A new species of viper-like snake discovered in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia is highly venomous and expertly camouflaged. Called Acanthophis cryptamydros, the Kimberley death adder is a sit-and-wait predator – ambushing frogs, lizards, and small mammals passing by.
A team led by Simon Maddock from London’s Natural History Museum discovered the new species after analyzing mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of Australian death adders in the genus Acanthophis. Previously, populations from the Kimberley region of Western Australia were thought to be the same species as those occupying the Northern Territory.
The back of this 65-centimeter (26-inch) long snake is a pale orange-brown with 33 dark bands. Like others in its genus, the new snake has a diamond-shaped head and a stout body. But in addition to its unique mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences, the new death adder can also be distinguished by the slightly higher number of cream-colored scales on its underbelly. These scales are unpigmented except for one to three rows of spots.
Its range within Western Australia extends from the grassy, shrubby woodlands of Wotjulum in the west and Kununurra in the east, and it also occurs on some offshore islands including Koolan, Bigge, Boongaree, Wulalam, and an unnamed island in Talbot Bay. “Surprisingly, the snakes it most closely resembles aren’t its closest genetic relatives,” Maddock said in a statement. The team’s mitochondrial DNA analysis indicates that it’s closely related to the desert death adder, A. pyrrhus, and not the Northern Territory death adders, A. rugosus. Similarities between the Kimberley death adder and others in the area may have come about through evolutionary convergence: They ended up with the same traits because of their similar environments.
It’s unclear how many Kimberley death adders there are in the wild, but according to Maddock, they’re probably quite rare. “It looks like populations of death adders in general are declining in the area,” Maddock added, “and there are records of them eating these poisonous cane toads. It’s potentially a big threat.” The highly invasive and troublesome toads are making their way westward across Kimberley.
Ryan Ellis/Western Australian Museum