- Scientists discovered five new brightly-colored species of snake in the jungles of Panama.
- One of the snakes was named by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in honor of his mother, Irmelin Indenbirken.
- The snakes are being threatened by mining operations in the country, scientists noted.
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Two biologists discovered five new species of snail-eating snakes native to Columbia, Ecuador, and Panama — and one is named after actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio and his mother.
Biologists Alejandro Arteaga and Abel Batista started collecting samples from the different snakes after evidence arose that the snakes, which belonged to the Dipsadinae —a subfamily of snakes found in North and South America — could constitute their own distinct species.
Arteaga and Batista collected and sequenced DNA from the preserved samples of 19 snakes to compare the differences between them. They then built an evolutionary tree of the Dipsadinae subfamily. The tree and the DNA were proof enough: they had a new species on their hands.
Arteaga, whose work with Batista is published in the journal ZooKeys, told Insider in an email that it took the team a year and a half just to collect the DNA samples, but the analysis was done in a few days.
“Completing this project was a major milestone in my career, as it allowed me to make a contribution to the scientific community and to the conservation of a group of elusive and threatened species at the same time,” Arteaga said.
Of the five species, one — a red-orange snake with large, glowing orange eyes — is called DiCaprio’s snail-eating snake. Its scientific name, Sibon irmelindicaprioae, is a blend of his mother Irmelin Indenbirken’s first name and DiCaprio’s last name.
The actor was chosen to name the snake in an effort to raise awareness “about the issue of rainforest destruction at the hands of open-pit mining operations,” a press release from the Khamai Foundation noted.
DiCaprio’s snake is described as “docile” and does not bite when trying to defend itself from other animals.
“When threatened, individuals may hide the head among body coils and produce a musky and distasteful odor,” the study read.
It finds its food on shrubs and palm fronds as high as 10 feet above the ground. The snake is native to eastern Panama and western Columbia.
The four other snakes include the canopy snail-eating snake, Marley’s snail-eating snake — named after the daughter of billionaire Brian Sheth — as well as Vieira’s snail-eating snake, and Welborn’s snail-eating snake.
Unfortunately, the newly-discovered snakes are already under threat by illegal mining of gold and copper in the forests they inhabit, the study authors note.
Because so much forest area is cleared for mining, the tree-dwelling snakes are losing their habitat. Additionally, the snakes are losing their food sources — slugs and snails that live near the banks of rivers and streams — due to mining pollution in water.
“I hope that people focus on the beauty of the snakes and the actions we need to take to save them from the deforestation caused by gold mining,” Arteaga said.