Snake trade in Indonesia is not sustainable enough — but it could be

A substantial part of the trade in blood pythons in Indonesia is illegal and underreported, a new study published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation found.

Wildlife trade is a multi-million dollar industry. While some animals are traded legally, in compliance with legislation that aims to protect populations, wildlife trafficking continues to thrive in many places, threatening precious species with extinction.

Reptiles are exported in large numbers, and snakes are no exception. They are mostly traded for their skins, used in luxury leather products, or as pets. In the case of the blood python, which can reach up to 250 cm in length, there are clear indications of misdeclared, underreported or illegal trading involving tens of thousands of individuals around the world.

According to Vincent Nijman, professor in anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, harvest and trade in certain species of snakes, especially ones that are common and have a high reproductive output, can be sustainable. But how do we make sure it really is?

Blood python in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand. Photo by Tontan Travel

“Sustainability is best assessed by surveying wild populations, but this takes time and effort,” Nijman explains. “An alternative method is to use data from slaughterhouses and compare how certain parameters (number of snakes, size, males vs females) change over time.”

This method has been used by several research groups to assess the sustainability of the harvest and trade in blood pythons in Indonesia. The outcomes of these assessments vary widely, with some researchers claiming the trade is sustainable, and others that it is not and that populations are in decline. 

“A major problem with these assessments is that while they can detect a change in, for instance, the number of blood pythons that arrive in slaughterhouses, it is unclear if this is due to changes in the wild population, changes in harvest areas, methods of harvesting, or changes in the regulations that permit the harvest to take place,” Nijman elaborates.

Blood python in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand. Photo by Tontan Travel

Using publicly available information, and searching for evidence of illicit trade, he set out to establish if there is sufficient data to assess whether blood pythons are indeed exploited sustainably in Indonesia. 

“There is no conclusive data to support that the harvest of blood pythons in North Sumatra is sustainable, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a substantial part of this trade is illegal,” he points out in his study, which was published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

He goes on to explain that there is no one-on-one relationship between the sustainability of harvest and trade and its legality: “A species can be legally traded to extinction, or it can be traded illegally in small enough numbers for it to be sustainable.”

Conceptual framework of the relationship between population size, sustainable harvest and global conservation status. The harvest that took place between A and B, C and D, and E and F, could be considered sustainable, whereas it is unsustainable between B and C and D and E. The global threat assessment based on two of the IUCN threat level criteria (population size and declining populations) are not tightly linked to harvest sustainability (modified after Yamaguchi 2014).

A clear trend in the last decade  was a change in the way blood pythons are harvested, compared to previous periods, “from opportunistic capture to, at least in part, targeted collection.”

Blood pythons are not included on Indonesia’s protected species list, but their harvest and trade, both domestically and internationally, is regulated by a quota system. The harvest for domestic trade typically constitutes 10% of what is allowed to be exported.

Nijman’s research identified substantial evidence of underreported and illegal international trade in blood pythons. “Part of any assessment of sustainability of the harvest and trade in blood pythons must address this as a matter of urgency,” he concludes.

Research article:

Nijman V (2022) Harvest quotas, free markets and the sustainable trade in pythons. Nature Conservation 48: 99-121. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.48.80988

Striking new snake species discovered in Paraguay

Only known from three individuals, Phalotris shawnella is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay.

Distribution map.

A beautiful non-venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was discovered in Paraguay and described by researchers of the Paraguayan NGO Para La Tierra with the collaboration of Guyra Paraguay and the Instituto de Investigación Biológica del Paraguay. It belongs to the genus Phalotris, which features 15 semi-subterranean species distributed in central South America. This group of snakes is noted for its striking colouration 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 in the open-access scientific journal Zoosystematics and Evolution. The authors named it Phalotris shawnella, in honour of 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.

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

The 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, it is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay. Its known distribution consists of two spots with sandy soils in that department – Colonia Volendam and Laguna Blanca – which are 90 km apart. 

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

The extreme rarity of this species 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.

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

This species can only be found in the famous tourist destination of Laguna Blanca, an area declared as an Important Area for the Conservation of Amphibians and Reptiles. 

Phalotris shawnella. Photo by Jean-Paul Brouard

“This demonstrates once again the need to protect the natural environment in this region of Paraguay,” the authors comment. “Laguna Blanca was designated as a Nature Reserve for a period of 5 years, but currently has no protection at all. The preservation of this site should be considered a national priority for conservation.”

Research article:

Smith P, Brouard J-P, Cacciali P (2022) A new species of Phalotris (Serpentes, Colubridae, Elapomorphini) from Paraguay. Zoosystematics and Evolution 98(1): 77-85. https://doi.org/10.3897/zse.98.61064

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

First description and video of a rainbow boa preying on a vampire bat in a cave in Ecuador

While snakes are well-known enemies to bats, their preying on the winged mammals has hardly been recorded. Furthermore, no bat as big and heavy as the common vampire, has been described being killed and eaten prior to the present study, published in the open access journal Subterranean Biology.

The study, where scientists, led by Sarah Martin-Solano, Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas, ESPE, Ecuador, record a rainbow boa catching the bat, is the first known such case to have taken place on a cave’s floor. The documented observation serves to confirm that snakes do predate on bats in caves, and is also the first such case known from Ecuador.

Apart from the detailed description, the scientists also provide a film, showing almost in full the event of a rainbow boa catching, killing and swallowing an adult female common vampire bat.

The predation has been observed in a 450-metre-long cave in Tena, Ecuador. There, an adult female common vampire bat, one of the three bat species to feed exclusively on blood, was seen to fly into the cave right over the boa’s head and its waiting open jaws, raised some 30-35 centimetres above the ground.

