Biologist discovers world’s smallest snake, lizard, and frog!
My article “The Largest Snake that Ever Lived” proved to be my most popular post to date. It’s not surprising. First of all, snakes can be incredibly beautiful:
And a truly big snake is an amazing sight:
Big snakes naturally evoke both awe and fear—who knows, maybe we have ancient memories of being their prey:
So today, I thought I’d go the other direction and take a look at the smallest snake in the world. This isn’t “breaking new” to herpetologists or reptile fans, but only two years ago, a biologist discovered the world’s smallest snake on the Caribbean island of Barbados. How small? This small:
Amazing! Meet the Barbados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae), a species of blind threadsnake. About as big around a piece of spaghetti, the average length of an adult is 10 cm (4 inches.) L. carlae is thought to feed primarily on termite and ant larvae.
Threadsnakes are oviparous, which means they lay eggs to reproduce. The female Barbados Threadsnake produces only one large egg at a time. The newly-hatched offspring is about half the size of the mother, which is huge compared to other snakes:
Perhaps just as amazing as the snake is the fact that the biologist who discovered this snake also discovered the world’s smallest lizard and frog! Meet biologist extraordinaire, Blair Hedges, of Penn State Univesity:
Blair is quite modest, and says his discovery of three world-record small creatures in a row was “just luck.” And of course, on his expeditions he was a member of a team of fellow researchers and scientists.
Luck or not, Blair clearly had ideas about where to look and what kind of environments tend to support very small creatures. And that particular place is islands. As the Penn State press release says:
“The ‘smallest’ and ‘largest’ species of animals tend to be found on islands, the researchers say, because species can evolve there over time to fill ecological niches in the habitat left vacant by other organisms that never reached the remote locations. If a species of spider is missing from an island, for example, the lizards there might evolve into a very small species to fill’ the missing spider’s ecological niche.”
In fact, in 2001, Blair Hedges and Richard Thomas discovered the world’s smallest lizard in the Dominican Republic. (It is also found on Beata Island off the souther coast of Hispaniola in Haiti.) Meet the miniscule gecko Jaragua Sphaero (Sphaerodactylus ariasae):
So small it can curl up on a U.S. ten-cent piece or stretch out on a U.S. quarter, a typical adult of the species, is only about 16 millimeters long, or about three quarters of an inch, from the tip of the snout to the vent at the base of the tail.
This little guy is related to another Gecko that is just as small, the Virgin Gorda Least Gecko, Sphaerodactylus parthenopion:
The Virgin Gorda Least Gecko was discovered in 1965 in the British Virgin Islands, and is also about sixteen millimeters long as an adult from nose to vent.
Another contender for smallest lizard is the Dwarf Gecko:
Here’s a close-up of the little guy:
Which of hese three kinds of lizards is the very smallest is a subject of some debate, but all of them are truly amazing miniatures and all worthy of world-record status.
The last animal in Blair’s “world’s-smallest” trifecta is an extraordinarily small frog discovered on the island of Cuba in 1996. Meet Eleutherodactylus iberia:
Blair Hedges of Penn State and his Cuban colleagues discovered the tiny orange-striped black frog living under leaf litter and among the roots of ferns in a humid rainforest on the western slope of Cuba’s Monte Iberia.
Hedges and Cuban scientist Alberto Estrada gave the frog the scientific name Eleutherodactylus iberia. Note that the scientific name for the frog is more than three times longer than the frog itself!
These incredibly small, and fragile, creatures illustrate what a truly amazing world we live in. In its own world Earth is amazing a planet as the alien world of the Na’vi in the smash hit Avatar (see: How “Avatar” Inspires Love of Nature and Love of Science )
As Dr. Hedges says:
“Our discovery illustrates that we still don’t know everything about the Earth’s species, even in areas that are very close to the United States. The island home of this tiny lizard is closer to Miami than Miami is to Puerileto Rico, and we did not even know the species existed, although the area has been studied by biologists for several hundred years.”
He also warns that, as is happening all over the world, the habitat that supports this species is rapidly disappearing: “People are cutting down trees even within the national parks and, if they take the forest away, these lizards and other species will disappear.”
Economic and law-enforcement difficulties are contributing to deforestation of the Caribbean forests, which are even more fragile and more threatened than those in the Amazon of South America because they are so small.
“In the Caribbean, forests that used to cover all of the land now typically cover less than 5 percent–and they are being cut down at an increasing rate, mainly for subsistence farming and fuel,” Hedges says. “Although there are laws against cutting down trees in the national parks, the enforcement of the laws is not enough to protect the forests, for a variety of reasons.”
The pressure on species all over the world, whether on land, or in the oceans, has never been greater. Scientists are talking about what is happening as the Sixth Great Extinction event.
Never have the animals and ecosystems of our amazing “pale blue dot,” the” only planet we have ever known,” in Carl Sagan’s memorable words, more urgently needed our help and care. Political action, conservation, and people every bit as dedicated as Na’vi aliens of Avatar are needed if we are to avoid ecological and social disaster.
More than ever, the solution is in our own hands.