Snake from Ethiopia identified as new viper species

21 March 2016

Rare photograph of the viper Bitis harenna in the wild

The new snake species, Bitis harenna, has only been seen in the wild by biologists once. This is one of the few photos taken of it. © Evan Buechley, University of Utah

A team of scientists led by Museum researchers have identified and named a new species of viper, Bitis harenna, that lives in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park.

These snakes are mostly black with narrow pale markings, and they are thought to grow to about a metre in length.

All other species of Bitis have potent venom, making it likely that this newly discovered species is capable of giving a lethal bite to their prey or in defence.

A single sighting

Museum zoologist Dr David Gower, who led the study, says: 'As far as we know, biologists have only once seen this snake in the wild.

'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 realise it was such an important sighting.'

The Harenna Forest in Ethiopia

The new viper species was seen in the Harenna Forest, which lies on steep slopes in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia
 

The study, published today in the journal Zootaxa, involved researchers from the UK, Germany and USA. They have previously worked closely with Ethiopian colleagues, logging hundreds of hours of fieldwork studying the reptiles and amphibians of the Bale Mountains.

Despite the many hours the team have spent searching the area, both at night and during the day, the new species is known only from a single museum specimen, which was collected in the late 1960s.

Until the latest research, this specimen was thought to be an unusually patterned example of Bitis parviocula, a similar Ethiopian viper.

The sighting of the snake in the wild, in 2013, prompted the team of scientists to re-examine the historical museum specimen.

Micro-CT scanning carried out in the Museum’s Imaging and Analysis Centre revealed details of the skull that enabled the team to confirm the viper as a separate species.

It is distinguished by its unique colour patterns, the structure of its skull, and differences in its head proportions and number of scales.

Drawings of Bitis harenna

Drawings of the head of Bitis harenna
 

A threatened habitat

The new species is named Bitis harenna after the Harenna Forest, the part of the Bale Mountains National Park where it was observed.

This globally important National Park is a biodiversity hotspot, home to many species that are found nowhere else on the planet. It is also known as the last remaining stronghold of the Ethiopian wolf.

Sadly, the habitats of the Harenna Forest and other parts of the Bale Mountains National Park are under threat from cattle grazing and deforestation, with serious repercussions for the wildlife living there.

In another recent study, also led by Museum researchers, four frog groups unique to the region were discovered to have plummeted in number.

Cleared areas of the Harenna Forest in Ethiopia

Parts of the Harenna Forest have been cleared for cattle and housing
 

Dr Gower says, 'The discovery of the new viper further highlights the importance of protecting the natural environment in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.'

Unlike the elusive new species, Bitis parviocula is traded as a pet in Europe and North America. But it is also still poorly understood, with only three museum specimens known worldwide.

Dr Gower concludes, 'Much more research is needed to locate populations of Bitis harenna and to learn about the biology of these two viper species.'

  • By Katie Pavid

Related information

Related journal articles

Gower DJ, Wade EOZ, Spawls S, Böhme W, Buechley ER, Sykes D and Colston TJ (2016) A new large species of Bitis Gray, 1842 (Serpentes: Viperidae) from the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia. Zootaxa, 4093 (1): 41-63

Gower DJ et al (2013) Long-term data for endemic frog genera reveal potential conservation crisis in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Oryx, 47 (1): 59-69.

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