Foot-long dwarf boa found in the Ecuadorian Amazon | CNN

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Scientists have identified a tiny new species of dwarf boa living in the Ecuadorian Amazon that even a snake-hater might love: these tiny reptiles are only a foot long.

Alex Bentley, research coordinator for the Sumak Kawsay In Situ field station in the eastern foothills of the Andes, came across a small snake curled up in a patch of cloud forest, an upland 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 article describing the species in the European Journal of Taxonomy.

Other dwarf boas have been identified elsewhere in South America and the West Indies, but none had ever been found in the area where Bentley spotted this one. The closest known match in Ecuador lives west of the Andes and, according to Entiauspe-Neto, it looks “drastically different” from the specimen in Bentley’s photo.

Although the snake did not match any known species of dwarf boas, it had much in common with a specimen from the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences collected several years ago.

“We’re usually afraid to describe new species based on just one because there’s a chance there’s some kind of variation,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “Once we got these two specimens, we were pretty sure they were a new species.”

When threatened, this species of dwarf boa curls up into a ball and bleeds from the eyes.

By comparing both the physical characteristics and genetic sequences of the mystery snakes with known species, the researchers determined they had found an animal that was new to science. They named it Tropidophis cacuangoae in honor of Dolores Cacuango, an indigenous activist who defended women’s rights and founded Ecuador’s first bilingual schools 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 have some key traits in common.

They both have stocky bodies, and their skeletons bear vestigial hip bones, relics of ancient serpent-legged ancestors. And instead of being armed with venom, they squeeze their prey to death, blocking blood flow and causing cardiac arrest.

While 10-foot-long boa constrictors prey on animals as large as wild pigs, dwarf boas have a diet largely made up of small lizards. And since they don’t have a side waist 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 more rude than threatening, but Entiauspe-Neto suspects the behavior is part of a larger constellation of death simulations found throughout the animal kingdom.

“Most predators tend to feed on live prey,” he said. If a predator such as an eagle sees a dwarf boa coiled up and bleeding from its eyes, “the predator is very likely to think the snake might be sick or dying, so it won’t feed on it” to avoid catching anything. makes the snake look sick.

However, dwarf boas face far greater threats than predators: newly identified species may already be endangered due to habitat loss. “He has a pretty small range,” Entiauspe-Neto said. “So while it has yet to be formally assessed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), I think it could be at risk of extinction.”

Thaís Guedes, a researcher at Campinas State University in Brazil who was not involved in the study, praised the work. “I’m always happy when I see a new species of snake being introduced into the world,” Guedes said.

Honoring the Cacuango activist in the naming of the species is also important, she said, because indigenous peoples play a key role in conservation.

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