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New Species of Snail-Eating Snakes Discovered in Ecuador and Peru

by AMNH on

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Dipsas oswaldobaezi snake raises its head.
Dipsas oswaldobaezi is one of five newly discovered species of snakes who, because of their uniquely modified jaws, can suck snails from their shells.
© Jose Vieira/Tropical Herping

While some snakes feed on rodents or birds by injecting a venomous bite or squeezing their prey to death, a diverse group of tree-dwelling snakes from Central and South America has a more unusual method of dispatching its preferred meal: they suck the viscous bodies of snails from their shells before swallowing them whole.

A new study published today in the journal ZooKeys describes five new species of snail-sucking snakes which were uncovered in Ecuador and Peru, four of which are considered endangered or vulnerable. The report also includes a new evolutionary tree for these and the more than 70 currently recognized species of snail eaters who are able to slurp their kill thanks to their uniquely modified jaws.

 

Snail-Eating Snake

Snail-Eating Snake

Researchers have updated the tree of life for snail-eating snakes to include newly discovered species such as Sibon bevridgelyi.

Video credit: © Jorge Castillo/Tropical Herping

 

“Believe it or not, there is an entire group of snakes for which snails are food from the gods,” said Alejandro Arteaga, a doctoral student in a comparative biology at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School and lead author on the study.

Arteaga, along with Alex Pyron from The George Washington University, discovered three of the five new species during expeditions to Ecuador’s rainforests between 2013 and 2017. The other two species were found in dry forests in the region by scientists based in Ecuador and Peru. Using data from 200 museum specimens and DNA extracted from nearly 100 snakes, the researchers built an evolutionary tree that now totals 43 snail-eating snake species, adding 24 species not included in previous analyses.

“We suspect that there are numerous additional species to be described across all genera of this group,” explained Arteaga. “Unfortunately, our time to find them is likely running short. These snakes are harmless to humans, but humans are not harmless to them.”

 

Dipsas bobridgelyi snake peeks out from behind the leaves of a plant.
Four of the five newly discovered species of snail-eating snakes, such as Dipsas bobridgelyi, are facing extinction because of deforestation.
©Alejandro Arteaga/Tropical Herping

Four of the five newly discovered species are in danger of becoming extinct due to deforestation, according to the researchers’ findings. The most at risk is Dipsas bobridgelyi, which is known to only be found in four discrete sections of rainforests in Ecuador and Peru. While two areas of rainforest are protected, the rest of D. bobridgelyi’s known habitat is disappearing, making the species endangered under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria. Of the other new species, Dipsas georgejetti, Sibon bevridgelyi, and Dipsas oswaldobaezi, are considered vulnerable, while Dipsas klebbai is not.