Three new species of ground snakes have been discovered under graveyards and churches in Ecuador

A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, has discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes hidden under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes of Ecuador. The new snakes, which are small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking, were named in honour of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

In the Andes of Ecuador, graveyards are inhabited by a fossorial group of snakes belonging to the genus Atractus. These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world (there are now 150 species known globally), but few people have seen one or even heard about their existence. This is probably because they are shy and generally rare, and they remain hidden throughout most of their lives. Additionally, most of them inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices. In this particular case, however, the new ground snakes were found living among crypts.

The co-existence of ground snakes and villagers is usually bad news for the snakes. The study by Arteaga reports that the majority of the native habitat of the new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they are usually killed on sight.

See also: Dugong extinct in Chinese waters

Dead snakes

Diego Piñán, a teacher of the town where one of the new reptiles was found, said: “When I first arrived at El Chaco in 2013, I used to see many dead snakes on the road; others were hit by machetes or with stones. Now, after years of talking about the importance of snakes, both kids and their parents, while still wary of snakes, now appreciate them and protect them.”

Fortunately, Piñán never threw away the dead snakes he found: he preserved them in alcohol-filled jars, and these were later used by Arteaga to describe the species as new to science.

In addition to teaching about the importance of snakes, the process of naming species is important to create awareness about the existence of a new animal and its risk of extinction. In this particular case, two of the new snakes are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.

The discovery process also provides an opportunity to recognise and honour the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect wildlife.

Threatened reptiles

Atractus zgap was named in honour of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a programme seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. The ZGAP grant programme supports the fieldwork of young scientists who are eager to implement and start conservation projects in their home countries.

Atractus michaelsabini was named in honour of a young Nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andy Sabin. Through the conservation organisation Re:wild, the Sabin family has supported field research of threatened reptiles and has protected thousands of acres of critical habitat throughout the world.

Arteaga added: “The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project. Now, thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP, we have already started the process of establishing a nature reserve to protect the ground snakes.

“This action would not have been possible without first unveiling the existence of these unique and cryptic reptiles, even if it meant momentarily disturbing the peace of the dead in the graveyard where they lived.”

The study is published in the journal ZooKeys.

Image: Atractus discovery was found hidden among the graves of the elders of the Andean town Amaluza, Azuay province, Ecuador.

Credit: Alejandro Arteaga.