5 new species of threatened snail-sucking snakes named to save rainforest in Ecuador

Articles | 5 new snakes

A group of scientists led by Tropical Herping and the American Museum of Natural History discovered five new delightfully weird snail-sucking snakes in the forests of Ecuador and Peru, in a study published today in the journal Zookeys. The naming rights of three of the snakes were auctioned in New York City to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 ha (178 acre) plot of land where some of these species live.

Bev Ridgely's Snail-Eater

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

Believe or not, there is an entire group of snakes for which snails are number one on their daily menu. They have their jaws modified in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell. They are harmless to humans; but humans are not harmless to them. Four of the five species discovered are already facing the possibility of becoming extinct, as the forest remaining for them to survive is almost completely destroyed.

Dipsas bobridgelyi

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

Fundación Jocotoco will 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.

Alejandro Arteaga, scientific director of Tropical Herping and PhD student at the American Museum of Natural History, partnered up with Dr. Alex Pyron (GWU and NMNH) to carry out a series of expeditions to rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017 that led to the discovery of three of the five new species.

Researcher showing snake specimen at a museum

An alcohol preserved specimen of Dipsas at the American Museum of Natural History.

In another habitat type, the dry forest, Ecuadorian scientists Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal (PUCE), David Salazar-Valenzuela (UTI), Diego Cisneros-Heredia (USFQ), Juan Carlos Sánchez (UDA), Mario Yánez-Muñoz (INABIO), and Peruvian scientist Pablo Venegas (CORBIDI), noted the existence of the other two new species.

Dipsas bobridgelyi

Dipsas bobridgelyi. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

“We had to let people know that these fascinating snakes exist,” said the authors of the study, “but they can suddenly disappear if we all don’t help to protect the forests they inhabit.”

In order to confirm these five snakes as new species, the team of researchers, particularly Dr. Konrad Mebert (UESC), Nicolás Peñafiel (UTI), Gabriela Aguiar (TH) and Dr. Timothy Colston (GWU and NMNH) counted scales and gathered measurements from more than 200 museum specimens, and extracted DNA from nearly 100 individual snakes.

Dipsas georgejetti

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

The auctioning of the snakes’ names took place in New York City, where Rainforest Trust and Bob Ridgely decided to provide the funds needed to protect the plot of land, and in exchange, they got to name three of the five new snakes.

Rainforest Trust chose the name Dipsas georgejetti to honor George Jett, who supported the creation of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador. The organization also named Dipsas bobridgelyi, to honor Dr. Robert “Bob” S. Ridgely, a leading ornithologist and distinguished conservationist who helped establish the Buenaventura reserve. Bob himself, who was at the auction, chose the name Sibon bevridgelyi, the Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater, to honor his father.

Collage showing the five new species of snakes

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

Several companies let you name a star after a loved one, 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 all the 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 klebbai

Dipsas klebbai is the only one of the five new species that is not threatened. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The process of naming species is important to create 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 USFQ 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.”

Dipsas oswaldobaezi

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

“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.”

Link to Phil Torre's video of the expedition to find one of the new species

VIDEO: Entomologist and science communicator Phil Torres joined Tropical Herping for one of their expeditions to document what it takes to find a new snake.