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Snake Species in Galápagos Islands Named for Loyola University New Orleans Researcher

Loyola press release - October 1, 2018

Three new species named for Charles Darwin, the Greek God Hephaestus, and Loyola professor Bob Thomas

American biologist and Loyola University New Orleans Chair of Environmental Communication Robert A. “Bob” Thomas has a new namesake – a species of snakes in the Galápagos Islands. Following decades of research, a snake species on the island of Santiago and Rábida now bears the name Pseudalsophis thomasi. The honor comes following more than 20 years working to classify the snakes of the archipelago.

Thomas, who has visited the Galápagos Islands frequently since he began researching snakes in the 1970s, is an evolutionary biologist who has spent his life studying Neotropical snakes. In 1997, he published a revised monograph in Herpetological Natural History on snakes of the Galápagos Islands using morphological techniques — analyzing snakes by color pattern, scale counts, and other factors related to the animals’ shape and form. Thomas reclassified four identified species and subspecies of Galápagos snakes into three distinct taxonomic genera.

Five years ago, he was invited to join a team of Brazilian and Ecuadorian biologists to re-study the snakes from a molecular perspective, analyzing blood and molecular factors related to the inside of the animal. Through this process, the researchers tracked and analyzed snakes’ colonization routes and characterized them; they identified nine recognized species from the genus Pseudalsophis, as well as the three new ones, which had never been described.

Thomas shared his existing data and helped collect new information from U.S. museums, and was informed the team wanted to name a new species after him. The rules of zoological nomenclature prevent a scientist from being an author on a paper that names a new species after the scientist (termed a patronym), so Thomas declined having his name in the list of authors.

Once they looked at all the animals’ molecular relationships, the researchers were able to see how the animals had colonized the islands over time by using molecular markers to track their biogeographic movements among the islands and analyze their relationships.

The snakes’ ancestors arrived on Galápagos more than 4 million years ago and are part of the estimated 5,000 unique species of animals that inhabit the islands. Of the three new species of Galápagos snakes discovered by the researchers, one was named Pseudalsophis darwini in honor of Charles Darwin. The second, exclusive to the island of Santiago and Rábida was called P. hephaestus to remember Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, associated with the volcanic origin of the archipelago. The third from Santiago and Rábida was named for Thomas.

“It’s fun. It makes me giggle, especially because it’s a snake from Galápagos, one of the most incredible biological places on earth,” Thomas said this week. “I never, ever in my life dreamed that would happen. In 1984, I found one of these snakes, picked it up in my hands in the Galápagos Islands, and took pictures of it. We had no idea it was an undiscovered species. A lot of times, the molecular analysis gives us tremendous insight we don’t yet have into an animal.”

Read all about the scientists’ work in Pesquisa, a Brazilian scientific journal.

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