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Scientists have identified a tiny new species of dwarf boa in the Ecuadorian Amazon that even snake-haters will love: These tiny reptiles are only about a foot long.
Alex Bentley, research coordinator at the Sumak Kawsay In Situ field station in the eastern foothills of the Andes, came across a small, coiled snake in patches of cloud forest in a montane forest where clouds filter through the treetops.
He sent the photo of the snake to his colleagues, including Omar Entiauspe-Neto, a graduate student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and the Butantan Institute in Brazil.
“We were immediately surprised because it shouldn’t be there,” Entiauspe-Neto said. European Journal of Taxonomy.
Other dwarf boas have been identified elsewhere in South America and the West Indies, but none were found in the region where Bentley saw it. The closest known match in Ecuador lives west of the Andes and, according to Entiauspe-Neto, looks “radically different” from the specimen in Bentley’s photo.
Although the snake did not match any known species of dwarf boas, it had a lot in common with a specimen collected a few years ago at the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences.
“We’re usually afraid to describe new species based on just one species because there’s a chance there could be some kind of variation,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “Once we got these two specimens, we were pretty sure they were a new species.”
By comparing both the physical characteristics and the genetic sequence of the mysterious snakes with known species, the researchers determined that they had discovered a new animal for science. Tropidophis cacuangoae was named after him Dolores Cakuangoindigenous activist who advocated for women’s rights and founded the first bilingual schools in Ecuador with classes in Spanish and the local language Quechua.
Like dwarf boas, T. cacuangoae is distantly related to the larger boa constrictor, but they share basic characteristics.
They both have stout bodies and their skeletons contain hip bones, the remains of snakes’ ancient legged ancestors. And instead of arming themselves with poison, they crush their prey to death, it blocks blood flow and causes the heart to stop.
Although 10-foot-long boa constrictors go after animals as large as wild hogs, pygmy boas’ diets consist primarily of small lizards. Because dwarf boas don’t have the size on their sides like true boa constrictors, they’ve developed a strange defense mechanism: When threatened, they curl up into a ball and bleed from their eyes.
This behavior, also seen in horned lizards, may seem more rude than threatening, but Entiauspe-Neto suspects it’s part of a larger constellation of death fakes found throughout the animal kingdom.
“Most predators tend to feed on live prey,” he said. If an eagle-like predator sees a rock writhing and blood oozing from its eyes, “the predator may think the snake is either sick or dead, so it won’t feed on it to avoid catching the whole thing.” made the snake look sick.
However, pygmy boas face greater threats than predators: Newly identified species may already be endangered due to habitat loss. “It has a fairly small range,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “So it still needs to be formally assessed IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), I think it could be endangered.”
Thaís Guedes, a researcher at the State University of Campinas in Brazil who was not involved in the study, praised the work. “I’m always happy to see a new species of snake introduced to the world,” Guedes said.
It’s also important to honor Kakuango, who is active in naming species, he said, because indigenous peoples play a key role in conservation.
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