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Scientists auction snake names to save them

The official names of five snakes are up for auction — and the money raised will go towards saving them.

The new species Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot. Image credits: Alejandro Arteaga.

Want to show someone you love them? Or even better, would you like to name a snake after your ex? Or perhaps you just want to help save a few snake species? Well, then you just missed your chance. A team of biologists has auctioned the naming rights of five newly discovered snakes and the money might just save them from extinction.

With four out of five snakes already at risk of extinction, it seems like a sensible thing to do. The international research team decided to auction off their naming rights, and with the money they gain, they hope to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 hectares (178-acre) plot of land where some of these species live. If everything goes according to plan, Fundación Jocotoco is to add the purchased plot to the Buenaventura reserve, thereby expanding the only protected area.

The snakes themselves are rather unique. They have an unusual taste for snails, which has led to a remarkable adaptation: their jaws have developed in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell. The species are described in a new study, where Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian-Venezuelan Ph.D. student at the American Museum of Natural History and scientific director of Tropical Herping and his team present their unusual habits.

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Three of the species were discovered in rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017, while the other two were found in drier environments. Having made the highest bid at the auction, the Rainforest Trust (RT) and Bob Ridgely got to name three of the five new snakes. Ridgely, who is a renowned conservationist, has opted for the following names:

  • Dipsas georgejetti was chosen to honor George Jett, who supported the inception of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador;
  • Dipsas bobridgelyi, after himself; and
  • Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.

The remaining two species, Dipsas oswaldobaezi and Dipsas klebbai, were named after Dr. Oswaldo Báez and Casey Klebba, respectively, in recognition for their passion for Ecuador’s biodiversity and conservation.

The species Dipsas klebbai is the only one of the newly described species not currently threatened with extinction. Image credits: Alejandro Arteaga.

It’s a very unusual and creative technique, which to be honest, also seems very practical — the benefits are obvious.

“We had to let people know that these cool snakes exist,” Alejandro said, “and that these species might soon stop to exist, and we need people’s help to protect the snake’s habitat.”

“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one,” he noted, “but, generally, such names have no formal validity. Naming an entire species after someone you love or admire is different. With few exceptions, this is the name that both the general public and the whole scientific community will use. So, why not let people choose the name of a species in exchange for a donation that protects its habitat?”

Naming species is a part of the very core of biological studies and is more than just a symbolic gesture — once a species is named, it stays that way. Renaming species is possible, but it’s very rare, and generally only happens when a species has been misclassified or needs to be reclassified.

However, it should be noted that making a public auction can also have some unexpected consequences. Who knows — the next new species of snake might be called Snakey McSnakeface.

Journal Reference: Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79-147. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523

Credit: Mumsnet.

Why we mix people’s names: science says it’s because you might care about them

Credit: Mumsnet.

Credit: Mumsnet.

My grandmother would often mix me and my brother’s name, something which I’ve always attributed to her failing memory. In hindsight, however, I now realize everybody does this. Though this might sometimes be embarrassing, a new study suggests scrabbling people’s name is completely normal and by no means a sign of bad memory or aging.

Samantha Deffler, a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., surveyed 1,700 men and women of various ages and found people often mixed the names of family and friends. She says this is a ‘cognitive glitch’ resulting from how the brain categorizes and stores these names. The names of people closest to our social circle are stored in their own folder, so to speak, while the names of acquaintances, distant relatives or people you just recently met are stored in another folder.

Deffler and colleagues found that when people used the wrong name for a person, in the vast majority of cases the name that was used fell in the same category as the name that was supposed to be used. This happens when our brain is multi-tasking and has to quickly retrieve the words. Say you’re very concentrated writing an essay when your daughter Emilly walks in to ask about something. You’re still facing the computer screen, typing, when you reply “It’s in the cupboard, Megan”. “It’s Emily, mom. Megan’s my sister, remember?” *facepalm*.

According to Deffler, the names Emily, Megan and maybe a couple others are floating in the mind and mom picked one because they were in the same folder. These names have different priorities but sometimes competing names win, resulting in a momentary glitch. And yes, moms seem to be the group most prone to name mix-up.

Oddly enough, it’s not only loved ones’ names that get mixed up. It can happen with pet names too.

“Whatever dog we had at the time would be included in the string along with my sister Rebecca and my brother Jesse,” Deffler recalled from her personal experience.

Mom might call you by your dog’s name, which can be hilarious or weird, depending on the situation. However, pet name mix-up seems to happen only with dogs. The study suggests people are far less likely to mix a person’s name with that of a cat, chinchilla or some other pet. It’s not clear why but it may be that some dog owners care about their pets just as much as human loved ones.

“Overall, the misnaming of familiar individuals is driven by the relationship between the misnamer, misnamed, and named; phonetic similarity between the incorrect name used by the misnamer and the correct name also plays a role in misnaming,” the researchers reported in the journal Memory & Cognition

So, folks, now you have the perfect excuse when you mix-up your partner’s name with the “ex”. Seriously, you can try to science your way out.