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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dipsas bobridgelyi. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic paper:

Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79–147. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523

The Cerberus Groundsnake is a Critically Endangered new species from Ecuador

With as many as 140 species, Atractus is the most diverse snake genus in the world, even though it can be found exclusively in Central and South America. However, these colubrid ground snakes seem largely under-researched, since there have been thirty-three species discovered in the last ten years only.

As concluded by a team of scientists, led by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping, Ecuador, this is the result of a lack of DNA information in the original descriptions of many of these species. Consequently, there have been a lot of specimens sitting in museum collection that remain either misidentified, or anonymous.

To address the issue around the problematic identification of these snakes and their correct placement in the tree of life, the scientists have studied the hereditary molecular differences in the genus using both newly collected specimens, as well as previous publications on the species occurring in the Pacific lowlands and the adjacent Andean slopes.

Blog Atractus pyroniTheir research results in a new paper, published in the open access journal ZooKeys, which describes a total of three new species from Ecuador. The authors also propose a new species group and a redefinition of a previously established one.

Interestingly, one of the new species is to be referred to as Cerberus Groundsnake, while in the books it will appear under Atractus cerberus. It is predominantly brown in colour with faint black longitudinal bands, and measures about 21 – 31 cm in length. The biologists justify the curious name of this species with the peculiar location where they spotted the first known specimen. Found at the gates of the newly formed “Refinería del Pacífico”, a massive industrial oil-processing plant, the authors were quick to recall the multi-headed monstrous dog Cerberus, known to be guarding the gates of the underworld, according to Greek mythology.

In terms of their conservation status, the scientists have proposed the Cerberus Groundsnake to be listed as Critically Endangered, according to the IUCN criteria, since its single known habitat is highly likely to be the only one, being isolated from any other similar habitats. Moreover, it comprises a relatively small patch of land, which in turn is declining in both size and quality due to deforestation. According to the IUCN criteria, a Critically Endangered status is given to a (group of) species whenever the best available evidence indicates that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

The other two new species, the Indistinct (Atractus esepe) and the Pyron’s (Atractus pyroni) ground snakes are to be listed as Data Deficient as the information about them is currently insufficient for their risk of extinction to be assessed.

Having increased the number of Atractus species in Ecuador to twenty-seven, the authors expect that the count is yet to rise. “We hope that the novel genetic and morphological data provided herein will promote future researchers to examine species boundaries in Atractus, as additional work clearly is waiting,” they add.

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IMG 3 Atractus esepeOriginal source:

Arteaga A, Mebert K, Valencia JH, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Peñafiel N, Reyes-Puig C, Vieira-Fernandes JL, Guayasamin JM (2017) Molecular phylogeny of Atractus (Serpentes, Dipsadidae), with emphasis on Ecuadorian species and the description of three new taxa. ZooKeys 661: 91-123. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.661.11224

Iranian coastal waters: New home to a rarely seen venomous sea snake

Günther’s sea snake (Microcephalophis cantoris), a rarely seen venomous sea snake with distribution thought to stretch from the Malay Peninsula to Pakistan, has now been recorded from Iranian coastal waters off the western Gulf of Oman, more than 400 kilometers away from the westernmost boundary of its previously known range.

In 1864, German-born British zoologist, Albert Günther (1830-1914), discovered a new species of highly venomous viviparous (giving live birth) sea snakes, thereafter named Günther’s sea snake. The species is famous because it has a very small head, compared to its body and is, therefore, sometimes called Günther’s narrow/small-headed sea snake. It is a rare species, and, since its discovery, it has only been recorded from the coastal waters of a few countries in the western Malay Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent.

Scientists Mohsen Rezaie-Atagholipour, Qeshm Environmental Management Office, Qeshm Island, Iran, Parviz Ghezellou, Medicinal Plants and Drugs Research Institute, Shahid Beheshti University, Iran, Dr. Nicolas Vidal, Département Systématique & Evolution, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, France, and three Iranian fellows, are collaborating on a project on the biodiversity of sea snakes in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.

During their survey, an adult Günther’s sea snake was caught by a fishing trawler (a fishing vessel pulling a baglike net) in Iranian coastal waters off the western Gulf of Oman. This was the first record of this rarely seen venomous viviparous sea snake in the area. The specimen is deposited and available in the Zoological Museum at the Shahid Bahonar University of Kerman, Iran.

As a result, the researchers have now published a checklist of the sea snake species in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, including this new record, in the open access journal ZooKeys.image1

There are about 60 living species of highly venomous viviparous sea snakes in the world, distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region. Out of them, nine have been previously recorded from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Following the discovery of the Günther’s sea snake, the total number of sea snakes in the area is ten.

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Original source:

Rezaie-Atagholipour M, Ghezellou P, Hesni MA, Dakhteh SMH, Ahmadian H, Vidal N (2016) Sea snakes (Elapidae, Hydrophiinae) in their westernmost extent: an updated and illustrated checklist and key to the species in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. ZooKeys 622: 129-164. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.622.9939