New giant anaconda species discovered while filming with Will Smith in Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is home to the largest and heaviest (although not the longest) species of snake on Earth: the green anaconda. However, what was thought to be a single species covering a huge area has now been revealed as two, with a little help from Will Smith and an accompanying documentary team.

Professor Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland had no intention of untangling the anaconda family tree. Instead, he is conducting a long-term study into the effects of oil drilling in the Amazon in collaboration with the indigenous Waorani people.

“If you look at the male and female anacondas, you wouldn’t think they are the same animal, let alone the same species,” Fry told IFLScience. The legendary beasts that grow to over 5 meters in length (with unreliable rumors that they are much larger) are all female. The males are half as long and slimmer (no wonder some females don’t have this problem). Not surprisingly, the two sexes have very different diets, with the females feeding on grazers such as deer and capybaras, while the males eat wading birds.

It's not obvious from this mating ball, but the female green anacondas are much larger than their suitors

It’s not obvious from this mating ball, but the female green anacondas are much larger than their lovers

Image credits: Jesus Rivas

“As top predators, anacondas are particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation,” Fry and colleagues write in a new paper. “Not only do they suffer from habitat damage, they are also severely affected by damage to their prey base.” The team reasoned that by comparing heavy metal concentrations between the sexes, they could detect the effects of oil spills in the ecosystem.

They also had celebrity help during the process. Fry was the science team leader for the Amazon portion of the National Geographic documentary From pole to pole with Will Smith. This provided resources for the anaconda research that Fry told IFLScience far exceeded what he was used to – including help from Smith himself, who had no problem wading into the water and helping catch anacondas.

The team found that the males have 1,000 percent more lead and cadmium in their bodies than the females, Fry told IFLScience. This reflects the way these elements infiltrate the aquatic ecosystem and work their way up the food chain.

During the most extensive anaconda sampling ever conducted, they noticed that green anacondas in Ecuador are larger than those in Brazil. “We found one measuring 6.3 meters (21 feet), which is close to the official record,” Fry told IFLScience. However, locals who worked with the team claimed to have seen one that, based on the size of its jaws, would have been 7.5 meters long. Despite highly exaggerated rumors, throughout most of their range, even the largest females are one meter shorter.

The Ecuadorian snakes do not look or behave any differently, as they have almost identical markings. However, when the team took genetic samples, they discovered that this was definitely not the same species: there is a 5.5 percent difference in DNA between the two. “To put it in perspective, humans are only about 2 percent different from chimpanzees,” Fry noted in a statement.

Further research revealed that the larger species also occurs in Colombia and Venezuela and deserves the name northern green anaconda (Eunectes akayima) while the extant species E. murinus is renamed the southern green anaconda. Although there is some overlap in their territories, the two live in different river basins, following a geographical division that began 10 million years ago and is reflected in the species distribution among many other animals in the Amazon basin.

This is a relatively puny male northern green anaconda.  Just think how difficult it would be to catch the females

This is a relatively puny male northern green anaconda. Just think how difficult it would be to catch the females.

Image credits: Jesus Rivas

What science gives, it sometimes takes away. In the paper announcing their findings, Fry and co-authors also report that what were thought to be three different species of (smaller) yellow anacondas are local variations of the same species.

Fry admitted to IFLScience that it was sad to remove two species from the archives, but added. “We have to be level-headed and let genetics tell the story […] we must be consistent to maintain the credibility of the science.”

That credibility is important because, although the southern green anaconda is so widespread that it is not in danger, the same may not be true for the northern version. Not only is their range smaller, but most of it is affected by oil drilling, along with widespread logging and the devastating drought the region is suffering from. Fry hopes to return to the area to investigate whether oil pollution affects male fertility, in addition to everything else.

Such a discovery would be terrible news for the health of the ecosystem, but could at least draw attention to the threat that oil drilling poses to the Amazon. If so, this could partially repay the Waorani, who welcomed the expeditions to their land and shared their knowledge of anaconda catching, with two Waorani employees becoming authors of the new paper. The Waorani are well aware of the devastating impact of oil drilling on their land; Last year, their long campaign succeeded in securing a national referendum banning drilling in parts of it, but implementation remains a challenge.

Contrary to its reputation, anacondas are not known to eat humans — but Fry said they sometimes kill people they consider a threat, so capturing specimens isn’t a job you should do alone.

The discovery represents one of the largest new species identified this century, although overshadowed by evidence of a second African elephant species. “If you want to discover a new species, you usually go small,” Fry told IFLScience.

The combination of the size of the find, its link to celebrities and its environmental significance makes it; “The biggest achievement of my career,” said Fry. That’s quite a statement, considering Fry has found fish with opiates as poison, shown that dragon venom can prevent strokes that could transform the fight against many diseases, and even shown that humanity’s slow reaction time is a side effect of the developing resistance to cobra venom. “The only way it can be bigger,” he added to IFLScience, “is if I am [scientifically] described a xenomorph that had just jumped out of Taylor Swift’s chest.

The research has been published open access in the journal MDPI Diversity

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