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Deadly new snake named after mythical Chinese goddess of healing

The new krait species Bungarus suzhenae. Photo by Dr Li Ding (CC-BY 4.0).
  • Researchers have described a new species of venomous snake, from one of the deadliest and most medically significant groups of snakes in Asia.
  • The Suzhen’s krait is found in rice fields and streams in monsoon forests in southwestern China and northern Myanmar.
  • Understanding the differences between lethal snakes provides essential information for antivenin development and proper snakebite treatment, the authors say.
  • The researchers chose to name the snake after Bai Su Zhen, a snake goddess from the popular traditional Chinese myth Legend of White Snake, “in honor of her courage to true love and kindness to people.”

Researchers have described a new species of venomous snake, from one of the deadliest and most medically significant groups of snakes in Asia.

The new reptile species, the Suzhen’s krait (Bungarus suzhenae), was previously grouped together with the many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus). However, after careful examination of the features and mitochondrial DNA sequence data from snake specimens collected between 2016 and 2019 from Yunnan province, China, researchers decided there were enough differences to warrant a new species. The findings are published in the journal ZooKeys.

The new krait species, Bungarus suzhenae. Photo by Dr. Li Ding (CC-BY 4.0).
An adult female Suzhen’s krait (Bungarus suzhenae). Photo from Chen et al 2021.

The Suzhen’s kraits are found in rice fields and streams in monsoon forests at elevations from 800 to 1,560 meters (2,600 to 5,100 feet) above sea level in southwestern China and northern Myanmar. A distinct number of bands, variations in its teeth, and the shape of its hemipenes, or male reproductive organ, distinguish it from other members of the krait family.

Understanding the differences between lethal snakes provides essential information for antivenin development and proper snakebite treatment, the authors say. Researchers believe it was this species of snake that killed famed herpetologist Joseph B. Slowinski during a 2001 expedition in northern Myanmar.

“Three species of the black-and-white banded kraits from China were previously put under the same name — many-banded krait, which would hinder appropriate medical treatment,” the authors said in a statement.

“It is very dangerous,” Gernot Vogel of the Society for Southeast Asian Herpetology in Germany and one of the study’s authors, told Live Science. “Because kraits are highly lethal, understanding their species diversity and geographic distribution is vital for saving human lives.

“Krait species are active at night and they often enter houses in search for food,” Vogel said. “So often sleeping people are bitten while touching the snake during their sleep.”

Artist rendering of the Legend of White Snake from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China. Photo by Shizhao via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The researchers chose to name the snake Suzhen’s krait, after Bai Su Zhen, a snake goddess from a popular traditional Chinese myth, the Legend of White Snake, “in honor of her courage to true love and kindness to people.”

As the legend goes, after years of practicing the Taoist arts, Bai Su Zhen transformed herself from a white snake into a woman.  She fell in love with a man, and together they operated a hospital, saving many lives. Their love, however, was forbidden by the gods and Bai Su Zhen was eternally imprisoned. She is now revered as a symbol of true love and healing.

Citation:

Chen, Z. N., Shi, S. C., Vogel, G., Ding, L., & Shi, J. S. (2021). Multiple lines of evidence reveal a new species of Krait (Squamata, Elapidae, Bungarus) from Southwestern China and Northern Myanmar. ZooKeys1025, 35-71. doi:10.3897/zookeys.1025.62305

Banner image of  new krait species Bungarus suzhenae. Photo by Dr Li Ding (CC-BY 4.0).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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