Scientists have discovered not one but four new species of snake. What is perhaps even more extraordinary is that they’ve been studying the reptiles for years and had absolutely no idea.
The late herpetologist, Samuel McDowell, spent a large chunk of his career studying the ground snakes in Papua New Guinea during the '70s. Four decades on and Sara Ruane, an assistant professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers-Newark (where McDowell was a professor), has identified several of them as entirely new species.
"When I started exploring New Guinea snakes, his work really jumped to the forefront," explained Ruane in a statement. "I don't think I've in any way finished his work, but it is a nice continuation for sure and verifies some of the hypotheses he proposed."
The four new species Ruane discovered are members of the Stegonotus genus, a group of nocturnal creatures that tend to be a brown, black, or gray in color. This revelation brings the total number of snakes in the Stegonotus family up to 14, but Ruane suspects there are still more to find.
The research, now published in the Journal of Natural History, involved sequencing the DNA of five separate genes from 49 individuals and comparing the data to the morphological information of preserved snake specimens, including some of the ones McDowell studied.
"These snakes are likely major players in the New Guinean ecosystem," said Ruane, even if they’re not as “exciting” as some of the other serpents lurking in New Guinea's undergrowth, such as the emerald-colored Green Tree Python and diamond-backed Pacific Ground Boa.
"They live in pretty remote and to some extent poorly explored areas."
The isolated island of New Guinea is one of the most understudied regions of the globe, yet it boasts some of the world's most biologically diverse environments. It makes up just 1 percent of the world’s landmass but contains close to 10 percent of its vertebrates, including the planet's largest pigeon and smallest parrot.
So far, only one of the new species has been named – the Stegonotus derooijae. The serpent was named after Dutch zoologist Petronella Johanna Nelly de Rooij (1886-1964). De Rooij was a curator at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Amsterdam but had to leave the city to earn her doctorate because of her gender.
Fortunately, the field of zoology is becoming more female-friendly. "Every year when I go to conferences, I see more and more women," said Ruane.
There is also the hope that there could be some medicinal benefits to the discovery.
"And, of course, there are always human-focused reasons to care, like the development of human drugs that help control medical issues, such as diabetes, made from snake and lizard venoms," said Ruane.