New giant anaconda species found on Waorani Indigenous land in Ecuador

By Liz Kimbrough

amazon, new giant anaconda species found on waorani indigenous land in ecuador

New giant anaconda species found on Waorani Indigenous land in Ecuador

A new species of giant anaconda has been found in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador, scientists announced. The snake, named the northern green anaconda (Eunectes akayima), is genetically distinct from its close relative, the green anaconda (E. murinus) and may be the largest snake species in the world.

For 20 years, researchers collected blood and tissue samples from green anacondas across South America. But it was samples collected in 2022 from the Bameno region of Baihuaeri Waorani Territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon that would prove most crucial to the discovery.

“Conditions were difficult. We paddled up muddy rivers and slogged through swamps,” Bryan Fry, a National Geographic Explorer, biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and co-author of the new study, said in The Conversation. “The heat was relentless and swarms of insects were omnipresent.”

amazon, new giant anaconda species found on waorani indigenous land in ecuador

Northern green anaconda breeding. Photo by Jesus Rivas

Fry said his team entered Waorani territory on the invitation of, and in collaboration with, Waorani leader Penti Baihua. Identifying the new species would not have been possible without the Indigenous Waorani guides, who are recognized as co-authors of the paper describing the new species in the journal Diversity.

“The indigenous hunters took us into the jungle on a 10-day expedition to search for these snakes, which they consider sacred,” Fry said in a statement. Actor Will Smith also joined the team while filming a series for National Geographic. “We paddled canoes down the river system and were lucky enough to find several anacondas lurking in the shallows, lying in wait for prey.”

Genetic analyses revealed the anacondas they sampled on Waorani territory are a separate species from the more widespread green anacondas found across the Amazon Basin. “They differ genetically by 5.5%, which Fry calls “staggering.” For context, the genetic difference between humans and apes is about 2%.

amazon, new giant anaconda species found on waorani indigenous land in ecuador

The northern green anaconda (Eunectes akayima). Photo by Jesus Rivas.

Green anacondas are the heaviest snakes in the world and among the longest. The largest snake the team found in Waorani Territory was a female anaconda that measured 6.3 meters (20.7 feet) long from head to tail, but there are Indigenous reports of larger individuals.

Anacondas are infamous for their speed and ability to suffocate prey and swallow them whole. As apex predators, anacondas play a vital ecological role in regulating prey populations like fish, rodents, deer and caimans. (They rarely eat humans.) Their presence helps maintain a healthy diversity of plant and animal life within the complex food web of the rainforest ecosystem.

amazon, new giant anaconda species found on waorani indigenous land in ecuador

Northern green anaconda feeding on a large lizard. Photo by Jesus Rivas.

“Losing these magnificent snakes would be catastrophic,” Fry said. “They keep animal numbers in check, from rats to jaguars. Without them, delicate ecological balances could be disrupted.”

Anacondas face a number of threats across their range, including habitat loss from deforestation, hunting by humans and pollution from oil spills. Their relatively small population and restricted distribution put the newly discovered northern species at particular risk.

“Of particular urgency is research into how petrochemicals from oil spills are affecting the fertility and reproductive biology of these rare snakes and other keystone species in the Amazon,” Fry said.

amazon, new giant anaconda species found on waorani indigenous land in ecuador

Nemonte Nenquimo stands alongside an oil spill near Shushufindi in the province of Sucumbíos, Ecuadorian Amazon, June 26th 2023. Image by Sophie Pinchetti / Amazon Frontlines.

The Waorani have long fought to protect their territory from exploitation by oil companies and illegal loggers and miners. In 2019, Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo and the Waorani community won a lawsuit against the government of Ecuador for fraudulently coercing communities to consent to selling their territory in an international oil auction.

“We know the dangers that are coming along the way. That is why we are protecting. We don’t want more contamination, destruction or exploration in the jungle,” Nenquimo, who was listed on the Time list of 100 most influential people of 2020 told Mongabay.

However, the Waorani territory still faces threats from oil exploration, roads and climate change. In the greater Amazon ecosystem, logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and development also threaten life in the world’s largest rainforest.

“This snake’s limited range within a rapidly changing landscape makes it especially vulnerable to extinction,” Fry said. “We need to act quickly to protect it.”

Banner image of the northern green anaconda (Eunectes akayima) eating a deer by Jesus Rivas.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

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Photos: Top species discoveries from 2023

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Citation:

Rivas, J. A., De La Quintana, P., Mancuso, M., Pacheco, L. F., Rivas, G. A., Mariotto, S., … Corey-Rivas, S. (2024). Disentangling the anacondas: Revealing a new green species and rethinking yellows. Diversity, 16(2), 127. doi:10.3390/d16020127

This article was originally published on Mongabay

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