Australia has a brand new deadly creature, but it might not be around for long

17 Jul 2018

Close-up of the newly discovered species of bandy-bandy snake. Image: Bryan Fry

Australia is renowned for its array of deadly creatures, but the latest one to be discovered could already be facing extinction.

The sight of a Sydney funnel-web spider is enough to spread fear through anyone as one of the most venomous spiders in Australia. Now, a new deadly creature has just been discovered on the country’s western coast.

In a paper published to Zootaxa, a team of researchers at the University of Queensland revealed a new venomous species of bandy-bandy snake at Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula.

The discovery was made by chance while conducting research into sea snakes in the region. The creature is both visually and genetically distinct from its cousins found on the country’s east coast and part of its vast interior.

“Bandy-bandies are burrowing snakes, so Freek Vonk from the Naturalis Museum and I were surprised when we found it on a concrete block by the sea, after coming in from a night of sea snake-spotting,” said Prof Bryan Fry, who led the team.

“We later discovered that the snake had slithered over from a pile of bauxite rubble waiting to be loaded on to a ship.”

Need for conservation

The team later found another specimen in its natural habitat in Weipa, as well as another run over by a car close to the mine. After trawling through other examples in museums, a further two specimens were found as well as a photo of another, bringing the total known number to six.

But before those with ophidiophobia start to write off any visits to Australia’s west coast, it is worth noting that the researchers actually think the creature could be facing extinction before we’ve even had a chance to better understand it.

“Bauxite mining is a major economic activity in the region, and it may be reshaping the environment to the detriment of native plants and animals,” Fry said.

“The importance of such discoveries goes beyond simply documenting what is out there, as venoms are rich sources of compounds that can be used to develop new medications.”

He added: “The discovery of this enigmatic little snake is symptomatic of the much more fundamental problem of how little we know about our biodiversity and how much may be lost before we even discover it.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic