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New bandy-bandy snake

Mining puts newly discovered snake in peril

Image credit: Bryan Fry

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia say a newly discovered species of snake could already be at risk of extinction, because of bauxite mining in its habitat.

The species of snake was discovered by a team of researchers at Weipa, on Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. The small snake is a type of bandy-bandy snake: a family of mildly venomous snakes with smooth scales forming a pattern of contrasting rings around their bodies.

“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 Professor Bryan Fry, who led the team that discovered the snake during their sea snake research. “We later discovered that the snake had slithered over a pile of bauxite rubble waiting to be loaded onto a ship.”

“The bandy-bandy turned out to be a new species, visually and genetically distinct from those found on the Australian East Coast and parts of the interior.”

Later, Fry’s team identified another specimen of the new species killed by a car near a mine, two more dead specimens in museum collections, and a photograph of another, totalling six observations in the same area.

However, snake enthusiasts’ celebrations may be short-lived, as Fry and his colleagues believe that the newly-discovered species could be at risk of extinction due to human activity in its natural habitat, specifically bauxite mining.

“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,” said Fry.

Bauxite is a rock with high aluminium content, rendering it the world’s primary source of aluminium (as well as a major source of the rare metal gallium). One of the world’s largest bauxite mines is located in Weipa, where the snake was discovered in these aluminium-rich surroundings.

According to the Queensland researchers responsible for its discovery, it is possible that this species and other newly-discovered species could have great value, so it is important to prevent them falling victim to extinction.

“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,” Fry continued. “Every species is precious and we need to protect them all, since we can’t predict where the next wonder-drug will come from.”

“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.”

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