Five new species of fantastic eyelash vipers discovered in remote Colombia and Ecuador

Just one species of eyelash viper sounds cool – the prominent spiky scales above their eyes give them a distinctive and, dare we say it, iconic look. Now, after a decade of research, the number of species is about to multiply as researchers have discovered that what was thought to be one species of eyelash viper is actually five.

The impetus for this discovery was that one of the study’s authors, Lucas Bustamante, was bitten by a member of one of the new species – not very nice for the researcher we imagine, but great news for science. The team also found that the ‘eyelashes’ seen on vipers appeared to vary in length and style across different populations, indicating that what was believed to be the eyelash palm pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) might actually be more than one species.

From then on, the researchers spent 10 years examining museum specimens, location data and DNA data from individual eyelash vipers found in the cloud forests and jungles of Colombia and Ecuador.

Black and yellow variant of Hussain's Eyelash-Pitviper sitting on a branch

Black and yellow variant of Hussain’s eyelash pit viper.

Image credit: Alejandro Arteaga (CC BY)

Their analysis revealed what is likely a complex of five very similar, but different species of eyelash vipers. Shah’s (B. rasikusumorum), Klebba’s (B. klabbai), and Khwarg’s eyelash pit viper (B. Khwargi) is believed to be endemic to the Eastern Cordillera of Colombia, found among cloud forests and coffee plantations. Rahim’s (Bothriechis rahimiThe eyelash pit viper, on the other hand, is found on the Colombia-Ecuador border in the Chocó rainforest, while Hussain’s (B. Husseini) is found in the forests bordering Ecuador and Peru.

All species are considered polychromatic, meaning they come in a dazzling array of colors that are believed to blend in with different ambush sites. Even within the same species it is possible to find a turquoise, golden and even ‘ghost’ form. “No two individuals are the same color, not even those belonging to the same nest (yes, they give birth to live young),” Alejandro Arteaga, who led the study, said in a statement.

Coffee variant of Klebba's eyelash pit viper.

Coffee variant of Klebba’s eyelash pit viper.

Image credit: Elson Meneses (CC BY)

The vipers are not only beautiful, but also pack a punch. All the new species are poisonous, but fortunately for Bustamante, not as bad as some of their relatives. “The venom of some (perhaps all?) new viper species is significantly less lethal and hemorrhagic than that of the typical Central American Eyelash Viper,” says Bustamante, who was bitten in 2013.

“I occasionally experienced local pain, dizziness and swelling, but recovered shortly after receiving three doses of antivenom in less than two hours after the bite, without leaving a scar.”

While the variety of colors and a pinch of a researcher’s finger may be exciting parts of the story, the researchers’ main message is that the new species must be protected; Four out of five are considered at high risk of extinction.

“The need to protect eyelash vipers is critical because, unlike other snakes, they cannot survive without adequate canopy cover,” says Arteaga. “While their beauty is worth celebrating, it must also be carefully protected and controlled, as poachers are notorious for targeting charismatic tree vipers for the illegal trade in exotic wildlife.”

It is hoped that further research, especially into the venom of the new species, will help raise awareness of the situation and promote the conservation of this colorful and unique group of reptiles.

The study was published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.

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