In November 2021, Alejandro Arteaga and his team traveled to the cloud forests of southern Ecuador on a mission to find toads that were feared to be extinct. Unfortunately, scientists failed to find a single one. But a chance encounter on the way home led the team to a different kind of discovery.
Disappointed and hungry, Arteaga and his crew had stopped in the small town of Amaluza in search of a meal.
“That’s how it usually goes in rural areas of Ecuador,” says Arteaga, a biology researcher at the Khamai Foundation, a new nongovernmental organization that aims to protect Ecuador’s biodiversity. “There isn’t really a drive-thru restaurant where you can get your food, so you basically have to knock on doors. And if there are people, they will be happy to cook for you and tell you stories.
A local woman greeted the travelers and as she began to prepare the locally caught trout, she overheard the crew talking about amphibians and snakes.
“And then she told us that she often saw snakes in the local cemetery, when she visited her deceased family members,” Arteaga recalled. (Read how cemeteries have a surprising amount of biodiversity.)
Based on the chief’s description, Arteaga suspected that they might be ground snakes of the genus Attracted—secret animals that spend a lot of time underground and have never been scientifically recorded in this region of Ecuador. Rejuvenated, the crew decided to take a short detour and spend a few hours picking in the hillside cemetery.
“Lo and behold, we actually found two of the snakes buried in the soft ground next to the graves,” says Arteaga, who adds that no burial sites were excavated or disturbed during the search.
Stunned by the yellow-bellied snakes, the team spent more time exploring the Andean region, even collecting samples of the snakes collected by a local schoolteacher named Diego Piñán. In total, the expedition led to the description of three species of land snakes new to science, according to a study published September 15 in the journal Zoo Keys.
Scientists propose naming the new species A discovery; which has mostly small eyes and a yellow belly with a black line; A.zgapwhich has a yellow belly without a line, and A. michaelsabini, who is “the chubbiest of the lot,” says Arteaga. (Michael Sabin, after whom the snake is named, is a young naturalist whose family has protected more than 264,365 acres of critical habitat with a focus on amphibians and reptiles.)
“It is important never to overlook the observations or beliefs of local people, as they could hide impressive discoveries,” says Arteaga.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of land snakes, you’re not alone.
“It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that this is the least studied group of snakes on the planet,” says Arteaga; for example, males or young of some species have never been recorded.
That’s partly because all 146 known species of land snakes live underground, in deep rock crevices, often in remote cloud forests. All are from Central and South America.
But with the new discovery, man-made habitats, such as graveyards and churches in small towns, may also be added to this list. In this region of Ecuador, Arteaga says snakes can be attracted to such places precisely because they are quiet and relatively undisturbed by people, who often kill the snakes out of fear.
And, fortunately for people who live near land snakes, they are completely harmless.
“Unless you’re a worm!” jokes Paulo Roberto Melo-Sampaio, a land snake researcher at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who was not involved in the new study.
“The discovery of new species is always exciting,” says Melo-Sampaio, who adds that almost half of known species Attracted species have been described in the last 40 years alone. (Read about a new species of earth serpent named after a Greek monster from the underworld.)
“Now in Ecuador, Alejandro Arteaga and his team have the great merit of being able to carry out their research in the Neotropics, where there is a lack of funding and logistical difficulties for fieldwork”, he explains by email.
More research needed?
Yet Melo-Sampaio also expressed concerns about the paper’s methodology, particularly its heavy reliance on genetics to analyze the three new species. (See 22 images of spectacular snakes.)
When describing a new species, scientists typically rely on a combination of genetic analysis and morphology — or an animal’s physical attributes — to determine that it is different from its parents.
In the case of A. michaelsabinifor example, Melo-Sampaio says that the physical appearance of the reptile is very similar to a land snake already described, A.roulei, it is therefore too early to say that it is definitely a new species. Likewise, he says A discovery also resembles another known species known as A. shines.
For his part, Arteaga says he and his team plan to further study the morphology of land snakes in a follow-up paper, which is already in the works.
Ground snakes to the rescue
Although land snakes are still little known, Arteaga predicts that they could have a significant impact on human health.
“At first glance, land snakes aren’t as colorful and don’t seem to have as much biomedical significance as things like pit vipers and coral snakes,” whose venom is often studied, says Arteaga. (Learn more about finding new and better antivenoms.)
“But the main predator of land snakes are these venomous coral snakes.”
Because of this, scientists suspect that land snakes may have developed some sort of biological resistance to coral snake venom. Studying the blood of land snakes could therefore lead to breakthroughs in the development of antivenoms that can help people bitten by coral snakes. Ecuador, for example, has one of the highest snakebite rates in South America, with between 1,400 and 1,600 incidents per year.
So it’s possible that one day a creature found buried between the gravestones may hold the key to keeping people out of the graveyard.
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