Australia is famous for its enormous variety of toxic or venomous creatures, and now scientists have added a new snake to its roster: Acanthophis cryptamydros, or the Kimberley death adder (named after the region of Australia it comes from).
For decades, scientists believed that all of the death adders in Western Australia were members of the same species. However, during a survey of the local serpents, scientists discovered that the Kimberley death adder was not only a separate species, but has more in common with desert death adders than its closest genetic relatives, which typically live in forests and woodlands.
“These snakes are super-camouflaged – its idea is to look like a rock or a bunch of leaves,” herpetologist Paul Doughty, who helped identify the snake, tells Oliver Milman for The Guardian. “Unlike a brown snake they aren’t designed for speed at all, they are quite slow. They use their tail like a lure, they will dangle it down while it’s hidden until a lizard or something comes close and then it will strike.”
The orange snake can grow up to two feet long and has diamond-shaped heads and scales, which allow it to blend in with cracked desert soil and rocky terrain, according to a paper published in the journal Zootaxa. It’s also incredibly venomous and is reportedly one of the top 10 deadliest snakes in the world (all of which live in Australia). But while researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom discovered that the Kimberley death adder ranges throughout the region it is named after, the snake itself is far from common.
“It’s not clear how many Kimberley death adders there are in the wild, but they’re probably quite rare,” lead author Simon Maddock tells Sci-News.com. “And given the number of new species found in Kimberley recently – including frogs, lizards and many plants – it’s likely to be just one of many currently undescribed snakes in the west of Australia.”
In recent years, The Kimberley, located in the north western part of Australia, has been a treasure trove for scientists hunting new species. Since 2006, researchers examining the region’s wildlife have uncovered six new frog species, several new kinds of gecko and the world’s smallest goanna, Milman writes.
“The Kimberley is an isolated corner of Australia with relic species clinging on for millions of years. There is a huge untapped diversity that we’re just getting a handle on,” Doughty tells Milman. “I could easily point to 20 or 30 specimens we have here that haven’t been described. I won’t run out of things to describe from the Kimberley in my career and my successor won’t run out either.”
So far, researchers have reported only one live sighting of a Kimberley death adder in the wild and it’s possible that the snakes’ territory is being threatened by fire, feral cattle and Australia's ever-present cane toad plague.
“It looks like populations of death adders in general are declining in the area,” Maddock said in a statement. “And there are records of them eating these poisonous cane toads. It’s potentially a big threat.”
Given the snake’s sneakiness though, explorers in The Kimberley might want to watch where they step.