- Graduate student Evan Buechley, and his colleagues, spotted the new species first in 2013 inside Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park.
- Based on Buechley’s photographs, a team of scientists re-examined a museum specimen of a similar-looking snake at London’s Natural History Museum, and confirmed that the snake is a new species of Bitis viper.
- The team has named the new species Bitis harenna after the Harenna forest in Bale Mountains National Park where Buechley photographed it.
While driving through Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park in 2013, graduate student Evan Buechley of the University of Utah, and his colleagues, spotted a black-colored snake with pale-yellowish markings. The driver stopped the vehicle, and the team photographed the one-meter long snake. To date, these are the only known photographs of what scientists say could be a new species of venomous Bitis viper.
Based on Buechley’s photographs, a team of scientists decided to take a closer look at the museum specimen of a similar-looking snake at London’s Natural History Museum. The snake had been collected in the 1960s, and was thought to be a differently patterned individual of the venomous Ethiopian viper Bitis parviocula.
Re-examination of the specimen revealed that it was not the same as Bitis parviocula: there was differences in its color patterns, the structure of its skull and its head proportions and the number of scales.
Now, in a study published in Zootaxa, researchers have confirmed that the snake is most likely a novel species of Bitis viper. The team has named the new species Bitis harenna after the Harenna forest in Bale Mountains National Park where Buechley first photographed it.
Researchers say that very little in known about Bitis harenna. So its conservation status is likely to be “Data Deficient based on IUCN Red List Criteria”.
“As far as we know, biologists have only once seen this snake in the wild,” lead author David Gower of London’s Natural History Museum, said in a statement. “It is not yet clear whether the species is extremely rare, or is simply secretive and rarely encountered. The only photos were taken as it was disappearing into the undergrowth — at the time, the team that chanced upon it didn’t realize it was such an important sighting.”
But the team speculates that, like other large venomous snakes, Bitis harenna is likely to face persecution in Ethiopia. Moreover, the snake’s survival is possibly threatened by increasing urbanization and agriculture, they write.
“The only known precise locality for B. harenna sp. nov, the Harenna escarpment of the Bale Mountains, is within a National Park but is also under great environmental pressure by human modification of habitats,” the authors add. “Thus, we suggest there should be urgent concern about the well being of this species in the absence of evidence to the contrary.”
The other Bitis viper in Ethiopia, B. parviocula, is traded as a pet in Europe and North America, according to the paper. But like B. harenna, it is poorly understood.
“Much more research is needed to locate populations of Bitis harenna and to learn about the biology of these two viper species,” Gower said.
- Gower et al. 2016. A new large species of Bitis Gray, 1842 (Serpentes: Viperidae) from the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia. Zootaxa 4093(1). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4093.1.3