Scientists Discover Five New Snail Eating Snakes; Reptiles Use Curved Teeth And Flexible Jaws To Pry Snail Out Of Its Shell

Here at Wild Animal News we are always amazed by how much isn’t known and how much is new to science. It is not that snail-eating snakes were previously unknown. Its the discovery of five new species almost at once. The snakes were found in rainforest and tropical forest in Ecuador and Peru.

white black and brown snail on green leaf
Snails are considered a pest by most gardeners. But snail eating snakes the world over eat them. Some exclusively..Photo by Pixabay on

The discovery has been outlined in the journal ZooKeys. The forum is online and peer reviewed. According to its website.

ZooKeys is a peer-reviewed, open access, online and print, rapidly published journal, launched to support free exchange of ideas, data and information in all branches of Zoology. It is one of the most dynamic, innovative  and technologically advanced scholarly journals in its field. Zookeys was the first to implement semantic tagging and enhancements of content since the publication of its issue 50 in 2010. Currently, ZooKeys takes second place in the Index of Organism Names among the top 10 journals publishing the greatest number of new taxa in Zoology.” Bold in original.

Back to the snakes.

What is also interesting is that the snakes do not simply swallow the snail shell and all. Instead, according to Smithsonian, they use two adaptations to eat the snail and drop the shell.

Sibon nebulatus is a snail eating snakes. Here it demonstrates dining behavior.

The first is backward curving teeth. Many snakes have them. They function to keep the prey from pulling out and keep the doomed creature moving down the gullet. The second is that snake jaws are built with extreme flexibility. Right and left side can move independently forward and backward and “walk” or “saw” the meal down the throat.

So for mealtime the snake inserts its head into the shell, grabs the snail and pries it out.

Alex Pyron, a researcher involved in the discovery told Smithsonian:

“So if you can imagine the snake’s lower jaw going into the snail shell and then it kind of bobbing back and forth as it slides each side in and out, eventually they just ratchet the entire snail out of the shell and swallow it whole,” Pyron says.

Identifying new species is not easy.

“Wherever we are, Brazil, Ecuador or Peru, in all of these places we have a rough idea of what species are there based on the collections that have been made in the past,” Pyron said. He is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University. He is also a research collaborator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Captured snakes are identified against the collection and the known literature and collections. This can take months of measurement and scale counting. Color patterns and DNA are also assessed.

Giant African land snails are a pest in the United States. In Africa they may become food for snail eating snakes, some of which grab the soft bodies of snails and smash them on rocks.

The snakes discovered join the 75 or so other snail eating snakes already known. The new snakes all belong to the genera dipsas and sibon. There are more than one dozen known members of the dipsas family in Ecuador alone. There are 21 members of the sibon family which range northward into Mexico. All of the newly found snakes are tree dwellers with good eyesight. Because of the nature of their prey they are slow moving, unlike many other snakes.

Unfortunately, some of the snakes have been found in an area heavily exploited by humans. Their population status is therefore unknown and they may be quickly put on the endangered list.

“Some of these species are found in the tropical rainforest on the western side of the Andes along the Pacific coast. It is a very narrow strip of land and so there wasn’t much forest there to begin with. It has been an area that has suffered particularly high human exploitation for hundreds of years. At this point about 97 percent of the original forest is gone,” Pyron explains.

As we said at the top science is always finding new creatures. Antarctica has been the region in the news with many amazing discoveries, Sometimes what is old becomes new again when “extinct” species are rediscovered.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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