New highly venomous snake species discovered in Australia

28 August 2015

Kimberley death adder, Acanthophis cryptamydros

The viper-like Acanthophis cryptamydros has a diamond-shaped head and stout body. © Ryan Ellis, Western Australian Museum.

A team led by a Natural History Museum scientist has discovered a new species of highly venomous Australian death adder in the Kimberley region of the country.

Researchers say there are likely to be more undescribed species of adder in western Australia, but the snakes are under threat from an invading wave of poisonous toads.

The Kimberley death adder, Acanthophis cryptamydros, is a ‘sit-and-wait’ predator, staying camouflaged until it can ambush any passing frogs, lizards or small mammals. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words kryptos (cryptic, hidden) and amydros (indistinct, dim).

Like other species in the Acanthophis genus, the deadly snake has a diamond-shaped head and stout body, but can be recognised by the slightly higher number of scales on its underbelly, which are typically unpigmented.

Kimberley death adder, Acanthophis cryptamydros

The new species has unpigmented scales on its underside, except for one to three rows of spots © Ryan Ellis, Western Australian Museum

The team, which included researchers from Bangor University and the Western Australian Museum, identified the new species while researching the genetics and ecological characteristics of snakes living in the Kimberley region.

Family resemblance

‘Surprisingly, the snakes it most closely resembles aren’t its closest genetic relatives,’ says Simon Maddock, the PhD student at the Natural History Museum and University College London, who led the study.

This could mean that similarities between the Kimberley death adder and others in the region came about through evolutionary convergence, where species that aren’t close genetic relatives end up with the same traits because they share similar environments.

It’s not clear how many Kimberley death adders there are in the wild, Maddock says, but they’re ‘probably quite rare’. 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.

Under threat

Like other death adders in the region, Acanthophis cryptamydros is under threat from an invading wave of highly poisonous cane toads making their way westward across Kimberley.

‘It looks like populations of death adders in general are declining in the area,’ Maddock says, ‘and there are records of them eating these poisonous cane toads. It’s potentially a big threat.’

The cane toads could be moving west at a rate of 40 to 60 kilometres each year, according to analyses by scientists at the website. Maddock and his team think that a detailed assessment of potential threats to the Kimberley death adder, including cane toads, will lead to its listing as a species requiring protection under Australian state or federal legislation.

  • By Liam Proud

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