Five new species of snail-sucking snakes

The natural world is replete with unusual eating habits – moths bully larger animals and drink their tears, ostriches eat stones to aid digestion, humans drink milk drawn from cattle and eat unfertilised bird ovulations boiled in their shells – but few come with the tongue-twisting quality of snail-sucking snakes.

These particular reptiles belong to a family called Dipsadinae. Research led by the American Museum of Natural History has now expanded the group by five, following a series of expeditions to woodland habitats in Ecuador and Peru. All the Dipsadinae are noted for their appetite for gooey prey, such as earthworms, slugs and snails. They consume the latter by sucking their bodies from the shells, aided by a uniquely adapted jaw structure.

About 70 species of snail-eaters are currently known to exist. However, the study’s lead author Alejandro Arteaga reports that four of the new additions are considered vulnerable or endangered as a result of deforestation in the Amazon region.

Three of the five were discovered by Arteaga in collaboration with Alex Pyron of George Washington University in the US, across a number of visits to the Ecuadorean rainforest between 2013 and 2017. Of these, only Dipsa klebbai seems assured of its future. Dipsas bobridgelyi, meanwhile, meets International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria as an endangered species, while Sibon bevridgelyi, is classified as vulnerable.

Simultaneous studies in dry forest areas in Ecuador and Peru led to the discovery of two more species: Dipsas oswaldobaezi and Dipsas georgejetti. The IUCN deem both as vulnerable.

The predicament D. bobridgelyi faces as the most threatened of the five new breeds is due to an alarmingly small and dwindling habitat. It is found in only four fragmented patches of forest, only two of which are protected. The others are threatened by human activity, particularly tree clearances carried out to enable agriculture and extraction of natural resources.

In light of this grave situation, the researchers acknowledge further research is needed, and soon. 

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

The study is published in the journal ZooKeys.

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