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Newly Discovered Black and Yellow Viper is Already Endangered

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  A remote, mountainous forest in southwestern Tanzania is the only place where Matilda’s Horned Viper (Atheris matildae) resides.  Described as a new species in the December, 2011 issue of Zootaxa, the boldly-colored, arboreal snake seems limited to 100 square miles of somewhat degraded habitat. 

Natural History

Named for the daughter of one of the researchers who discovered it, Matilda’s Horned Viper is stoutly built, sports horn-like scales above the eyes and is highly-adapted to life above ground. 

I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of its brightly colored relatives, but this did not prepare me for the new species’ amazing appearance; the effect of the black and yellow zigzag pattern is hard to describe (please see article below for additional photos).  I’m not sure if these colors serve as a predator deterrent or as camouflage in sun-dappled forest clearings, but look forward to reading future reports on its natural history.

Bush Viper Diversity

The forests in which Matilda’s Horned Viper lives are separated from others by open grasslands, which effectively isolate the snake from related species.  Genetic studies have revealed its closest relative to be the Usambura Bush Viper (Atheris ceratophora), from which it likely evolved some 2 million years ago. 

An additional 16-17 Atheris species, commonly known as “Bush Vipers”, range throughout Sub-Saharan Africa (please see article below).  With a single exception, they have prehensile tails and are highly-arboreal.  Many are brilliantly-colored, and populations of a single species may vary greatly in appearance from others of their kind.  Five species inhabit Tanzania, but their ranges do not overlap that of Matilda’s Horned Viper.

Endemics Galore

Tanzania is chock full of species found nowhere else on earth, known as endemics – 64 reptiles, 55 amphibians, 24 mammals, 108 freshwater fishes, 19 birds – and surveys are far from complete.  Tarantula enthusiasts also know it as a country of unique, unstudied spiders.  Please see the article below for a complete list of Tanzania’s endemic reptiles.

Conservation Strategies

Rare, beautiful snakes, even venomous ones, are worth a great deal of money.  With this in mind, the exact location of the new species’ habitat is a closely-guarded secret, and a captive population has been established as a hedge against extinction. 

In a surprising twist on traditional conservation techniques, researchers have announced that captive-born young, if produced, may be offered to collectors free-of-charge. It is hoped that this will deter the taking of wild individuals.  Odd perhaps, but “desperate times require desperate measures” – after all, prohibitions on hunting rhinos and other valuable animals have proven largely ineffective in much of Africa.

CITES I and IUCN Critically Endangered designations have been proposed for Matilda’s Horned Viper as well.

Other New Vipers

Ngorongoro Crater2011 was a banner year for viper researchers, with several new species being described.  Please see the article below for more on Ruby-Eyed Vipers and other surprising finds.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Abstract of article describing the new species

More photos of Matilda’s Horned Viper

Newly Discovered Yellow and Ruby-Eyed Vipers

Tanzania’s Endemic Reptiles

Bush Vipers: species and ranges

 

Atheris ceratophora image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Al Cortiz
Matilda’s Viper image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Christine Dell’Amore

Ngorongoro Crater image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by William Warby

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Very interesting article! I have always been fascinated by Vipers. I was dying to see at least one when I went to Costa Rica last summer, but unfortunately they remained hidden. Hopefully they can keep on surviving, and the new conservation startegies work out

  2. avatar

    Hello Conner,

    Thanks for your interest and kind words. I was lucky enough to see a Fer-de-Lance in Costa Rica, mainly because I was working in somewhat open country; in forested areas, I also missed out. In my youth, the Staten Island Zoo exhibited every known rattlesnake species and subspecies, under the direction of Carl Kauffeld. A few years ago I worked on the renovation of their reptile house, and we went back to a focus on rattlesnakes; let me know if have a chance to visit.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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