Professor uncovers species in Honduras

Copyright Jeremy Hartley/The Penn
The remains of captured snakes displayed.

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor has expanded the list of known species through his work in Central America.


Josiah Townsend, biology professor, recently published several research articles describing two new species of pit vipers and a new species of salamander discovered in Honduras and the surrounding countries in Central America.


The species were discovered in cloud forests. Also called mossy forests, cloud forests are found in tropical mountain regions and are often covered by low-level clouds just at treetop level.


Things that live on one mountaintop can’t get to another mountaintop, Townsend said, so in some cases these species have been isolated for millions of years.


Townsend will first identify a site to gather samples, often forests that have never been explored before.


It’s expedition-type research, he explained. It’s usually a three or four day trip up, first by mule, then by hiking.


Once Townsend and his crew reach a site, they camp there for one or two weeks collecting all the samples they can find. They will take genetic samples, such as a few scales or the tip of a tail, or sometimes a complete animal.


“A lot of the work is driven by genetic research,” Townsend said.


Upon return, Townsend will use DNA bar coding and sequencing to determine the sample’s gene markers.


Those markers can then be compared to other species similar to the sample. If the markers don’t match any known animals, he knows he has a new species.


Once that is determined, an official paper is written describing the genetic and physical differences of the new species.


Many species are cryptic species, Townsend said, which means the physical differences are very small. Once an animal is confirmed to be genetically different, then we can reevaluate the physical traits.


This approach is the opposite of how new species used to be determined. Previously, species were grouped by how they looked. If they looked the same, they were the same species.


Once a species can definitely be separated genetically, it makes physical differences easier to find, especially in smaller animals such as salamanders.


Townsend explained he doesn’t consider the work he does to be particularly dangerous, even though he works with venomous pit vipers. In order to catch the snakes, he uses tongs or a snake hook.


“I’m not one of these showman types who catches venomous snakes with his bare hands,” he said. “We’re very safe about it.”


Townsend hopes to get IUP students involved in taxonomy. A first year faculty, he was attracted to IUP because “they want undergrads and graduate students working on this sort of thing.”


The projects he is working on would lend well to honors projects for undergrads or thesis projects for graduate students.


He also wants to bring IUP students along on sample-gathering missions.