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New viper species discovered in Ethiopia

A new species of viper from Ethiopia has been identified by a team of scientists led by Natural History Museum researchers.

These snakes are mostly black with narrow pale markings. The few photographs taken of a live Bitis harenna suggest they may grow up to a metre in length, although the a museum specimen is 65cm long. 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.

It is named Bitis harenna after Harenna Forest, the part of the Bale Mountains National Park where it was found. This threatened and globally important National Park is a biodiversity hotspot with many species found nowhere else on the planet. It is also known as the last remaining stronghold of the Ethiopian Wolf.

The study, published in Zootaxa today, was led by a team which included researchers from the UK, Germany and USA. They worked closely with Ethiopian colleagues on studying the reptiles and amphibians of the Bale Mountains, logging hundreds of hours of fieldwork in the region.

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 new species is known only from a single museum specimen collected in the late 1960s, and it was unclear whether it was a distinct species or a colour variant of the similar Ethiopian viper, Bitis parviocula. After scientists spotted it in the wild in 2013 they reanalysed the anatomy, revealing intricate details of the skull with MicroCT technology to confirm it as a separate species. The Museum’s Imaging Labs  are part of its  cutting-edge toolkit for describing the world’s life forms before they disappear.

Bitis parviocula is traded as a pet in Europe and North America yet it is poorly understood, with only three known museum specimens worldwide. Much more research is now needed to understand the biology of these two viper species.

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The Natural History Museum welcomes more than five million visitors a year and is a world-leading science research centre. Through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. It helps enable food security, eradicate disease and manage resource scarcity. It is studying the diversity of life and the delicate balance of ecosystems to ensure the survival of our planet.