Comment »Posted on Tuesday 12 August 2008 at 11:59 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

You may have recently read about the discovery of the world’s smallest snake. With an average length of just 10cm it looks more like a worm than a snake and it was found by Dr Blair Hedges, a biologist from Penn State University, under a rock on the island of Barbados.

Or was it? It appears that residents of Barbados have been angered by Hedges’ claims of discovery, because the snake has long been known to locals in the area. The decision to name the snake Leptotyphlops carlae after his wife Carla has not gone down well on the island.

“If he needs to blow his own trumpet … well, fine,” said 43-year-old Barbadian Charles Atkins. “But my mother, who was a simple housewife, she showed me the snake when I was a child.”

“How dare this man come in here and name a snake after his wife?” said the writer who identified themselves as Margaret Knight.

Hedges’ has responded through the Associated Press, stating that whilst he sympathises with the Barbadians, standard scientific practice is for the first person to fully analyse and describe a species to name it. He pointed out that mostly newly “discovered” species are indeed well known to locals, and establishing a genetic profile in the laboratory is essential the true meaning of a new species discovery.

Who is in the right here? It’s a tricky one. There don’t seem to be any reports of a local Barbadian name for the snake, so whilst the existence of the snake may have been common knowledge, it appears that there was no thought as to whether it was particular member of one species or another. Having said that, if I saw a small snake in my back garden I’d probably think “hmm, interesting” and then not give it another moments thought. I certainly wouldn’t start checking out herpetology books in an attempt to discover a new species.

This lack of formal classification is precisely why a scientist needs to step in and do the hard work. I’m sure if there is a Barbadian name for the snake that people will continue to use it, because Leptotyphlops carlae is quite a mouthful. Oh, and apologies for the alliterative title. I just couldn’t help myself.

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