A team of researchers from around the world has announced that it has discovered a new species of snake in the Kimberly region of Western Australia. The new snake is thought to be a new species of Kimberley death adder, dubbed Acanthophis cryptamydro. The Latin name comes from the Greek word kryptos, meaning camouflage, and the Latin word amydros, meaning dull. The snake was named as it blends into the background and waits for passing prey before striking with highly toxic venom.
Unusually for snakes, death adders have strongly neurotoxic venom. This means the venom causes paralysis as opposed to cell death or blood loss which is more commonly found. The exact characteristics of the Acanthophis cryptamydro venom is not yet known but the venom from other species of death adders is known to be fatal in humans. Their main prey however are lizards and small rodents.
The snake bears strong similarity to many others found in the region but the researchers believe that this is not due to them being related, ‘Surprisingly, the snakes it most closely resembles aren’t its closest genetic relatives,’ says Simon Maddock, the PhD student at the Natural History Museum and University College London, who led the study.
Convergent evolution is the most likely reason for the similarity. Convergent evolutions is when animals start of as distinctly different, but evolve similarities due to living in the same environments and having the same selection pressures. A common example of convergence is the wings on bats and birds, both are similar structures with the same purpose but evolved through entirely different means.
Despite the snakes only just being discovered researchers believe that they may be endangered. The death adder is not alone in this however as many of Australia’s native snakes have become endangered recently. This is due to an invasive species of cane toad which is moving across the country at a rate of around 50km per year. The cane toads are highly poisonous but the snakes are unaware of this due to the toads being recent arrivals. The snakes predate upon the toads and die due to the poison.
‘It looks like populations of death adders in general are declining in the area,’ Maddock says, ‘and there are records of them eating these poisonous cane toads. It’s potentially a big threat.’ The toads were deliberately released to control the Australian Cane beetle which was damaging sugar crops. The toads soon got out of control however and have now spread throughout the country.
The research team believes that a detailed assessment of the snake and its habitat will likely lead to protected status for the snake due its rarity.