Thursday, June 20, 2024

Indiana Jones hates snakes, but a new species is named after Harrison Ford

Edgar Lehr and other researchers were looking for lizards in a swamp atop a Peruvian mountain last year, when they started to fear their lives, were in danger.

First, they unexpectedly encountered a snake near the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers. Then a drone appeared and started following the four researchers, who suspected dangerous cartels operating in the region — known as Peru’s “cocaine valley” — were keeping an eye on them.

“This felt like being in an action movie,” Lehr told The Washington Post.

In fear of being kidnapped or killed, the researchers said they shortened their trip and departed on a helicopter — along with the snake they had spotted.

Lehr later examined the snake and found it was an undiscovered species. He was stumped about what to name it until June, when a trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie reminded him of his travels to Peru.

Lehr, 54, thought it would be fitting to name the species after the actor who plays Indiana Jones, a character known for his snake phobia, in the action movie series. On Tuesday, researchers unveiled Tachymenoides harrisonfordi — a 16-inch snake named in honor of Harrison Ford — in the journal Salamandra.

“Harrison Ford is, for me, the only name that would work,” said Lehr, a biology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Ant and spider species have already been named after Ford, but a snake is perhaps most suitable for his roles in the five Indiana Jones movies.

“These scientists keep naming critters after me, but it’s always the ones that terrify children,” Ford, 81, said in a statement. “I don’t understand. I spend my free time cross-stitching. I sing lullabies to my basil plants, so they won’t fear the night.”

Tachymenoides harrisonfordi, the snake named after Harrison Ford, has copper-colored eyes. (Edgar Lehr)

The researchers traveled to Otishi National Park in the Vilcabamba mountain range in May 2022 to search a grassland that had not been fully explored. The park — which has a peak that’s 10,656 feet high — is accessible primarily by air, and Lehr said he and his colleagues paid to ride in a Peruvian armed forces helicopter.

A week after their arrival, the researchers found a yellow, brown and black snake with copper eyes sunbathing in a swamp. Lehr said it was one of the only snakes he has found in an area of high elevation.

But the researchers soon felt frightened in a region that the U.S. State Department has ruled unsafe for travelers. Two days after discovering the snake, the researchers said they heard unfamiliar voices on their radio frequency while they spoke on walkie talkies and later saw footprints around their encampment. One morning, Lehr said he awoke to a buzzing noise and found a drone hovering above him.

About two weeks into the voyage, Lehr and his colleagues decided to call it quits. On the day of their departure, he slipped through mud as he ran toward a helicopter that eventually dropped the group off at a military base before they flew back to the United States.

When researchers returned to their lab with the snake, they confirmed via genetic analysis that it was a new species. Lehr wrote a research paper about the snake over the next year but had not settled on a name — until he saw a trailer for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

The trailer brought back memories of watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — the first Indiana Jones movie — as a teenager in a Frankfurt, Germany, theater around 1981. Jones’s journeys across the world in search of treasures and to defeat Nazis inspired Lehr to one day explore the world for animals.

Last month, Lehr contacted Conservation International, a Virginia environmental nonprofit group. Ford, the vice-chair of the organization’s board, said he was okay with the snake being named after him, Lehr said.

On Tuesday, Lehr celebrated the study’s publication by watching the new Indiana Jones movie. He is one of a few scientists to recently name a species after a celebrity.

“A species that is dedicated to such a famous actor creates public awareness,” Lehr said. “I want people to know that there are still new species that have to be discovered.”

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