The newly-discovered species, called the Kimberley Death Adder, belongs to Acanthophis, a genus of venomous snakes found in Australia, New Guinea and several islands belonging to Indonesia.
The Death Adder family is, true to their moniker, considered to be among the most venomous snakes in the world. Before antivenom was available, around half of the people bitten by Death Adders suffered paralysis and death.
Due to habitat destruction and the introduction of feral animals, such as cats and foxes, however, these dangerous snakes are now far more at risk from humans than the other way around.
Just like its cousins, the 60 cm-long snake has a diamond-shaped head with a distinctive scale formation, and exhibits a type of predatory behaviour known as “sit-and-wait” – i.e., staying camouflaged until an opportunity arises to ambush a passing frog, lizard or small mammal.
This is accomplished by staying completely still and dangling the tail as bait – since the snake is coloured like a rock or a bunch of leaves, its prey usually fails to see the danger lurking right ahead.
“Surprisingly, the snakes it most closely resembles aren’t its closest genetic relatives,” said lead author Simon Maddock of the Natural History Museum and the University College in London. The species of snake most similar to Acanthophis Cryptamydros (the Latin name for Kimberley Death Adder) is Acanthophis Pyrrhus, or Desert Death Adder, previously thought to be the same species.
The discovery was made while researching the genetics and ecological characteristics of snakes living in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, an area that has received a fair bit of attention in recent years due to its being the habitat of many currently unknown species of both flora and fauna.
Past research indicates that the range of Acanthophis extends from Wotjulum in the west, 45 km northeast of Halls Creek in the south, and Kununurra in the east. It is also known to occur on some offshore islands including Koolan, Bigge, Boongaree, Wulalam, and an unnamed island in Talbot Bay.
“It’s not clear how many Kimberley Death Adders there are in the wild, but they’re probably quite rare,” noted Maddock.
Moreover, given the high number of frog, lizard, snail and plant species recently discovered in the region, it is highly likely that the discovery of many more species of snakes are soon to follow.
The significance of the present paper lies mostly in its potential to stimulate further research into Acanthophis: “Although the genus is highly distinctive due to its convergent viper-like morphology and ecology, species limits within the genus have remained poorly understood, partly due to extensive polymorphism [the existence of several individual phenotypes within the same population] within many species and even populations,” state the authors in their paper, published in Zootaxa.