- Scientists have described a new-to-science snake species from Peru’s Otishi National Park and named it after the actor Harrison Ford for his conservation advocacy.
- The pale yellowish-brown snake with black blotches was found in high-elevation wetlands and identified using genetic techniques.
- The team faced risks from illegal drug activity in the remote park area where the snake was found, cutting their survey short.
- Satellite data and imagery show several areas of forest loss throughout the park, which appear to have been caused by natural landslides. Still, some bear the hallmarks of human-caused clearing likely linked to coca cultivation and drug trafficking.
Remember Indiana Jones’ famous line “Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?” in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark? That iconic moment has taken on a new twist as the actor behind the adventurous archaeologist, Harrison Ford, has become the namesake of a newly described snake species.
In the forests of Otishi National Park in Peru, scientists found a 40-centimeter (16-inch) snake with a unique appearance: pale yellowish-brown adorned with scattered black blotches. Its distinguishing features include a black belly and a vertical streak over its copper-colored eye. The scientists identified this previously unknown snake species using advanced genetic sequencing techniques.
The snake species, described in a new paper as Tachymenoides harrisonfordi, lives in high-elevation wetlands in the southern regions of Peru. The name choice pays homage to Ford, who not only portrayed Indiana Jones and Hans Solo but is also a committed advocate for nature conservation. Ford holds the position of vice chair on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Conservation International.
The specimen was found and described by Edgar Lehr of Illinois Wesleyan University, along with colleagues Juan Cusi, Maura Fernandez and Ricardo Vera from the Museum of Natural History at Peru’s National University of San Marcos, and Alessandro Catenazzi of Florida International University.
Naming species after celebrities is controversial, but Lehr said it could help bring attention to how many plants and animals are unknown to science, hopefully attracting more research funding. He said it’s important to document new species so we can protect them.
When interviewed by Conservation International about the newly named snake species, Ford said, “The snake’s got eyes you can drown in, and he spends most of the day sunning himself by a pool of dirty water — we probably would’ve been friends in the early ’60s.”
“In all seriousness,” he added, “this discovery is humbling. It’s a reminder that there’s still so much to learn about our wild world — and that humans are one small part of an impossibly vast biosphere.”
Lehr said he and his team faced significant challenges during their expedition in Otishi National Park. The area of the park where they found the snake was difficult to reach, and the team had to fly in by helicopter with supplies for several weeks. Lehr said the place is considered one of Peru’s least scientifically surveyed national parks.
The area is known for the illicit cultivation of coca plants to make cocaine for the illegal drug trade, threatening researchers and authorities there. At first, Lehr said, the researchers thought they were safe in the isolated area, but soon realized they were in danger. They came across an abandoned camp and then heard strange voices on their radios and saw a drone spying on them.
“I carried a walkie-talkie so we could communicate if the team was separated,” Lehr said. “On the ninth day of the trip, I suddenly heard unfamiliar voices coming through the speaker. We were in this incredibly remote location, so we immediately knew that there were other people around who were using the same radio frequency … The voices seemed to hear us, too, and they sounded shocked.”
The team decided to cut their trip short. After four days of waiting, a military helicopter finally picked up the scientists and got them out safely. Lehr said it’s unlikely they’ll return due to the threatening presence of drug traffickers.
Lehr said while large-scale deforestation doesn’t seem to be a significant issue in the park, the drug trade does cause some small-scale clearing for the growing of coca plants at lower elevations, as well as cocaine production and its transport to illegal airstrips cleared from forest at higher elevations.
Satellite data and imagery from Global Forest Watch show several areas of forest loss throughout the park. Many of these appear to have been caused by natural landslides, but some bear the hallmarks of human-caused clearing.
Lehr emphasized the need for further field studies to understand the biology and population of the newly described snake species, but said dangers posed by illegal activities hinder exploration in this biodiverse region.
“There’s so much left to discover here,” Lehr said.
Banner image: Tachymenoides harrisonfordi lives in high-elevation wetlands in the southern regions of Peru. Image © Edgar Lehr, courtesy of Conservation International.
Lehr, E., Cusi, J. C., Fernandez, M. I., Vera, R. J., & Catenazzi, A. (2023). A new species of Tachymenoides (Serpentes: Dipsadidae: Tachymenini) from the puna of the Otishi National Park in Peru. Salamandra, 59(3), 199-206. Retrieved from https://www.salamandra-journal.com/index.php/home/contents/2023-vol-59/2121-lehr-e-j-c-cusi-m-i-fernandez-r-j-vera-a-catenazzi/file
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