The Choco rainforest between Panama and Ecuador and the mountain rainforests of the Andes are among the most species-rich regions on earth – and they keep making new discoveries for science. Alejandro Arteaga from Tropical Herping and Abel Batista from the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí in Panama describe five previously unknown snail-eating snakes from the subfamily Dipsadinae in »ZooKeys« : Despite their sometimes striking coloration, they have so far escaped the attention of biologists.
The Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio was allowed to name three of these newly discovered species and thus honored his mother, among others: According to current knowledge, Sibon irmelindicaprioae is the rarest of the five species and only exists in a small area in the Chocó-Daríen rainforest in the border area between Colombia and Panama – this area forms the only break in the Panamericana road between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. The other representatives, which differ genetically and in coloring and patterning from their relatives, inhabit parts of the Chocós in southern Colombia and northern Ecuador, the western slopes of the Colombian Andes and the Nangaritza Valley on the eastern side of the Andes in southern Ecuador.
Although their colors are reminiscent of poisonous snakes, they are completely harmless. When threatened, they roll up to protect their heads and emit a repulsive odor. They mainly live on trees up to the crown area and hunt there slugs and slugs. Overall, they form one of the most species-rich snake families in the neotropics, i.e. the tropical areas of Central and South America.
However, their tree-bound lifestyle is particularly threatened by deforestation. All five species are therefore already considered to be more or less endangered: Legal and illegal mining in particular affects them in their distribution areas – the pollution and destruction of wetlands through the mining of gold and other ores burdens and also reduces their main food.
Intensified since the corona crisis, illegal gold prospecting has spread in parts of the Amazon region, which has severely affected the Nangaritza Valley, which was almost completely untouched until 2014. In the absence of alternative sources of income, many residents and even some nature conservation rangers switched to the more lucrative prospecting for gold. ‘It’s not paradise anymore. Hundreds of illegal gold diggers with backhoes have taken over the river banks, which are now being destroyed and turned into rubble and rubble,” says Arteaga.
Existing sanctuaries may not be sufficient to keep the snakes in. In southeastern Ecuador, illegal miners are approaching the Maycu Reserve, ignoring the rights of landowners and even threatening anyone who resists gold mining. A local park ranger told the two biologists that locals can earn an annual income in just a few weeks by mining gold from the Nangaritza River. “Sure, it’s illegal and out of control, but the authorities are too afraid to intervene,” says the park ranger. “The miners are just too violent and unpredictable.”In Panama, large-scale open-pit copper mining is affecting the habitat of two of the new species: Sibon irmelindicaprioae and S. canopy . After all, the work of the mine operator is under the supervision of local authorities. The two biologists are therefore more worried about the gold rush in many other regions. “These new species of snakes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new species around here. But if illegal mining continues at this rate, there may not be an opportunity to make more discoveries,” says Arteaga. With the help of DiCaprio’s name, they at least want to draw more attention to the species-rich ecosystems so that they can perhaps be better protected.