Cobras are one of the most widely known venomous snakes in the entire world, with lots of cultural references even far away from where they typically belong. The largest species of cobra is called the forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca), and this snake is endemic to Africa where it is found in the central and the western part of the continent.
A forest cobra with the classic cobra pose. Photo by Warren Klein, published with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The forest cobra can grow to be as long as 3 meters, is a great swimmer, is known to be highly adaptive to environmental changes, will eat anything it can fit into its mouth, and to top it all of, it has a venom that will cause a life-threatening emergency to humans who are bitten by it. All in all, this is not a snake you would want to get into contact with, but today we will be looking closer at the systematics of the forest cobra instead of its venom or ecological adaptability.
The forest cobra seems to be five species instead of a single one
We have been thinking of the forest cobra as a single species for a long time now, but a newly published research paper from Bangor University's School of Natural Sciences has shattered this belief. The research team, led by Herpetologist Dr. Wolfgang Wüster, looked at genetic data from forest cobras all around the African continent to map the genetic differences, and these differences ended up being a lot bigger than they had expected.
After analyzing the data, they conclude that there are five different species of forest cobras. Some of these are believed to be tied to rather small geographical ranges, so this discovery might actually be very important when it comes to the conservation of these animals. Forest cobras did not used to be a threatened species, but it's fair to estimate that some of these newly described species fit the requirements for being considered an endangered species that could use some type of protection.
The new five species are called:
- Naja melanoleuca.
- N. guineensis.
- N. peroescobari.
- N. savannula.
- N. subfulva.
These are just a few of very many species that has been suggested to be multiple species because of genetic data. There are several different ways to really define a species, and it's even more tricky when it comes to basing a species on genetic data. However, with the case of the forest cobras, there is no doubt; the genetic difference between these five new species is higher than the genetic difference between other cobra species, so we can say fore sure that they should be considered as five different species from now on.
A very small morphological difference
One might begin to wonder why no one has noticed that there are in fact five different forest cobras in Africa, especially when you consider the fact that these are commonly found in zoos and private collections, in addition to being frequently encountered in the wild. The reason behind it is actually pretty uninteresting; they simply look very much like each other.
There are a few minor morphological differences, including a difference in pattern and number of scales, but even trained herpetologists have a difficult time telling them apart without taking a genetic sample.
Up until now, these small morphological differences have just been looked at as being regional variations, but it now seems that these are indeed different among the different species of forest cobras.
There is also a geographical difference between the five species, but there are also overlays. Keep in mind that this is brand new information, so this could of course not be a hundred percent accurate.
The geographical distribution of the few new forest cobra species. By WOLFGANG WÜSTER et al.
Why does it matter that they are five different species?
Asking why it matters that they are five species instead of a single one is actually a good question. Firstly, I believe that improving science by itself is a great goal. The more we learn of the different animals in the world, the better it is for mankind. However, there are also two very practical applications to this new knowledge:
1) We can now map each species to learn how threatened they are
Some populations of forest cobras are currently facing a big pressure from the increasing bush meat industry, so it might be that one or more of these five species are actually a lot more threatened than we currently believe. We simply don't know yet. It would be sad if another species goes extinct, but now we at least have the tools to separate them and assess each species individually.
If either of these new species seem to be threatened, at least we can try to put up rules and regulations to try to prevent their decline and potential extinction.
2) We could potentially create better antivenom
A bite from a forest cobra can be lethal to humans, although there are other species of cobra that is considered more dangerous. However, all different cobra species so far has a different type of venom (not completely different, but enough to matter), so it seems likely that there is a difference in the venom of these five species as well. Again, if we are able to map the range of each species, learn about their venom, and create a specialized antivenom, then human lives could be saved.
This process will of course take a long time, but this is the very first step in creating such antivenoms. I am crossing my fingers that this new information will eventually lead to this result!
Thanks for reading
Thank you for checking out my post about the five different species of cobra. I hope you learned something new, and make sure to follow me for more posts like this.
WOLFGANG WÜSTER et al. Integration of nuclear and mitochondrial gene sequences and morphology reveals unexpected diversity in the forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca) species complex in Central and West Africa (Serpentes: Elapidae), Zootaxa (2018). DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4455.1.3.
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