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After Mistaken Identity, A New Venomous Snake is Discovered

A cryptic, previously unknown venomous snake–the Talamancan Palm-Pitviper–has been discovered in a remote region of Costa Rica after being mistaken for a closely related snake for over 100 years.

The pitviper, a slender green and black marked snake that rarely grows to be more than 24 inches long, lives in trees in a 100 km area in the north of the Talamancan Cordillera of Costa Rica. And while Costa Rica’s rich diversity is believed to be home to a large number of undiscovered species, the Talamancan Palm-Pitviper’s discovery was something of an accident.

The first clue that the previously unknown snake may be hiding in relatively plain sight came in 2001, when graduate students at the University of Central Florida were conducting a genetic analysis of the palm-pitviper clade. In the course of their analysis they noticed that there were snakes that looked like the known Black-Speckled Palm-Pitviper, but that had marked genetic differences.

The Black-Speckled Palm-Pitviper, which does look really very similar.

The Black-Speckled Palm-Pitviper, which does look really very similar.

However, given that the snakes live in remote areas at high altitude, gathering samples for further study posed something of a challenge. In order to conduct the DNA studies necessary to determine that the Talamancan Palm-Pitviper was indeed a distinct species in need of a name, UCF professor Christopher Parkinson examined collections from the University of Texas at Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Discovery Research Center and museums across Costa Rica.

And now, having determined that we do indeed have another new species of pitviper, researchers are curious as to just what we might learn from its venom, as researchers increasingly look to snake venom for the development of pharmaceutical drugs.

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Additionally, the Talamancan Palm-Pitviper’s doppelganger has been found to possess a toxin called nigroviriditoxin, which was previously only thought to be carried by rattlesnakes-which raises a question as to whether or not the pitviper evolved to carry the same toxin completely independently of rattlesnakes, or whether something else has happened in their evolution.

As Parkinson said in a statement:

This discovery highlights the necessity for strong conservation initiatives. There’s no telling what other species are yet to be found and how they might benefit mankind.