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

A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, an Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grantee and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes hidden under the graveyards and churches of remote Andean towns in Ecuador. The discovery was made official in a study published today in the journal ZooKeys. The new snakes, which are small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

Close-up of Atractus discovery

Atractus discovery was found hidden in the graveyard of the Andean town Amaluza, Azuay province, Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Amaluza graveyard

Believe it or not, graveyards are also the land of the living. 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 these serpents are shy, generally rare, and remain hidden throughout most of their lives. Additionally, most of these snakes inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices. In this particular case, however, the new ground snakes where found living among crypts.

The discovery of the three new species took place rather fortuitously, in places where one would not expect to find these animals. The Discovery Ground Snake (Atractus discovery) was found in southeastern Ecuador, hiding beneath a small graveyard. The two other new species were found beside an old church and in a small school. All of this seems to suggest that, at least in the Andes, new species of snake might be lurking right around the corner.

Unfortunately, the coexistence of ground snakes and villagers in the same town is generally bad news for the snakes. The study by Arteaga reports that a majority of the new snakes’ native habitat has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes have needed to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both living and dead), where they are usually killed on sight.

Close-up of Atractus michaelsabini

Atractus michaelsabini was found hidden beside a church in the Andean town Guanazán, El Oro province, Ecuador. Photo by Amanda Quezada.

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

Alcohol-preserved snakes

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

In addition to teaching about the importance of snakes, the process of naming species creates 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-term future.

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

The first snake, Atractus discovery was named to honor Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grants initiative, a program that promotes scientific discovery for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth and beyond. The grant program supports researchers and explorers from around the world in their quest to mitigate climate change, prevent the extinction of species and cultures, and ensure the health of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Researcher showing the ventral aspect of Atractus zgap

Biologist Alejandro Arteaga shows the ventral aspect of an individual of Atractus zgap in a petri dish. Photo by David Jácome.

The second snake, Atractus zgap was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), an organization that conserves unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. The ZGAP grant program supports the fieldwork of young scientists who are eager to implement and start conservation projects in their home countries.

Researcher examines specimens of Atractus

Biologist Alejandro Arteaga examines the holotype of Atractus discovery. He had to examine hundreds of museum specimens before confirming the new species as such.

The third snake, Atractus michaelsabini was named in honor of a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin. Through conservation organization Re:wild, the Sabin family has supported field research on threatened reptiles and has protected thousands of acres of critical habitat throughout the world. Both Re:wild and Prefectura del Azuay funded the expeditions that lead to the discovery of A. michaelsabini.

Close-up of Atractus zgap

Atractus zgap was found in an orchard of small school in the Andean town El Chaco, Napo province, Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

“Naming species is at the core of biology”, says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at USFQ in Quito. “A study is not really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are yet to be described.”

“The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project,” says Arteaga. “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 the lived.”