The approximately 140-centimetre-long snake snatched the bat by the head and immediately brought it down to the floor. Having been strangled by the boa, the bat appeared to give up its resistance about two minutes later, although the predator did not let it go for another seven minutes. Once assured the mammal is dead, the snake started trying different positions from which to fit the bat in its mouth. However, this seemed particularly difficult due to the mammal’s size and the stiffness of its shoulder joints.

Eventually, the rainbow boa began constricting the body once again. Then, starting from the head, the snake managed to swallow the whole bat in 4 minutes and 50 seconds, with the predation measured to last about 25 minutes in total.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that more research needs to be undertaken, so that scientists can find out how common is for snakes to prey on bats in caves.

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Original source:

Martin-Solano S, Toulkeridis T, Addison A, Pozo-Rivera WE (2016) Predation of Desmodus rotundus Geoffroy, 1810 (Phyllostomidae, Chiroptera) by Epicrates cenchria (Linnaeus, 1758) (Boidae, Reptilia) in an Ecuadorian Cave. Subterranean Biology 19: 41-50. doi:10.3897/subtbiol.19.8731

Three new fishing snake species fished out of the Andean slopes in South America

Commonly known as fishing snakes, the Synophis genus has been expanded with as many as three new species following a research in the Andean cloud forests of Amazonian Ecuador and Peru. Not only is the discovery remarkable due to the rarity of new snake species being discovered, but also because this is the first time this mysterious and already eight-member genus is recorded from Peru. The study is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The three new species have been identified as a result of both field and laboratory work, undertaken by Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal, Museo de Zoología QCAZ, Ecuador, in collaboration with herpetologists from Peru (CORBIDI) and the United States (Francis Marion University). The new species differ from their closest relatives in scale features, male sexual organs and DNA. The unusual discoveries took place in areas within the 1,542,644 km2 of the Tropical Andes hotspot, western South America.

Although they are commonly known as fishing snakes, these reptiles most likely do not eat fish. Their diet and behavior are poorly known. So far, it has only been reported that one species feeds on lizards.

The fishing snakes have long been known to live in cloud forests on both sides of the Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Yet, it seems they have waited all along to make an appearance. The new species described herein, along with a recent description of one species from southwestern Ecuador also published in Zookeys, has duplicated the number of species of fishing snakes from four to eight over the span of several months.

During their recent expeditions to several localities along the Andes of Ecuador and Peru the authors collected several individuals of fishing snakes, which they suspected to be previously unknown. After comparing their specimens with those deposited in a number of natural history museums, the authors’ suspicions only became stronger.

Consequently, the scientists examined the male snakes’ sexual organs (hemipenes) and DNA evidence. The results left no doubts that the specimens belonged to three undescribed fishing snake species.

“We started working with fishing snakes a year ago as new specimens were collected in poorly explored areas of the Amazonian slopes of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru,” explains lead author Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal. “At that time only four species of fishing snakes had been described, and they were recognized in the literature as one of the most rare and secretive groups of snakes in South America.”

“In less than a year, we and other herpetologists doubled the number of known species of fishing snakes, showing that their diversity had been greatly underestimated,” he points out.

“This story is similar to the story of the woodlizards (Enyalioides), a group of dragon-like lizards with more than half of its species discovered in recent years in the tropical Andes,” the scientist reminisces.

“This tells us that this hotspot is more diverse than we thought, so it is very important that basic biodiversity research is properly funded,” Dr. Torres-Carvajal concludes. “Otherwise, we might never know what other scaly creatures are crawling around us.”

 

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Original source:

Torres-Carvajal O, Echevarría LY, Venegas PJ, Chávez G, Camper JD (2015) Description and phylogeny of three new species of Synophis (Colubridae, Dipsadinae) from the tropical Andes in Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 546: 153-179. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.546.6533.

New snake species with pitch black eyes from the Andes highlights hidden diversity

Extremely rare and hidden in the forests of the Andes, there are still new snake species left to find. This has recently been evidenced by the colubrid serpent, described for the first time in the present article. Moreover, there is the vicious circle enwrapping its relatives: the harder it is to find more specimens, the tougher it is to describe and thus, start to identify them, which does not help in mapping their distribution and habitats. To address this issue, Dr. R. Alexander Pyron, The George Washington University, and his international research team have included a taxonomic review and discussion on the relationships and origin within a non-venomous snake tribe in a paper, published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

Slender and small, the new species, called Synophis zaheri, measures less than 40 cm in length, or between 351 and 372 mm. Contrasting to its slim body with a distinct neck, separating the head from the body, its eyes are large and bulging, making up for more than a third of its head. Being black in colour, it is hard to tell the pupil and the iris apart. While the upper part of the body is grayish-brown with an iridescent sheen, the abdominal side stands out with its yellowish-white colouration.

Typically for the tribe, where the new species has been placed, it is also characterised with a highly modified spine and an enlarged scale row running over it. This is also where the name of this group of snakes comes from with “Diaphorolepidini” consisting of the Greek words for “differentiated” and “scales”. Not so clear, however, is the name of the genus, which the authors have translated also from Greek as “with snake”, but find themselves unaware of the meaning behind. The species is named after Dr. Hussam El-Dine Zaher, a Brazilian herpetologist whose work has been foundational for South American snakes.

In conclusion, the scientists note that the rarity of the observed snake species, especially the genus, where the new serpent belongs, accounts for the unclear species-boundaries as well as for the myriad of undescribed species. “Dipsadine diversity in the Andes is clearly underestimated, and new species are still being discovered in the 21st century,” they point out.

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Original source:

Pyron RA, Guayasamin JM, Peñafiel N, Bustamante L, Arteaga A (2015) Systematics of Nothopsini (Serpentes, Dipsadidae), with a new species of Synophis from the Pacific Andean slopes of southwestern Ecuador. ZooKeys 541: 109-147. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.541.6058