Three new species of subterranean snakes have been found in Ecuador, living under graves and churches in remote towns in the Andes Mountains.
The grave snakes – all types of ground snakes, which spend most of their lives underground – are said to be “small, cylindrical and rather archaic in appearance”.
As such, they are known as a “fossil” snake group and belong to the Atractus group of snakes, which now has up to 150 known species.
The researchers, from Ecuador’s Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the environmental campaign group Khamai Foundation, who first described the species, said relatively few people have seen or even heard of any type of ground snake.
“This is probably because these snakes are shy and generally rare, and they remain hidden for most of their lives,” the team said.
In addition, most known species inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices.
The discovery of the three new species took place “quite by accident and in places where you probably wouldn’t expect these animals,” the research team said.
The discovery ground snake (Atractus discovery) was found underground in a small graveyard in a remote cloud forest town in southeastern Ecuador, and the two other new species – Atractus zgap and Atractus michaelsabini were found next to an old church and in a small school.
“All of this seems to indicate that, at least in the Andes, new species of snakes are lurking just around the corner,” the team said.
Alejandro Arteaga, beneficiary of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, who led the research, said: “The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project.
“Now, thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP [Ecuador’s Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations]we have already started setting up a nature reserve to protect the ground hoses.
“This action would not have been possible without first revealing the existence of these unique and cryptic reptiles, even if it meant temporarily disrupting the tranquility of the dead in the graveyard where they reside.”
But the research team said that despite the good news from the new discoveries, most of the snakes’ original habitat has already been destroyed.
As a result of deforestation, “the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they are usually killed on the spot,” the team said.
Diego Piñán, a teacher in the town where one of the new reptiles was found, said: “When I first arrived in El Chaco in 2013, I saw a lot of dead snakes on the road. Others were [killed with] machetes or with stones.
“Now, after years of talking about the importance of snakes, both children and their parents, while still wary of snakes, appreciate and protect them now.”
Fortunately for the research team, Mr. Piñán preserved many of the dead snakes he found and kept them in alcohol-filled jars.
These were later used by the research team to help establish the newly found snake species as new to science.
The research is published in the journal ZooKeys.