New species of fast-moving venomous snake discovered in Aussie outback

'It’s surprising how little we know about biodiversity in Australia.'

A new understanding of Australia’s complex desert ecosystems has been gained after a new species of snake was identified.

The reptile had surprisingly been hiding in plain sight and was simply thought to be another well-known type of whip snake. But Dr James Nankivell and his University of Adelaide team used a number of technologies to prove otherwise.

“We used a combination of physical specimens and visual observations, and of course DNA to sort of seal the deal,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

This is the Demansia cyanochasma holotype curled up on a black background.
This is the Demansia cyanochasma holotype – the specimen used to describe and name the new species. Source: James Nankivell

What makes this snake unique?

Its newly created scientific name Demansia cyanochasma refers to the signature blue-coloured body that differentiates it visually from its close relative, the reticulated whip snake.

“The colour difference is subtle, but it's definitely there. Our new species also always has an orange head and tail,” Dr Nankivell said. “Interestingly some of the reticulated whip snake populations have the orange too, but not all of them. That’s part of what caused the confusion.

Where is the snake found?

A glimmer of good news is that it’s thought to be abundant in Central Australia. Their presence there has led scientists to discover its reticulated cousin is limited to Western Australia, as observations outside of the state are now known to be the new species.

Although they’re reasonably common in towns like Alice Springs, you could blink and you’d miss one — they’re known to be highly elusive and fast-moving. “They’re quite hard to catch,” Dr Nankivell said.

Four pictures of Demansia cyanochasma in its natural habitat.
Four pictures of Demansia cyanochasma highlight its blue body and orange tips. Source: Brendan Schembri, Mark Sanders, Matt Summerville and Ray Lloyd

Is the snake dangerous?

Very little is known about whip-snake venom, but their bites although painful are unlikely to cause death in humans. “You’d have to go out of your way to get bitten,” Dr Nankivell said. “You’d probably have to actually pick one up as you’re pretty unlikely to just tread on one.

It poses the biggest danger to lizards, it's natural choice of food. And its also possible small dogs could be at risk if they attack a snake.

Quick facts about the new snake discovery:

  • It's found in Central Australia, parts of Western Australia, South Australia and southwest Queensland.

  • It can grow to around 90 centimetres.

  • It's active during the day.

Why does identifying a new snake matter?

While it’s common for new insects, spiders or even lizards to be identified, finding new snakes is much rarer. The last time one was identified was in 2021 — a new python called Antaresia papuensis that’s local to the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea.

“It’s surprising how little we know about the biodiversity of Australia. We've been doing work like this for many years and don't really know what's out there,” Dr Nankivell said.

“Our snake probably isn’t particularly threatened or anything, but you don't know that until you actually go and do the sort of basic work.

"I think there's intrinsic value in us understanding our natural environment. But of course, I would say that as a biologist."

The new research was published in the journal Zootaxa.

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