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02-12-2024

Five stunning new species of 'eyelash vipers' discovered

In a remarkable stride in herpetology, a new study unveils the discovery of five new species of eyelash vipers, found within the lush jungles and cloud forests stretching across Colombia and Ecuador.

This discovery, made by a team of scientists from the Khamai Foundation, marks a significant advancement in our understanding of biodiversity in these regions.

The mystique of eyelash vipers

Historically, these stunning snakes were misclassified as variants of a single species that ranged from Mexico to northwestern Peru.

However, a ten-year research endeavor, sparked by an incident where a researcher was bitten by one of these then-unknown snakes, has corrected this oversight.

Eyelash vipers are distinguished by their unique scales above the eyes, resembling eyelashes, which give them a particularly striking appearance.

The functional purpose of these “lashes” is still a mystery, though their variation has led scientists to speculate about the existence of undiscovered species within this group.

Nature’s polychromatic prowlers

What makes eyelash vipers particularly fascinating is their polychromatic nature. Within a single habitat, one might find vipers in shades of turquoise, moss, or gold, with no two snakes sporting the same color pattern, even among siblings.

Alejandro Arteaga, the study’s lead researcher, emphasized this diversity, noting the existence of “Christmas,” ghost, and even purple morphs among these vipers.

“No two individuals have the same coloration, even those belonging to the same litter (yes, they give birth to live young),” says Arteaga.

This wide array of colors likely aids in their survival, allowing them to blend into various surroundings, from mossy branches to vibrant yellow flowers.

The study highlights three species endemic to Colombia’s eastern Cordillera, including the Rahim’s Eyelash-Pitviper, found in the challenging terrains of the Chocó rainforest, a region notorious for its access difficulties due to drug cartel activities.

Another species, the Hussain’s Eyelash-Pitviper, resides in the forests of southwestern Ecuador and northwestern Peru. These findings underscore the critical need for conservation efforts in the Andes mountain range and its valleys, a hotspot for biodiversity yet to be fully explored.

Facing venom with valor

Lucas Bustamante, a co-author of the study, shared a personal account of being bitten by the Rahim’s Eyelash-Pitviper, noting that while the venom of these new species appears less lethal than that of their Central American relatives, it still poses a significant threat.

His experience underlines the importance of understanding these creatures for both conservation and medical purposes.

“The venom of some (perhaps all?) of the new species of vipers is considerably less lethal and hemorrhagic than that of the typical Central American Eyelash-Viper,” says Bustamante.

Alarmingly, the study concludes that four of the newly identified species are at a high risk of extinction, with up to 80% of their habitats already destroyed.

Protecting the Andes’ hidden jewels

This urgent situation calls for immediate conservation action to preserve what remains of their natural environments.

In honor of their significant contributions to global biodiversity conservation, two of the new species have been named after Prince Hussain Aga Khan and Prince Rahim Aga Khan.

Other species have been named in recognition of individuals like Casey Klebba and Dr. Juewon Khwarg, whose support has been pivotal in the discovery and protection of these vipers.

The Khamai Foundation is now in the process of establishing a reserve for a sixth new species, yet to be described, highlighting the pressing need to protect these snakes from threats like habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade.

“The need to protect eyelash vipers is critical, since unlike other snakes, they cannot survive without adequate canopy cover. Their beauty, though worthy of celebration, should also be protected and monitored carefully, as poachers are notorious for targeting charismatic arboreal vipers for the illegal pet trade of rare wildlife,” warns Arteaga.

The foundation, along with its researchers, is advocating for increased support in studying the venom of these new species, aiming to enhance conservation efforts and assist communities that live alongside these remarkable yet endangered creatures.

Future implications for eyelash vipers

In summary, the discovery of these five new eyelash viper species marks a significant milestone in the study of biodiversity, highlighting the rich, yet fragile ecosystems of Colombia and Ecuador.

By correcting previous misclassifications and revealing the intricate variations and ecological significance of these vipers, this research expands our scientific knowledge and underscores the urgent need for conservation efforts in the Andes.

Through honoring contributions to biodiversity protection and advocating for the study of venom, the team emphasizes the importance of safeguarding these unique species against extinction.

This endeavor underscores the critical balance between scientific discovery and conservation action, urging a collective effort to preserve the natural world’s hidden gems for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.

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