New species of snake capable of sideways strikes discovered in West Africa

Following a series of recent surveys in north-western Liberia and south-eastern Guinea, an international team of researchers found three stiletto snakes which were later identified as a species previously unknown to science.

The discovery, published in the open-access journal Zoosystematics and Evolution by the team of Dr Mark-Oliver Roedel from the Natural History Museum, Berlin, provides further evidence for the status of the western part of the Upper Guinea forest zone as a center of rich and endemic biodiversity.

Close up of the the first discovered specimen of the newly described species (Atractaspis branchi or Branch’s Stiletto Snake) in its natural habitat. Credit: Mark-Oliver Roedel

Curiously, stiletto snakes have unusual skulls and venom delivery system, allowing them to attack and stab sideways with a fang sticking out of the corner of their mouths. While most of these burrowing snakes are not venomous enough to kill a human – even though some are able to inflict serious tissue necrosis – this behaviour makes them impossible to handle using the standard approach of holding them with fingers behind the head. In fact, they can even stab with their mouths closed.

The new species, called Atractaspis branchi or Branch’s Stiletto Snake, was named to honor to the recently deceased South African herpetologist Prof. William Roy (Bill) Branch, a world leading expert on African reptiles.

Research article: A new stiletto snake (Lamprophiidae, Atractaspidinae, Atractaspis) from Liberia and Guinea, West Africa

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