New species of viper identified
A group of Bangor University scientists have featured in the National Geographic this week following their discovery of two new species of snake in Southeast Asia.
The group, led by Dr Anita Malhotra at Bangor’s School of Biological Sciences, published a paper in the journal Zootaxa detailing their discovery of the ruby-eyed green pit viper and another similar species with yellow eyes called the Cardamom Mountains green pit viper. The two species have been identified as a separate species to the big-eyed pitviper (Cryptelytrops macrops) thanks to over twelve years of work in the field, detailed analysis of physical characteristics, and genetic analysis. This is a vital element asphysical characteristics can be very similar between a wide range of species.
The work was led by Dr Malhotra, in collaboration with Professor Roger Thorpe and Dr Bryan Stuart (who at the time was a PhD student at the Field Museum in Chicago, but is presently Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, USA). However, much of the genetic work was undertaken by student Mrinalini as part of her PhD at the School of Biological Sciences.
Dr Malhotra explains: “The big-eyed pit viper is quite variable in colour pattern across its range, so it was difficult to decide whether the striking eye colour seen in the ruby-eyed pit viper, and the more subtle differences in the Cardamom mountains pit viper, were sufficient reason to define them as new species. We spent several years working on the genetics of the group to be sure that they did indeed represent distinct species, so this paper represents the culmination of 12 years work by the whole group.”
Dr Malhotra added: “Our discoveries are important because species with smaller ranges are much more vulnerable to extinction. Identifying these species is the first step towards protecting them: it means that people know what is out there to protect. While some pit viper species seem to adapt quite well to the presence of man, others are more restricted to forested environments. Depending on the species, the main threats are habitat destruction and over-collecting. The vast majority of the latter is for use in traditional medicines, but in the case of very attractive species like the ruby-eyed pit viper, targeting for the captive trade could also be significant.”
“The next step for the project is to identify other species and we are collaborating with groups all over Asia to do this. We are also looking at the snakes’ venom and how this is affected by lifestyle and evolutionary relationships.”
Bangor’s Molecular Ecology and Evolution of Reptiles research group are world leaders in their field.
Publication date: 29 March 2011