New species of venomous snake discovered in endangered Mexican cloud forests

Scientists say they’ve discovered a new species of horned pitviper in the critically endangered cloud forests of the Sierra Madre Oriental in Jalisco, Mexico, and determined that another pitviper is indeed a unique species.

New species of venomous snake discovered in endangered Mexican cloud forests
  • The new snake was named the emerald horned pitviper (Ophryacus smaragdinus) for its bright green color and the two horn-shaped scales above its eyes.
  • So much of the snake’s mountainous habitat has been destroyed due to logging and agricultural activities in the region that the newly discovered species is described as “highly vulnerable” by the scientists who found it.
  • Known to scientists from only four specimens collected on the same mountain, the broad-horned pitviper (Ophryacus sphenophrys) was first discovered more than 50 years ago but dismissed as being a new find.

Scientists say they’ve discovered a new species of horned pitviper in the critically endangered cloud forests of the Sierra Madre Oriental in Veracruz, Mexico, and determined that another pitviper is indeed a unique species.

So much of the snake’s mountainous habitat has been destroyed due to logging and agricultural activities in the region that the newly discovered species is described as “highly vulnerable” by the scientists with Mexican non-profit organization Biodiversa and research group HERP.MX who found it.

The snake was named the emerald horned pitviper (Ophryacus smaragdinus) for its bright green color and the two horn-shaped scales above its eyes, which the researchers say they do not yet know the purpose of. The pitviper is referred to as a torito by locals, Spanish for little bull.

“It’s alarming that in developing countries like Mexico there is the very real risk that we’re losing species before they are even discovered,” Christoph Grünwald, Biodiversa’s president and lead researcher, said in a statement.

Calling the new pitviper “a prime example of a ‘near miss,’” Grünwald added, “The Emerald Horned Pitviper occurs primarily in Veracruz, which is Mexico’s most deforested state. To make matters worse, all of the snake’s known habitat falls outside of the few protected areas that exist.”

Hector Franz, Biodiversa’s field logistics lead, said that it’s not just snakes that he’s worried about: “Mexico, unfortunately, leads the world in the number of threatened mammal species — and these remnants of pristine cloud forest are home to many of them.”

High-profile species like jaguars and jaguarundis as well as a number of endemic rodents, salamanders, and birds are all threatened by habitat loss from human activities in the mountains of eastern Mexico, Franz said.

In addition to discovering the emerald horned pitviper, the researchers also established for the first time that another snake, the broad-horned pitviper, is indeed its own unique species.

Known to scientists from only four specimens collected on the same mountain, the broad-horned pitviper (Ophryacus sphenophrys) was first discovered more than 50 years ago but dismissed as being a new find. After analyzing the specimens with newer technologies, however, the Biodiversa and HERP.MX researchers found that it was not only its own species but “the rarest venomous species in the entire country.”

The broad-horned pitviper, like the emerald horned pitviper, is probably facing incredible pressures from habitat loss as well, the scientists suggest.

“In interviewing with locals it’s fairly clear that this species is more abundant than the number of known specimens would suggest,” Grünwald said.

“That said, we’re still talking about a snake that has only ever been found on a single mountain — and does not occur in the surrounding areas. Additional studies are needed to determine the true level of risk here.”

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The emerald horned pitviper (Ophryacus smaragdinus) in its habitat. Photo by Biodiversa / HERP.MX.
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The emerald horned pitviper (Ophryacus smaragdinus) in its habitat. Photo by Biodiversa / HERP.MX.
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The emerald horned pitviper. (Ophryacus smaragdinus). Photo by Biodiversa / HERP.MX.
Ophryacus-smaragdinus
The emerald horned pitviper (Ophryacus smaragdinus) in its habitat. Photo by Biodiversa / HERP.MX.
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The broad-horned pitviper (Ophryacus sphenophrys). Photo by Biodiversa / HERP.MX.

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