Silver Boa: the new treasure of the Bahamas

Biologists on a Caribbean treasure hunt discover a new species of snake with shimmering, silver skin.

26th May 2016
The Silver Boa © R. Graham Reynolds

The Silver Boa © R. Graham Reynolds

Shiver me timbers! You’d consider your treasure hunt a swashbuckling success if you came back with a haul of silver, but for an international group of scientists they found something more precious than metal during an expedition to the Bahamas – they discovered the Silver Boa, a new species of snake.

Treasure hunt without metal detector and shovel

Unlike Long John Silver, the scientists didn’t have to dig in any dirt to find this living treasure. They first discovered the new species of silver-coloured snake climbing in a silver palm tree, hence the name Chilabothrus argentum (Silver Boa in Latin).

By the middle of the night the researchers had found four more specimens and a sixth crawled over the head of expedition-leader Graham Reynolds of Harvard University, waking him from his slumber while the team slept on the beach.

Their discovery is published in the journal Breviora.

How did they know that it was a new boa species?

The first clue was that none of the team could assign the metre-long snake to one of the known species of boa, quite simply because it didn’t resemble anything they had ever seen before. Genetic analysis of samples taken from the boas did indeed prove that it was a new species, which diverged from it’s nearest ancestor several million years ago.

Reynolds and his team found 14 more specimens during a second expedition shortly after Hurricane Joaquin, in October 2015. The team took down their physical details and marked the new specimens with electronic tags for future identification.

All that glitters…

As with all treasure though, there is always someone wanting to get their hands on it, or as the scientists discovered in this case, their claws: feral cats that feed on reptiles. Because of their rarity and the threat from their predators, the team decided to classify the Silver Boa as Critically Endangered based on Red List Criteria proposed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and set up conservation measures to protect the new snake in the future.

"Worldwide, new species of frogs and lizards are being discovered and described with some regularity. New species of snakes, however, are much rarer,” says Robert Henderson, boa expert and Curator of Herpetology Emeritus at the Milwaukee Museum of Natural History. “The beautiful Bahamian Silver Boa, already possibly critically endangered, reminds us that important discoveries are still waiting to be made, and it provides the people of the Bahamas another reason to be proud of the natural wonders of their island nation.”

Let’s hope that this story has a silver lining and that the Silver Boa won’t disappear as soon as it has been discovered.

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