Another New Spitting Cobra Discovered

When staff at the Reptile House in London Zoo thought they had an unidentified species of cobra on their hands, they turned to an expert in snake species identification- Dr Wolfgang Wüster of the University of Wales, Bangor’s School of Biological Sciences for assistance.

Dr Wüster, who has been involved in the identification of three other new snake species, agreed with keepers at the Zoo that this spitting cobra species was different to the red spitting cobra which it was originally thought to be, and to any species already identified, in its shape, size and markings. Having conducted DNA analysis on a small sample of scale, Dr Wüster confirmed that this was a new species.

The snakes had been given to London Zoo as part of an illegal pet trade confiscation, so it was not clear from where they originated. Detective work by Dr Wüster, in collaboration with the well-known Zimbabwean herpetologist Donald Broadley, established that they came from specific areas in Egypt, the Sudan, Chad, Niger and Eritrea. As the majority of documented specimens came from southern Egypt and the Sudan, an area once called Nubia, they have now been classified as Naja nubiae or Nubian Spitting Cobras. The snakes are still at London Zoo, and have bred since being there.

As Dr Wüster explains, “More work now needs to be done to establish a few facts about this species. We have established that they come from densely populated fertile lands in the Nile valley, so for conservation reasons, we need to establish how large the population is, over what areas they are scattered, and whether they are endangered. As they live so close to areas of human habitation, we also need to test their venom to see if it is compatible with antivenoms that are administered for other cobra species in the region. Venom can vary between different species of cobra, or even within a single species.”

Terry March, Team Leader of Reptiles at London Zoo, said: “Working very closely with the animals here in the Reptile House we noticed subtle differences when the animals arrived, and collaborating with Dr Wüster has led to a new species of cobra being identified. To then see the snakes successfully breed makes it even more significant as there is so little known about the species and much too learn”.

Dr Wüster, who lectures in Zoology at the University’s School of Biological Sciences is an expert in reptile taxonomy or species identification, and the evolution of venom in snakes.

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