A foot-long dwarf boa found in the Ecuadorian Amazon
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Scientists have identified a tiny new species of dwarf boa living in the Ecuadorian Amazon that even a snake hater could 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 upon a small coiled snake in a patch of cloud forest, a high-altitude forest where clouds filter 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 shouldn’t be there,” said Entiauspe-Neto, the corresponding author of the paper that identified the species in the European Journal of Taxonomy.
Other dwarf boas have been identified elsewhere in South America and the West Indies, but none have ever been found in the region where Bentley saw them. The closest known match in Ecuador lives west of the Andes, and according to Entiauspe-Neto it looks “radically different” from the specimen in Bentley’s photo.
Although the snake did not match any known dwarf boa species, it had much in common with a specimen collected several years ago at the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences.
“We’re usually afraid to describe new species based on just one single one, because there’s a chance there’s some kind of variation,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “Once we got those two specimens, we were pretty sure it was 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 Tropidophis cacuangoae in honor Dolores Cacuangoan indigenous activist who championed women’s rights and founded the first bilingual schools in Ecuador with classes in Spanish and the indigenous Quechua language.
Like its fellow dwarf boas, T. cacuangoae is distantly related to the larger boa constrictor, but they share important features in common.
They both have stocky bodies and their skeletons bear rudimentary hip bones, remnants of the ancient ancestors of snakes. And instead of being armed with poison, they crush their prey to death, block blood flow and cause cardiac arrest.
While 10-foot boa constrictors go after animals as big as wild pigs, dwarf boas have a diet largely made up of small lizards. And since they don’t have a mate on their side like true boa constrictors, dwarf 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 grosser than threatening, but Entiauspe-Neto suspects the behavior is part of a larger constellation of death feigning that is common throughout the animal kingdom.
“Most predators tend to feed on live prey,” he said. If a predator, such as an eagle, sees a pygmy boa coiled up and bleeding from its eyes, “the predator will very likely think the snake is sick or dying, and so it won’t feed on it” to avoid feeding on it. catches something. made the snake look sick.
However, dwarf boas face far greater threats than predators: The newly identified species may already be under threat from habitat loss. “It has a fairly 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 is in danger of extinction.”
Thaís Guedes, a researcher at Brazil’s Campinas State University who was not involved in the study, praised the work. “I’m always happy when I see a new species of snake being introduced to the world,” Guedes said.
It’s also important to honor activist Cacuango in the naming of the species, she said, as Indigenous peoples play a key role in conservation.
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