After over a century of mistaken identity, we welcome the Talamancan palm-pitviper to the scientific community. Known about for more than 100 years, the new species of venomous snake had long been thought to be another that bears incredibly similar markings. But after conducting a DNA analysis on the snake, researchers were able to confirm that they were indeed looking at an entirely new species.
The two species of near-identical looking vipers are an example of what is known as "cryptic speciation". “It's a really interesting phenomenon,” explains Professor Christopher Parkinson, who led the team that made the discovery published in Zootaxa, in a statement. “It shows some of the complexities we deal with when cataloging biodiversity.”
The snake is thought to live in low densities at high altitudes in Costa Rica and are thus difficult to sample. The team, therefore, turned to historic museum collections to prove their suspicions that what was long thought to be one species was in fact two.
The newly named Talamancan palm-pitviper (Bothriechis nubestris) is the spitting image of the black-speckled palm-pitviper (Bothriechis nigroviridis). While the venom in the new species has yet to be studied, that found in the black-speckled is an evolutionary quandary. It was recently found to possess a toxin known as nigroviriditoxin, which up until that point had only ever been recorded in a separate group of rattlesnakes. This type of venom has not been seen in non-rattlesnakes before, which raises the question of whether there was a common ancestor that had the same toxin, or whether it evolved twice. It will be interesting to see if the Talamancan palm-pitviper follows suit.
“It's certainly an interesting question, because it gets at some of the fundamental concepts in evolution,” says Andrew Mason, a PhD student involved with the study. “We are really interested in seeing how the venom of this new species compares to other palm-pitvipers, and especially the black-speckled palm-pitviper because they are morphologically very similar.”
The researchers stress the importance of maintaining these collections in order to make such discoveries possible, and that the continual documentation of new species is vital for science and research. For example, the information they glean from the snakes' venom could lead to novel protein discovery and drug development.