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Scientists have identified a tiny new species of pygmy boa living in the Ecuadorian Amazon that even a snake hater might love: these tiny reptiles are just a foot long.
Alex Bentley, research coordinator at the Sumak Kawsay In Situ field station in the eastern foothills of the Andes, stumbled across a small, coiled snake in a cloud forest, a highland forest where clouds drift through the treetops.
He sent a photo of the snake to 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 wasn’t supposed to be there,” said Entiauspe-Neto, the corresponding author of the paper describing the species in which European Journal of Taxonomy.
Other pygmy boas have been identified elsewhere in South America and the West Indies, but none have ever been found in the region where Bentley discovered these. The closest known match in Ecuador lives west of the Andes, and according to Entiauspe-Neto it looks “radically different” than the specimen in Bentley’s photo.
Although the snake did not match any known species of pygmy boa, it had much in common with a specimen collected at the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences a few years ago.
“We’re usually afraid to describe new species based on just one because of the possibility that there’s some kind of variation,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “Once we had these two specimens, we were pretty sure they were a new species.”
By comparing both the physical characteristics and genetic sequences of the mysterious snakes to known species, the researchers determined they had found an animal new to science. They named it in honor of Tropidophis cacuangoae Dolores Cacuangoan indigenous activist who campaigned for women’s rights and founded the first bilingual schools in Ecuador, teaching Spanish and the indigenous language Quechua.
Like other pygmy boas, T. cacuangoae is distantly related to the larger boa constrictor, but they share important characteristics.
Both have stocky bodies, and their skeletons bear vestigial hip bones, relics of the serpents’ ancient bony ancestors. And instead of being armed with venom, they crush their prey to death, block blood flow and cause cardiac arrest.
While 10-foot-long boa constrictors prey on animals as large as wild boar, pygmy boas have a diet that consists largely of small lizards. And since they don’t have lateral size like true boa constrictors, pygmy boas have evolved 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 gross rather than threatening, but Entiauspe-Neto suspects the behavior is part of a larger constellation of feigned death found throughout the animal kingdom.
“Most predators tend to feed on live prey,” he said. When a predator like an eagle sees a curled-up pygmy boa that is bleeding from its eyes, “the predator very likely thinks the snake is either sick or dying, so it won’t feed on it” to avoid catching anything made the snake appear sick.
However, pygmy boas face far greater threats than predators: the newly identified species may already be endangered from habitat loss. “It has a pretty small range,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “So while it has yet to be formally evaluated by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), I think it might 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 excited when I see a new species of snake being introduced into the world,” Guedes said.
It’s also important to honor activist Cacuango when naming the species, she said, since tribal peoples play a key role in conservation.