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UIS researcher discovers two new snake species in Santander… An amazing find!

Elson Meneses Pelayo, biologist and PhD student at the UIS School of Biology.

It took more than 10 years of research that led a group of scientists to discover 5 new species of eyelashed vipers (Bothriechis schlegelii) in Colombia and Ecuador. Of these species, 2 are unique to Santander and were described thanks to the Herpetology Collection of the Natural History Museum of the School of Biology of the Universidad Industrial de Santander (UIS).

Biologist Elson Meneses Pelayo, who is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the School of Biology and is a researcher of the Biodiversity Studies group of the UIS, is one of those responsible for this revolutionary finding that has been made official in a recent study published in the scientific journal Evolutionary Systematics.

Elson Meneses, together with a group of experts from different parts of the world, were in charge of the morphological and molecular analyses that led to the discovery of these new species of eyelashed vipers that were erroneously classified as part of a single species that spanned from Mexico to northwestern Peru.

Bothriechis khwargiFotografía de Elson Meneses Pelayo, investigador UIS

Three of the five new species are endemic to the Eastern Cordillera of Colombia, where they occupy cloud forests and coffee plantations.
Of these, two are found specifically in the territory of Santander. They are Klebba’s eyelashed viper (B. klebbai) and Khwarg’s eyelashed viper (B. khwargi), named in honor of Casey Klebba and Dr. JuewonKhwarg, for their support to the discovery and conservation of new species.

“Previously, we were aware of a species called Bothriechis schlegelii, a species distributed from Ecuador to Central America. It was the only species that inhabited these areas, all under this name. After several analyses of the morphological and molecular data collected, we were able to discover that, for example, for Santander, the only species considered was actually two species,” said biologist Elson Meneses.

Bothriechis klebbai. Fotografía de Elson Meneses Pelayo, investigador UIS

Characteristics of these new species

These endemic species belong to a group of venomous snakes typical of cold ecosystems. Generally, they are found at altitudes above 1000 meters above sea level and are associated with agro-productive systems such as coffee production.

“These species are arboreal, they always live in trees, in the upper and middle strata, and are never on the ground. They have a prehensile tail with which they hold on and forage in the trees. They feed on small birds, small rodents, lizards and frogs. They are nocturnal, during the day they rest almost always camouflaged by the striking green coloration that looks like moss or lichen, they are located in the trees and are almost invisible. At night they move around to look for food and interact with other specimens,” commented the expert.

According to the group of scientists, what is different about this group of snakes is the set of large scales in the form of spines located over their eyes. These “eyelashes” give the snakes a formidable and ferocious appearance, although the true purpose of this characteristic is unknown. What is certain is that some populations have longer and more stylized eyelashes than others. Variations in the condition of the eyelashes led researchers to hypothesize the existence of species yet to be discovered.

Distribution of Bothriechis schlegelii species, including the five newly described species.

Incredible color variations

This type of snakes are also characterized because they are polychromatic. The color between them can vary, even if they belong to the same species.

According to Meneses, one of the reasons why this research work has been so relevant is because it has allowed them to know what is the relationship of coloration within what was previously considered a single species and now there are more. “We found that now there are very contrasting colors and chromatic variation; there are green, yellow, almost red species, of different colors mixed with green, light and dark shades. So there is a great chromatic variation and it was found that it could be grouped in each of the sites.”

Two species unique to Santander

One of the species unique to Santander, B. klebbai is distributed in the highest zone of the Eastern Cordillera, in cloud forests below the Páramo del Almorzadero, Páramo de Santurbán, Páramo de la Rusia. The second, B. khwargi, is common in the foothills and the Serran

Their venom, a contribution to science and medicine.

According to the UIS researcher, approximately 5 thousand cases of ophidian accidents are registered annually in Colombia. In this case, the venom of this snake is not so lethal. Its bite may cause local tissue damage such as inflammation and pain, but with a quick and timely treatment it is possible to have a good prognosis.

At the same time, it has been proven that the venom of this type of snake contains a significant number of molecules with countless applications in the field of health, which are already being investigated by scientific laboratories around the world.

“The venom of these snakes is not only the main input to manufacture the antidote itself that can save our lives in case of an accident, but it is also an input for many laboratories that do bioprospecting and analysis of molecules with capacities of use for other types of diseases, such as arterial hypertension, Alzheimer’s, cancer, among others. Therefore, they are a source of information for biodiversity and also for pharmacology,” added Meneses.

The UIS, the only Colombian institution present in this contribution to biodiversity.

This study was led by the Ecuadorian foundation Khamai, committed to the recovery of highly threatened areas of biodiversity, promoting research and conservation of tropical biodiversity and helping to mitigate the effects of global warming. It counted with the scientific participation of several research centers in the world.

The UIS was the only Colombian institution present in this project, through the scientific work led by researcher Elson Meneses, from the Amphibian and Reptile Studies group, and the Biodiversity Studies group of the School of Biology.

The specimens currently housed in the Herpetology Collection of the Natural History Museum of the School of Biology were key to the information analyzed in this research. “The participation of the University as guarantor of depositing all these specimens and all the information that is natural heritage of the country, played an important role in the development of this project”.

“The issue of social appropriation of knowledge is very important for people to understand the importance of these findings. These snakes, besides being venomous and causing injuries and discomfort, are also a source of information. It may be trivial to name a species that many people may already know, but scientifically these findings must be formalized in products that become a source of information to generate governance and conservation strategies for the territories based on natural knowledge”.

A call for protection and conservation

Within the conclusions of this finding, the scientists call for the protection of these species, especially some of them that are at high risk of extinction. “They have an extremely limited geographic range and between 50% and 80% of their habitat has already been destroyed. Therefore, rapid response action is urgently needed to save the remaining habitat.” They also consider it important to protect them from hunters for the illegal trade in exotic animals and to support the development of research on the components of their venom, to promote conservation and help communities.

Bothriechis klebbai. Fotografía de Elson Meneses Pelayo, investigador UIS