Tech & Science

Snake That Can Stab Sideways With Fangs Sticking Out Corner of Its Mouth Discovered

Researchers have discovered a new species of snake in West Africa that relies on an unusual method for inflicting pain on its victims.

An international team identified three specimens of the animal—named Atractaspis branchi—in the rainforests of southeastern Guinea and northwestern Liberia, according to a study published in the journal Zoosystematics.

It belongs to a family of snakes known as Atractaspidinae—otherwise known as mole vipers, burrowing asps or stiletto snakes—which have a unique skull anatomy and fangs sticking out the sides of their mouths that they can use to deliver venom via a sideways stabbing motion.

In the vast majority of cases, stiletto snake venom is not powerful enough to kill a human. However, it has the potential to inflicting serious damage, causing severe pain, swelling, blistering and tissue damage that can lead to the victim losing a digit, according to the African Snakebite Institute.

Because of their unique venom delivery system, stiletto snakes are almost impossible to hold safely in the usual way (with fingers behind the head) without being bitten. They are even capable of stabbing with the independently protruding fangs while their mouths are closed.

There are currently thought to more than 20 species of stiletto snake, most of which are found in sub-Saharan Africa—although two are native to the Middle East. The burrowing animals live in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from semi-deserts to rainforests.

The new species is thought to mainly live in rainforests, or the edge of rainforests, and be endemic to the Upper Guinean forest area—a region of rich biodiversity, albeit one that is facing numerous man-made threats.

The research team found the specimens during surveys they were conducting in the region. They spotted the first at night on the banks of a small rocky creek in a lowland evergreen rainforest in Liberia. While they were trying to collect the snake, it reportedly jumped a distance that was almost as long as its entire body. The other two specimens, meanwhile, were found in banana, cassava and coffee plantations in Guinea.

“Further surveys are needed to resolve the range of the new snake species, and to gather more information about its ecological needs and biological properties,” the authors wrote in the study.

The researchers named the new species in honor of Professor William Roy Branch, a world-renowned South African reptile expert who passed away in October 2018.

Atractaspis branchi, Branch's Stiletto Snake Close up of the the first discovered specimen of the newly described species (Atractaspis branchi or Branch's Stiletto Snake) in its natural habitat. Mark-Oliver Roedel

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