An international team of researchers has discovered five new species of snail-eaters (tribe Dipsadini) living in the forests of Ecuador and Peru.
With more than 70 currently recognized species, the snail-eaters are among the most diverse groups of arboreal (tree-dwelling) snakes.
These snakes possess uniquely modified jaws, which give them the ability to suck the slimy body of a snail from its shell.
The five new species of snail-eating snakes are: the Bev Ridgely’s snail-eater (Sibon bevridgelyi), the Bob Ridgely’s snail-eater (Dipsas bobridgelyi), the Klebba’s snail-eater (Dipsas klebbai), the Oswaldo Báez’ snail-eater (Dipsas oswaldobaezi), and the George Jett’s snail-eater (Dipsas georgejetti).
They were discovered by Alejandro Arteaga, a Ph.D. student at the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues.
“Believe or not, there is an entire group of snakes for which snails are food from the gods,” Arteaga said.
“But sadly, four of the five species we discovered are already facing the possibility of becoming extinct, as the forests remaining for them to survive are almost completely destroyed.”
To confirm these five snail-eaters as new species, Arteaga and co-authors gathered measurements from more than 200 museum specimens and extracted DNA from nearly 100 individual snakes.
They also used the data to build an evolutionary tree that includes 43 snail-eating snake species, 24 of which hadn’t been included in previous analyses.
In addition to describing the five new species and redefining limits of genera, species, and species groups among the snakes, the researchers made changes to the known geographic distribution of several Andean species. But they note that more work lays ahead.
“Our results and the results of other recent researchers indicate that more taxonomic changes are needed,” Arteaga noted.
“And we suspect that there are numerous additional species to be described across all genera of this group. Unfortunately, our time to find them is likely running short. These snakes are harmless to humans, but humans are not harmless to them.”
“Everybody knows elephants and orangutans, but some reptiles and amphibians are even more threatened,” said Dr. Martin Schaefer, of Fundación Jocotoco.
“Yet, we still lack even basic information needed 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,” said Lucas Bustamante, of Tropical Herping.
“This is a model to obtain support for research and conservation while recruiting more environmental ambassadors.”
The team’s results were published in the journal Zookeys.
A. Arteaga et al. 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; doi: 10.3897/zookeys.766.24523