New Breed of ‘Deadly’ Snake ‘Stumbled Upon’ in Australia

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • A deadly new breed of venomous snake known as a 'bandy-bandy' has been discovered in Australia
  • The discovery holds significance not just as documenting a new snake species for the biology books, but because venoms are rich sources of compounds that have been used to develop new medications
  • There are five subspecies of bandy-bandy snakes, but while some experts say their bite may be potentially deadly, others report their fatal potential to be as yet unknown
  • Bauxite, a rock from which the world sources most of its aluminum, is mined extensively on the west coast of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula where the new bandy-bandy snake was discovered
  • The scientists who discovered the new snake subspecies have applied for it to be granted protected status, which would require area bauxite mine operations to avoid destroying its habitat

The fact that it was “stumbled upon” seems a little unnerving, but that’s how a team of biologists from Australia’s University of Queensland describes their accidental encounter with a previously unknown snake species “hiding in plain sight,” according to the Daily Mail Australia.1

Scientists on the hunt for sea snakes near Weipa, a mining town on the west coast of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, spotted the never-before-seen snake species sunning itself on a concrete block by the sea, according to Bryan Fry, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, and the team leader.

After seeing it initially, one of Fry’s students looked at the snake more closely and found it to be visually distinct compared to other snakes found on the continent’s east coast and parts of the interior. It turned out that it was genetically distinct, as well.

It’s actually a new subspecies of bandy-bandy, a pervasive family of burrowing snakes, which is why the scientists considered the discovery surprising. Generally speaking, the bandy-band is a nocturnal, subterranean snake breed exclusive to the Land Down Under, and usually conceals itself under logs and rocks.

Exclusive to Australia, the hoop-snake, another name for the main species scientifically labeled Vermicella annulata, is black with white or yellow rings and “packs a venomous bite,” Daily Mail says.2 A 1980 study3 describes the female snake as much larger than the males at just over 3 feet, but both are generally smaller than their sole prey, the Typhlopidae or “blind” snakes of the genus Ramphotyphlops.

The New Subspecies of Bandy-Bandy Snake: Vermicella Parscauda

The team found another specimen in its natural habitat near the same area, and another killed by a car close to the mine. Two more were found in museum collections, obtained from the same relatively small area. To date, that makes a total of five specimens of the species; the latest one is known as Vermicella parscauda. According to the study published in Zootaxa in mid-July of 2018:

“Mitochondrial DNA analysis … and external morphological characteristics indicate that the closest relatives of the new species are not V. annulata, which also occurs on Cape York, but rather species from Western Australia and the Northern Territory (V. intermedia and V. multifasciata) which, like V. parscauda, occupy monsoon habitats.

Internasal scales are present in V. parscauda sp. nov. (species nova), similar to V. annulata, but V. intermedia and V. multifasciata do not have nasal scales. V. parscauda sp. nov. has 55-94 black dorsal bands and mottled or black ventral scales terminating approximately two-thirds of the body into formed black rings, suggesting that hyper-banding is a characteristic of the tropical monsoon snakes.”4

Queensland snake catcher Brydie Maro reportedly compared the toxicity of the bandy-bandy’s venom to that of a red-bellied black snake, causing pain at the bite site and swelling around the wound and victims’ surrounding joints, as well as tingling and numbness of extremities.

However, C/Net has a slightly different opinion. “In a twist on the script, the snake may be in much more danger from humans than we are from it.” According to officials at the Queensland Museum, bandy-bandy snakes are venomous, but they don't pose a big threat to people.

The venom of the newest species is not yet well-known, and in the area, there’s only been a single instance of snake-bite, and the symptoms were described as “moderately severe.”5

After the initial encounter, “We later discovered that the snake had slithered over from a pile of bauxite rubble waiting to be loaded onto a ship,” Fry says, explaining that bauxite, a material from which the world’s largest source of aluminum is derived, is the reason mining is a major economic activity on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula.

But according to Fry, “[It] may be reshaping the environment to the detriment of native plants and animals.”6 According to a news release from The University of Queensland, the ink hadn’t even dried on the research paper describing the Vermicella parscauda before it became evident that the scientists’ exciting new discovery could be in grave danger.

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Why Is the New Snake Subspecies Important?

Soon after the snake was discovered, Fry and his colleagues said the Vermicella parscauda could already be at risk of extinction and immediately publicized the “urgent conservation concern” by applying for the new bandy-bandy to be granted protected status, which, if granted, would impact area mining companies’ future activities.

It would mean they’re required to avoid destroying its habitat and consider the welfare of the species. That’s a significant problem, because discoveries like the new bandy-bandy species are more than just another type of snake to write down for the sake of biology, Fry contends.

One reason why is that venoms are rich sources of beneficial compounds, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that, as has happened in the past, the venom might be useful. According to Fry:

“Every species is precious and we need to protect them all, since we can’t predict where the next wonder-drug will come from. The discovery of this enigmatic little snake is symptomatic of the much more fundamental problem of how little we know about our biodiversity and how much may be lost before we even discover it.”7