Live among the dead? Three new snake species discovered in Ecuador, including one in a graveyard

Our grave, their cradle? Among the snakes Atractus is the most diverse, with at least 146 species in South America between Panama and Argentina. However, it is also one of the least known, and for good reason: its representatives, known as “cavemen”, tend to live underground or sheltered from deep crevices, in the heart of the misty mountain forests.

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But in the Andes-Cordillera, where the forest recedes inexorably in the face of human activity, these reptiles have taken refuge in places… unusual to say the least. This was shown by Professor Alejandro Arteaga, a researcher at the Khamai Foundation in Quito, and three of his Ecuadorian colleagues, the authors of a study published in a scientific journal. zookeys (9/2022).

Cemetery, school and church

The specimen that allowed researchers to describe the species for the first time Discovery of Atractus – by comparing its morphology, coloration, as well as molecular criteria with those of other snakes of this genus Atractus – was indeed found near the graves of a modest cemetery, in a hollow of a remote village in the southeast of Ecuador.

The very first representatives of the species Atractus sgap as well as A. Michaelsabinithey were noticed respectively near the old church and in a small school.

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The names of these new species were chosen accordingly in honor of Grants for the Discovery Club Explorers Expedition and the German Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), two funding programs dedicated to biodiversity research, and Michael Sabin, a young naturalist and grandson of the founder of the American NGO Re:wild.

Barely discovered, already threatened?

The study points out that the original habitat of these new snake species, two of which are already threatened with extinction in the short term, has been largely destroyed.

That is why the samples were found in such unusual places as a church, school or cemetery. Indeed, with the retreat of the forests in favor of human activity, the reptiles have no other choice but to take refuge in the spaces occupied by Man – where he goes to pray, study … or even find eternal rest!

Although cave snakes are harmless to humans, they suffer from a bad reputation that often results in them being sentenced to death unless they get run over by vehicles. “When I arrived in El Chaco (village in Ecuador where one of the three species was found, ed.) in 2013 I saw a lot of dead snakes on the road; others were beaten with machetes or stones“, says Diego Pignan, a teacher who provided the researchers with several of the samples cited in the press release.

Now, after long conversations about the importance of snakes for children and their parents, although they are still wary of these animals, they begin to appreciate and protect them.nevertheless, the professor rejoices.

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In addition to the significant awareness of the local population about the importance of snakes in the ecosystem, the researchers also insist on the absolute need to preserve their natural habitat.

Finding these new snakes is just the first step in a much larger conservation project.“says Professor Arteaga. “Today, thanks to the support of ZGAP, we have already begun the process of creating a cave snake sanctuary.“, he rejoices.

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