A remarkable discovery has been made in a remote area of the Italian Alps: a new species of viper that has quite possibly been hiding in plain sight for many, many years.
You see, that region of the Alps is also home to a snake called the common European adder (Vipera berus). This new species looks remarkably similar to V. berus, enough so that people probably confused the species and assumed they were the same thing.
Well, no more. A paper published last month in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research finds that the new snake—which has been dubbed V. wasler—has several small morphological differences from the common species, most notably a greater number of scales on various parts of its body.
But the differences beneath the surface are even more important. The researchers—from Museo delle Scienze and other institutions—found that V. wasler has significantly different genetics than the common adder and all other Western European vipers. Its closest genetic relatives, in fact, are actually two viper species living far away in the Caucasus Mountains.
Genetic tests also revealed that the viper experienced a rather severe genetic bottleneck at some point in the past, limiting its current genetic variability.
As for its distribution, the researchers found that the new species doesn’t have a very large range—less than 500 square kilometers, with just two main sites, each in high-rainfall valleys. The nearby common adder, by comparison, ranges throughout Western Europe and into Eastern Asia. The two species live close-by to each other but their ranges do not appear to overlap.
The researchers conclude that this new species should be considered endangered based on its restricted range and limited genetics. Although the vipers currently appear to be fairly populous, new dangers could emerge. The most pressing threat seems to be the fact that the snakes like open areas but the region where they live is slowly become reforested now that the agriculture that previously took place in the area has moved on. The researchers also express some fear that overzealous snake collectors will descend upon the area and start snatching the new species up for sale on the pet trade, as we’ve seen with other newly discovered species.
There’s also climate change. As one of the paper’s authors, Stuart Marsden of Manchester Metropolitan University, recently blogged, the new viper’s habitats could face severe impacts from changing weather patterns. “Its current habitat is restricted to just a few valleys, which experience some of the highest rainfall in the Alps. Climate models indicate that in the next 20 years, these valleys will become far wetter and warmer. Research on how the viper might be able to react to climate change is a priority.”
As all of the researchers conclude in their paper, protecting this new viper will require protecting its habitat and letting people know that they have something special in their midst. “Involvement of local authorities, foundations and other stakeholders will be crucial in realizing effective protection of this species,” they wrote.
The good news, though, is that now we knew this species exists. After all, it’s a lot harder to save a species that remains hidden. Now it’s in the open and conservation work can hopefully begin.
Previously in Extinction Countdown:
- Shiny, Metallic Snake is a Critically Endangered New Species
- Found: A Snake Species No One Believed Existed
- Have You Seen This ‘Extinct’ Snake? Snapping a Photo of It Alive Could Be Worth $500
- Endangered Species Status Sought for ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Rattlesnakes
- Killer Fungus Targeting Endangered Rattlesnakes