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Snake Species That Went Missing For 78 Years Is Found

The Clarion nightsnake's coloration makes it difficult to see in its black lava habitat.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian
The Clarion nightsnake's coloration makes it difficult to see in its black lava habitat.

A species of snake that was thought to have gone missing for nearly 80 years — or never to have existed in the first place — has been found.

The Clarion nightsnake, named for the island it inhabits off Mexico's Pacific coast, had been identified only once, back in 1936 by naturalist William Beebe.

He brought a specimen back to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but scientists questioned whether it was a distinct species.

Double-checking wasn't easy. The volcanic island of Clarion is accessible only by military escort.

The 18-inch snake is hard to spot, even if you happen to know just where to look. It's active at night and is brownish black with dark spots, which helps it blend into its black lava rock habitat, according to a Smithsonian Institution news release.

But Smithsonian researcher Daniel Mulcahy went exploring with a team from Mexico's Instituto de Ecologia led by Juan Martinez-Gomez.

It fell to a graduate student to make the first spotting. In all, the team found 11 of the snakes.

DNA testing showed that the Clarion nightsnake is distinct from other snakes located on the Mexican mainland. The researchers intend to continue to study it and its role in the local environment.

They published their findings in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.