Researchers Discover What Could Be The Largest Species Of Cobra In The World

The new species looks very similar to the forest cobra pictured, but is longer and has fewer white scales on its belly. Steve Slater/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Josh Davis 28 Sep 2017, 10:16

A highly venomous snake has been plaguing islanders off the coast of West Africa leading residents to kill on sight what has long been thought of as an invasive species. Unfortunately for them, this cobra turned out to be an entirely new species, which so far is only known to live on the island itself.

The serpent was originally thought to have been an invasive forest cobra, brought over from the mainland to the island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, and thus targeted as a pest. But new research, which involved morphological and genetic testing, has revealed that it is an entirely new species of snake, and is native to the little island.

The forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca) is a large snake native to the forests of West and Central Africa. It can reach lengths of up to 3 meters (10 feet) and is considered the largest cobra in the world. The island variety, now named Naja peroescobari, is thought to reach an even greater size. It also differs from the forest variety by having fewer white scales on its jet black body, the authors report in Zootaxa.

The locals had a very good reason for eliminating what has until now been thought of as an invasive species. The venom of the forest cobra is seriously powerful, and the snake is rated as the fourth most venomous true cobra in the world. After being bitten, medical attention is critical, as death can occur within just half an hour of envenomation.

The snakes are highly aggressive when backed into a corner and deliver a large dose of venom when they strike, giving them their deadly reputation. The venom of the cobra is severely neurotoxic, meaning that it inhibits the action of nerve cells. This can lead to drowsiness, limb paralysis, inability to speak, cardiac arrhythmia, and eventually death. Symptoms typically manifest themselves 15 minutes to 4 hours after a bite, depending on where it is and how much venom is injected.

So it is little wonder why the animals have long been seen as a pest, and why the government was about to proceed with a nationwide elimination strategy. Unfortunately, it now seems likely that the cobra has been living on the island for a pretty long time, and rather than being persecuted, it should probably be protected.

[H/T: New Scientist]

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