Most people have never heard of the Albany adder—a small, venomous snake native to South Africa with a brilliantly patterned body and pointy eyebrows. The extremely rare reptile hadn't been seen in almost a decade, and scientists feared it was extinct—until now.
A team of herpetologists recently announced the discovery of a lifetime—four Albany adders, alive and well.
The expedition had set out last November to find the long-lost snake, and after a week of scouring bushes, lifting up rocks, and cautiously peeking into holes, team member Michael Adams spotted a six-inch-long female slithering across the road. (See "Pictures: New Horned Viper Found in 'Secret' Spot.")
“We were literally jumping up and down hugging.”
A Serpent of Mystery
What's even more amazing is the team found four live animals—only 12 individuals have been recorded since the species was identified in 1937. (The scientists did find a fifth snake that had been killed by a vehicle.)
However, the species is still thought to be exceedingly small in number.
“I certainly think it’s among the most threatened globally,” says Bryan Maritz, a regional coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Viper Specialist Group who wasn't part of the recent expedition. (Also read: "New Venomous Snake Found: Death Adder Hiding in Plain Sight.")
Habitat loss is likely the biggest issue for the snake, which has only been found in a few small patches of mixed shrub and thicket. What’s more, the serpent’s range may be shrinking.
“There are historical records for nearby areas, but those populations are considered extinct as no one has found a specimen in those areas for upward of 40 years,” says Maritz, also a herpetologist at South Africa's University of the Western Cape.
Mining, urbanization, and traffic may also be harming the species, as the roadkilled snake suggests.
The precise place where the Albany adders were found is being kept secret as a precaution against poaching. While the species has never been observed on the black market, there’s no reason to tempt fate.
“If collectors did find out where and how to locate them, it could be a real threat to the species,” says Maritz. (See "Snake Wine and Other Wild Souvenirs to Avoid.")
Now the hard work begins: For instance, experts know virtually nothing about the snake’s diet, reproduction, or behavior.
“No one has ever been bitten by an Albany adder, so no one really knows the potency of the venom,” adds the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Smith. (See National Geographic's stunning snake pictures.)
With the knowledge that the Albany adder has not gone the way of the dodo, the conservation groups are working to secure its future by buying up as much of its remaining habitat as possible.
“The idea is if you can protect the habitat," says Smith, "then everything else will sort of continue along.”