishui, Sichuan, is in turn named after the SWILD Group, which studies the fauna and biodiversity of southewst China. They discovered and collected the snake during an expedition to the Dagu Holy-glacier.

A misty morning near the habitat of Glacier pit viper.

We are equally impressed by the sceneries we encountered during our field work: throughout our journey, we got to look at sacred, crystal-like glacier lakes embraced by the mountains, morning mist falling over the village, and colorful broadleaf-conifer forests. During our expedition, we met a lot of hospitable Tibetan inhabitants and enjoyed their kindness and treats, which made the expedition all the more unforgettable.

Research article:

Shi J-S, Liu J-C, Giri R, Owens JB, Santra V, Kuttalam S, Selvan M, Guo K-J, Malhotra A (2021) Molecular phylogenetic analysis of the genus Gloydius (Squamata, Viperidae, Crotalinae), with description of two new alpine species from Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, China. ZooKeys 1061: 87-108. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1061.70420