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

These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world.


In the Andes of Ecuador, graveyards are lands of the living. A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered a fossorial group of snakes hidden under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes of Ecuador.

As per the reports, the snakes belong to the genus Atractus. The small, cylinder-shaped, and sometimes quaint-looking new snakes were given names in honor of institutions or people supporting exploring and conserving remote cloud forests in the tropics.

Atractus discovery was named to honor The Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grants initiative, a program seeking to foster scientific understanding for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth and beyond. Atractus zgap was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats worldwide. Atractus michaelsabini was named in honor of a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin.

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

These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world, but few people have seen one or even heard about their existence. This is presumably due to the fact that these snakes are shy, uncommon, and spend the majority of their existence hidden. Most also reside in remote cloud forests buried underground or in deep crevasses. But crypts were where the new ground snakes were discovered in this instance.

The three new species were unintentionally discovered in places where it is likely that no one would look for them. The Discovery Ground Snake (Atractus discovery) was discovered underground in a small graveyard in a remote cloud forest town in southeast Ecuador. In contrast, the two other new species were discovered next to an old church and a small school. This indicates that new snake species may be hiding in plain sight, at least in the Andes.

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

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

Along with spreading awareness of the significance of snakes, the process of naming species helps spread knowledge about new animals and their vulnerability to extinction. In this scenario, two of the new snakes are thought to have a very high danger of going extinct soon.

Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, said, “Naming species is at the core of biology. Not a single study is complete if it is not attached to the species’ name, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

Arteaga said“The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project. Thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP, we have already started establishing a nature reserve to protect 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 they lived.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Arteaga A, Quezada A, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (2022) Leaving no stone unturned: three additional species of Atractus ground snakes (Serpentes, Colubridae) from Ecuador discovered using a biogeographical approach. ZooKeys 1121: 175-210. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.1121.89539
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