- While researching sea snakes in the mining town of Weipa in Australia’s remote Cape York Peninsula, a team of biologists chanced upon a black and white snake that’s new to science.
- The venomous snake, now named Vermicella parscauda, belongs to a group of snakes called bandy bandies that live in burrows and feed on a specialized diet of blindsnakes.
- So far, the team has found only six individuals of the new species in the Weipa area, a site with large-scale bauxite mining, which could suggest that the burrowing snake might be in trouble.
A team of biologists researching sea snakes in the mining town of Weipa in Australia’s remote Cape York Peninsula have accidentally discovered a venomous snake that’s new to science.
The black-and-white snake, now named Vermicella parscauda or the Cape York bandy-bandy, belongs to a group of snakes called bandy-bandies that live in burrows and feed on a specialized diet of blind snakes. So far, scientists know of only five species of bandy bandies, all found in Australia. The hoop snake (Vermicella annulata) is the most commonly encountered bandy-bandy, the researchers report in a study published in Zootaxa.
Since bandy-bandies are burrowing snakes, the sight of a small one on a concrete block by the sea surprised Bryan Fry, an associate professor at the University of Queensland, and his colleague Freek Vonk from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.
“We later discovered that the snake had slithered over from a pile of bauxite rubble [that was] waiting to be loaded onto a ship,” Fry said in a statement.
Fry’s team found another snake of the same kind near Weipa, and spotted another dead individual that had been run over by a car near the bauxite mine. They found two more specimens of the snake in museum collections, resulting in five specimens from the same small area.
“On examination by my student, Chantelle Derez, the bandy-bandy turned out to be a new species, visually and genetically distinct from those found on the Australian East coast and parts of the interior,” Fry said.
The team has so far found only six individuals of the Cape York bandy-bandy in the Weipa area. This site has large-scale bauxite mining that involves extensive digging, which could be affecting the naturally burrowing bandy-bandy, the researchers write. However, the team is yet to do a detailed assessment of the abundance, distribution and potential threats to the species.
“Bauxite mining is a major economic activity in the region, and it may be reshaping the environment to the detriment of native plants and animals,” Fry said.
“Every species is precious and we need to protect them all, since we can’t predict where the next wonder-drug will come from,” he said. “The discovery of this enigmatic little snake is symptomatic of the much more fundamental problem of how little we know about our biodiversity and how much may be lost before we even discover it.”
Chantelle M. Derez, Kevin Arbuckle, Zhiqiang Ruan, Bing Xie, Yu Huang, Lauren Dibben, Qiong Shi, Freek J. Vonk, Bryan G. Fry. A new species of bandy-bandy (Vermicella: Serpentes: Elapidae) from the Weipa region, Cape York, Australia. Zootaxa, 2018; 4446 (1): 1 DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4446.1.1