Ecuador has five new species of snake, described by science for the first time. But these critters aren’t just any rainforest snakes: the new species have a diet that’s exceptionally weird, eating almost nothing but soft, gooey prey like snails and slugs. The researchers who found them also took the unusual step of auctioning the rights to assign their scientific names to fund purchasing and setting aside protected rainforest habitat.
The five new species are part of a group of snakes known for a specialized taste for the freshest escargot, with skull modifications that allow them snakes to slurp the goopy body of a snail right out of its shell, similar to how you might eat a raw oyster.
“Their faces and jaws are modified in such a way that it even seems as though they cannot bite anything else,” Alejandro Arteaga, a Ph.D. student at the American Museum of Natural History and the lead author on the new study, told Earther. “Actually, I have never seen one of these snakes attempt to bite anything that is not gooey and slimy.”
Arteaga notes that the slender, gorgeously patterned snakes are completely harmless to humans, but that they do have a defense mechanism.
“They secrete a musky smell when grabbed, and sometimes they flatten their head to appear like a fer-de-lance,” or a viper.
So how did these stinky mollusk-munchers find their way out of the Ecuadorean rainforest and into the scientific literature? In 2013, Arteaga and his colleagues organized an expedition to Buenaventura Reserve in southwestern Ecuador, in the hopes that the relatively unexplored region of the country would be hiding undiscovered species. They were in luck.
“We found two snakes that look similar in shape but totally different in color to other species we had seen further north in the country,” Arteaga said. “We took samples back to the museum in Quito and later, in 2017, did the genetic analyses that confirmed they were new species.”
Other expeditions in Ecuador and in different habitat types yielded a grand total of five snakes new to science, descriptions of which are published today in the open-access journal ZooKeys.
When species are formally described like this, a major part of the process is assigning a unique scientific name. Here, the new snakes’ perilous conservation status inspired a creative approach.
Four out of the five new species are already considered threatened with extinction largely due to the potential for habitat loss, with one species’ status set in the unenviable “endangered” category. To ensure the snakes’ future, the research team decided to auction off their naming rights and use the resulting money to buy land where two of the snakes were found.
“Purchasing and preserving critical habitat is the most important action we can do to keep reptiles from going extinct, but funds are limited,” Arteaga noted. “Therefore, any idea or opportunity that translates into funds for conservation has a direct, measurable effect on conservation.”
The highest bid at the auction was made by Rainforest Trust and ornithologist and conservationist Bob Ridgely, so they got to name three of the five snake species. One of the snakes’ names, Dipsas georgejetti, honors George Jett, who was in involved in the development of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador. For another species, Bob Ridgely chose the name Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.
The money from the auction will buy a 178-acre plot of previously unprotected land that will be added to the Buenaventura preserve by Fundación Jocotoco, an Ecuadorean conservation NGO.
This isn’t the first time researchers have used scientific names to spread awareness of conservation issues. Recently, there’s been a trend of naming species after celebrities or public figures to draw in broad interest, with a little black beetle named after Leonardo DiCaprio, many species named after former U.S. President Barack Obama, and a spider named after David Bowie (and no, it’s not from Mars).
But what makes the snail-eating snake scenario unique is that the naming directly contributes to tangible conservation outcomes. Arteaga, for one, hopes the idea will spread to other research groups and conservation organizations. After all, there are likely still plenty of undescribed species—of snake or otherwise—living in the more remote parts of the globe.