The quest to build a family tree for Earth’s most diverse snake genus has uncovered three new species—one of which is named after Cerberus, the monster guarding the Greek underworld’s gates.
At first glance, Atractus cerberus doesn’t look especially imposing. The brown and yellow snake doesn’t get much longer than 12 inches, and it lives an unassuming life along the borders of forests within Ecuador’s Pacoche Wildlife Refuge, hiding under rocks and logs.
But just a few miles down the road from the snake’s habitat, more than 1,200 acres of forest have been stripped bare—the footprint for the Refinery of the Pacific, a massive oil refinery that’s been under construction since 2008. The denuded landscape reminded the researchers who discovered the snake of the underworld. And like Cerberus, the newfound snake “guarded” hell’s gates.
Atractus cerberus and its newfound kin mark the latest additions to Atractus, a genus of brown and reddish ground snakes native to Central and South America. Snakes in this genus have long eluded scientists, since they live discreet lives.
“Certainly what is unknown attracts people, and Atractus is one of the most attractive group of snakes,” says Ecuadorian herpetologist Alejandro Arteaga, who co-discovered the new species, in an email. “They are small, secretive, hard to identify, diverse and poorly studied, [so] the opportunities to make some exciting discovery are greater than in most other groups of snakes.”
The snakes’ nondescript appearance doesn’t help their popular appeal, says George Washington University herpetologist and National Geographic grantee Alex Pyron, who helped fund but did not co-author the study.
“You get genera like the harlequin toads or Darwin’s finches, where you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of species, and they’re all bright and flashy. Everyone learns about them in introductory biology classes,” he says. “But Atractus is really right up there in terms of diversity, but they’re all brown and live underground, so most people don’t seem to care about them.” (Find out more about the finches that gave Darwin insight into evolution.)
In fact, Atractus is the most diverse snake genus on Earth, numbering 140 species in all. And that’s assuredly not all of them: In the last decade alone, 33 newfound snake species joined the genus.
“It represents a huge cross-section of biodiversity that’s really underappreciated,” says Pyron.
The study describing Atractus cerberus, published on March 15 in ZooKeys, uses DNA from 30 Atractus species to build an ambitious phylogeny, or family tree, of the genus. And in addition to A. cerberus, the study described two other new species of snake.
One of the two species, Atractus esepe, is named for the Spanish pronunciation of “sp.”, or “species”—what Ecuadorian scientists slangily call Atractus snakes in the field. The other is named Atractus pyroni, a surprise honor that Arteaga and his team bestowed upon Pyron.
“When I was reading the paper, I was trying to figure out why they published it, [but] Alejandro [Arteaga] kept telling me, ‘No, keep scrolling down, keep scrolling down,’” says Pyron. “To have one of those relatively few discoveries be permanently named in your honor is pretty humbling.”
What’s more, the study published the first live photographs of three previously discovered species of Atractus described from dead specimens. “It was certainly surprising to realize that no one had ever reported seeing some of these snakes alive before,” says Arteaga.
Snakes at Risk?
There’s not enough information yet for A. esepe or A. pyroni to determine the species’ risk of extinction, but Atractus cerberus is probably critically endangered. Arteaga and his colleagues haven’t found the snake outside of the Pacoche Wildlife Refuge, limiting its range to a 19-square-mile patch of forest that deforestation has left cut off and isolated.
Pyron says that the major threat facing snakes worldwide, including the newfound trio, is the loss of habitat from human activity. Ironically, dozens of snake species—including A. pyroni—have been discovered only because of logging operations. In fact, scientists learned of an 80-million-year-old family of snakes in 1995 only because a dead snake was found alongside a logging road in a Malaysian forest.
Tension between the environment and industry is especially pronounced in Ecuador, where the outgoing president Rafael Correa has aggressively courted foreign investment—and cracked down on environmental activists who have criticized his government. In 2013, the Correa administration opened up a portion of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park—a biodiverse jewel of wilderness—for oil exploration, discarding an earlier proposal to ban oil exploration in Yasuní in exchange for $3.6 billion of international fundraising.
“A lot of foreign interests, especially from China, are making major claims to mineral resources that really significantly threaten the integrity and sanctity of natural habitats,” says Pyron. “There’s a ton of oil under the Amazon, and there’s a ton of other things, too—and people want them. Money talks.”