In November 2021, Alejandro Arteaga and his team traveled to the cloud forests of southern Ecuador on a mission to find toads that were feared lost to extinction. Unfortunately, the scientists failed to find a single one. But a chance encounter on the way home tipped the team off to a different sort of discovery.
Disappointed and hungry, Arteaga and his crew had stopped in the small town of Amaluza in search of a meal.
“This is how it usually is in rural areas of Ecuador,” says Arteaga, a research biologist at the Khamai Foundation, a new non-governmental organization that aims to protect Ecuador’s biodiversity. “There isn't really like a drive-through restaurant where you can get your food, so you basically need to knock on doors. And if there's people there, they will gladly cook for you and tell you stories.”
A local woman welcomed the travelers, and as she began preparing locally caught trout, she overheard the crew talking about amphibians and snakes.
“And then she told us that she often sees snakes in the local graveyard, while visiting her deceased family members,” recalls Arteaga. (Read how graveyards have a surprising amount of biodiversity.)
Based on the chef’s description, Arteaga suspected they might be ground snakes from the genus Atractus—secretive animals that spend a lot of time underground and had never been scientifically recorded in that area of Ecuador. Rejuvenated, the crew decided to take a small detour and spend a few hours picking through the hillside graveyard.
“Lo and behold, we actually found two of the snakes buried in the soft soil beside the graves,” says Arteaga, who adds that no burial grounds were excavated or disturbed during the research.
Stunned by the yellow-bellied serpents, the team dedicated more time to the Andean region, even gathering samples of snakes collected by a local schoolteacher named Diego Piñán. All told, the expedition led to the description of three ground snake species new to science, according to a study published September 15 in the journal ZooKeys.
The scientists propose naming the new species A. discovery; which has especially small eyes and a yellow belly with a black line; A. zgap, which has a yellow belly with no line, and A. michaelsabini, which is “the chubbiest of the lot,” says Arteaga. (Michael Sabin, after whom the snake is named, is a young naturalist whose family has protected over 264,365 acres of critical habitat with a focus on amphibians and reptiles.)
“It is important never to disregard the observations or the beliefs of local people, because they might be hiding impressive discoveries,” says Arteaga.
If this is the first you’re hearing of ground snakes, you’re not alone.
“It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that they are the least studied group of snakes on the planet,” says Arteaga; for instance, some species’ males or young have never been recorded.
This is partly because the 146 known ground snake species of live underground, in deep rock crevices, often within remote cloud forests. All are native to Central and South America.
But with the new finding, human-made habitats, such as small-town graveyards and churches, can also be added to that list. In this region of Ecuador, Arteaga says the snakes may be drawn to such places precisely because they’re quiet and relatively undisturbed by people, who often kill snakes out of fear.
And, fortunately for people living alongside ground snakes, they’re completely harmless.
“Unless you’re an earthworm!” jokes Paulo Roberto Melo-Sampaio, a ground snake researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum who was not involved in the new study.
“The finding of new species is always exciting,” says Melo-Sampaio, who adds that nearly half of the known Atractus species have been described in just the last 40 years. (Read about a new ground snake species named for a Greek monster of the underworld.)
“Now in Ecuador, Alejandro Arteaga and his team have great merit for being able to carry out their research in the neotropics, where there is a shortage of funding and logistical difficulties for fieldwork,” he says by email.
More research needed?
Yet Melo-Sampaio also expressed concerns about the paper’s methodology, specifically its heavy reliance on genetics to parse out the three new species. (See 22 spectacular snake pictures.)
When describing a new species, scientists generally rely on a combination of genetic analysis and morphology—or an animal’s physical attributes—to determine that it’s different from its relatives.
In the case of A. michaelsabini, for instance, Melo-Sampaio says the reptile’s physical appearance is very similar to an already described ground snake, A. roulei, so it’s too early to say it’s definitively a new species. Likewise, he says A. discovery also resembles another known species known as A. resplendens.
For his part, Arteaga says he and his team plan to study more of the ground snakes’ morphology in a follow-up paper, which is already in the works.
Ground snakes to the rescue
Though ground snakes are still little known, Arteaga predicts they could have a big impact on human health.
“At first sight, ground snakes aren’t as brightly colored and might not seem like they have as much biomedical importance as things like vipers and coral snakes,” whose venom is often studied, says Arteaga. (Read more about the search for new and better antivenoms.)
“But the primary predator of ground snakes is those venomous coral snakes.”
Because of this, scientists suspect that ground snakes may evolved have some sort of biological resistance to coral snake venom. Studying the blood of ground snakes, then, could lead to breakthroughs in developing antivenoms that can help people bit by coral snakes. Ecuador, for instance, has one of the highest rates of snakebites in South America, with between 1,400 and 1,600 incidents a year.
So it’s possible that someday, a creature found burrowed between the tombstones could hold the key to keeping people out of the graveyard.