Scientist Says He's Found World's Smallest Snake
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
There's been a breakthrough discovery in the world of snakes. No, it's not the biggest snake or the longest snake or the deadliest snake. A scientist claims to have found the world's smallest snake.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has this tiny tale.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: A couple of years ago, biologist Blair Hedges was working on a field guide to amphibians and reptiles of the West Indies. He went to the island of Barbados to photograph animals for his book.
Mr. BLAIR HEDGES (Biologist): And so we were driving around the island and finding rocks and logs on the side of the road to turn because these animals tend to get underneath things and hide, you know, during the day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In a small patch of forest next to a school, he turned over a rock and found a little, grayish, wiggly creature with yellow stripes.
Mr. HEDGES: It does look like a worm. It's actually even - honestly, it's smaller than many worms.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he knew it couldn't be a worm or a centipede. It had scales and no feet. It was a snake, a snake as thin as a spaghetti noodle.
At first, Hedges thought it was a species of snake that scientists already knew about from the nearby island of Martinique, but as he looked closer, he realized it was different.
Mr. HEDGES: Not only was it a valid species, distinct from the one on Martinique, but also it was smaller.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In fact, he now says it's the smallest species of snake in the world. In the journal Zootaxa, he says adult snakes of this species average just under four inches. Now, Hedges is an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University, and this isn't the first time he's found something super-tiny. He's previously identified the world's smallest frog species and the world's smallest lizard. He swears it's just a coincidence that he's now found the smallest snake.
Mr. HEDGES: You could never search for a smallest anything, and so this is luck times three, really.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Part of his luck could come from the fact that he's done a lot of work on island. The tiny snake, frog and lizard all live on islands. And Hedges says islands are known to host an unusual number of small species. Still, he says, after three world records:
Mr. HEDGES: I find it highly unlikely that I will ever find a smallest anything for the rest of my life.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Which is too bad, because he's gotten good and perching tiny creatures on top of coins to take photos showing how small they are. The snake, for example, looks very sweet on top of a quarter. He named it:
Mr. HEDGES: Leptotyphlops carlae.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After his wife, Carla. I wanted to see just how tiny this snake really was. Hedges had already donated his snakes to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., so I went there.
Scientist Roy McDiarmid showed me two glass jars full of alcohol. Each had a snake floating inside.
Doctor ROY McDIARMID (Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History): So here are the specimens.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They're cure.
Dr. McDIARMID: I think they're pretty neat-looking, but cute is not where I would go, but that's fine. If you had one of these things, you'd think well, it's kind of a weird little thing, but they don't - you know, they don't have a striking coloration. They're hard to sort of see what the head looks like and imagine what they do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mostly what these snakes do is eat insect larvae. They're harmless to people. McDermott and a colleague seemed amused that someone was after the title of the world's smallest snake instead of the biggest and the baddest. Now that the claim is out there, maybe someone will say they've got a tinier one, but Blair Hedges thinks his little guys are probably close to the limit of how small a snake can be and still be a snake.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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