A deadly novelty snake was discovered after spending decades disguised as a much less dangerous species, according to researchers – who named the snake after a shape-shifting snake goddess from a Chinese folk tale.
The new species is a type of krait snake native to southwest China and northern Myanmar and was previously categorized as the multi-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctusHowever, morphological and genetic differences, as well as a particularly painful and deadly bite, were enough to classify this reptile as its own species.
The researchers named the new snake Suzhen’s krait (Bungarus suzhenae) to Bai Su Zhen – a powerful snake goddess from a traditional Chinese myth.
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“It’s very dangerous,” researcher Gernot Vogel of the Society for Southeast Asian Herpetology in Germany told Live Science. “Because kraits are extremely deadly, understanding their species diversity and geographic distribution is essential to saving human lives.”
Researchers hope the new classification will enable local communities to identify the deadly snake and avoid potentially fatal interactions, and help scientists develop a new antidote to treat Suzhen’s krait bites.
New snake species
Kraits have long been a nightmare for taxonomists. Suzhen’s krait was one of four different species that until recently were collectively referred to as one species called multi-band kraits. The species are all predominantly black and white and look very similar at first glance, but Suzhen’s krait has a distinct number of bands on its body and is longer than the other species.
“Our longest specimen was 135.5 centimeters [4.5 feet] but part of the tail was missing, so it was certainly bigger than 150 cm [4.9 feet]Vogel told Live Science in an email. We can expect a length of approximately 180 cm [5.9 feet]
Other subtle differences were found in the teeth, coloration on the underside of the tail, and the shape of the hemipens – the snake equivalent of a penis, which is split into two parts – in men, Vogel said.
One of the main reasons researchers became aware of Suzhen’s krait was the bite. Although most kraits are toxic, not all are deadly, and being bitten by a multi-banded krait is usually painless and does not cause visual marking. However, a bite from a Suzhen’s krait is painful, leaves a dark stain around the bitten area and can be fatal.
A legendary snake
Suzhen’s krait gets its name from one of China’s most famous folk tales: the legend of the white snake. In this story, the snake goddess Bai Su Zhen assumes human form and falls in love with a man, but this is forbidden by the gods and she is locked up in a tower forever. As such, Bai Su Zhen is considered a symbol of love and kindness in Chinese mythology.
This story has been retold in many different formats, including a Netflix original series of the same name, but Suzhen’s krait is the first snake to be named after the shape-shifting snake goddess.
“The black and white banded krait [Suzhen’s krait] is one of the snakes that most closely resemble the white snake in nature, so we decided to name it after Bai Su Zhen, “the researchers said in a statement
An important discovery
Suzhen’s krait is extremely dangerous due to a combination of its deadly venom and, so far, anonymity among other krait snakes in Asia.
Suzhen’s krait is believed to be responsible for a number of high-profile incidents involving herpetologists, including the death of famed snake researcher Joseph B. Slowinski in 2001 after being bitten by one of them. More recently, Chinese herpetologist Mian Hou survived being bitten in 2015 after being rushed to hospital.
However, the local population is most at risk of being bitten. “Krait species are nocturnal and often enter homes in search of food,” said Vogel. “So often sleeping people are bitten touching the snake while they sleep.”
Hopefully, the classification of Suzhen’s krait as its own species can help raise awareness and accelerate the development of a treatment.
“With an adequate description and classification of deadly snakes, research on venom, the development of antidotes and the proper treatment of snake bites may advance faster,” said Vogel.
The study was published online April 6 in the journal ZooKeys
Originally published on Live Science.