"Extinct" Vipers, Other Reptiles Uncovered in Iran

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 20, 2004

During their expeditions to Iran in the mid-1970s, Swedish zoologists Göran Nilson and Claes Andrén of Göteborg University were amazed to find dozens of unknown amphibians and reptiles.

Then came the 1979 Islamic revolution, which put Iran off-limits to Western scientists. The researchers had no choice but to take their work elsewhere.

"In the back of our minds, we always hoped to come back to Iran to continue our work," Andrén said.

In 2000 they got their chance. Narullah Rastegar-Pouyani—an Iranian student at Göteborg University who was doing his dissertation on Iran's reptiles—arranged for the two scientists to get back inside the country.

Two expeditions in 2000 and 2002 did not disappoint. In addition to finding ten more lizards and snakes, the scientists were thrilled to find an isolated population of vipers (Vipera latifii). Zoologists had feared that the species had gone extinct when a new dam had flooded the viper's habitat in the late 1970s.

The scientists also collected 82 species of the 230 amphibians and reptiles that were known to exist in Iran.

Today the scientists continue to analyze the data and specimens they collected. Funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, the research will piece together a better picture of Iran's herpetofauna (the diversity of amphibians and reptiles) to help ensure its future protection. While 20 percent of the reptiles in Iran may still be undiscovered, some species may have already gone extinct.

"The only way we can face this problem is to describe the species and put a name on them. Otherwise we cannot argue for their protection," Nilson said.

Scorching Heat

Nilson and Andrén have carried out more than 50 different expeditions to remote locations around the world in the last 35 years. Iran, however, proved particularly challenging.

Much of the focus of the research—Iran's central plateau and the surrounding mountain ridges—is extremely remote. Some places also get very hot. In the Persian Gulf area temperatures would soar to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) in the shade, keeping reptiles out of the sun and out of view.

Add to that some treacherous minefields (a remnant of the Iran-Iraq war), the reckless driving habits of some Iranians, and the country's strict laws against the use of alcohol.

Continued on Next Page >>




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