Photograph by Arthur Tiutenko
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The newfound viper species' small size may allow it to cope with mountain living. 

Photograph by Arthur Tiutenko

Snake Roadkill Is New Species of High-Altitude Viper

A squashed snake on a road in Kyrgyzstan is a venomous pit viper unknown to science—and there are likely more to be found, experts say.

A piece of roadkill peeled off a mountain road in southern Kyrgyzstan has led to the discovery of a new species of viper.   

Though the dead snake was too mangled to draw any firm conclusions, herpetologist Philipp Wagner admits, it wasn’t long before another showed up in much better shape.

“The first one we found was roadkill and it was really, really flat, so we weren’t able to identify it, but the second specimen, that was alive,” says Wagner, of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.  (See "New Pit Viper Found—One of World's Smallest.")

Wagner was part of a National Geographic Science and Exploration in Europe expedition that found the new pit viper, dubbed Gloydius rickmersi, during a 2013 wildlife survey in the remote Alai mountain range (map).

The discovery was unexpected, since reptiles generally have a hard time scraping out a living in the harsh mountain environment of about 9,800 feet (3,000 meters), Wagner says.

“Only around a dozen reptile species are known here,” he adds. “The period when animals can breed is only three or four months a year. It was two weeks after we got the snake that we had the first snow, and that was in September.”

Tough Customers

Even so, pit vipers—which have two heat-sensing “pit” organs on their heads for detecting prey—already have a reputation for being tough customers.

Part of a venomous group that includes rattlesnakes and copperheads, pit vipers can live in a range of habitats, from deserts to tropical rain forests to bare mountain slopes more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) high. (Also see "Pictures: New Horned Viper Found in 'Secret' Spot.")

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In the case of G. rickmersi, Wagner suspects the snake’s relatively small size of about 20 inches (50 centimeters) enables the cold-blooded creature to heat up quickly.

Thicker and longer snakes "wouldn’t get enough body temperature to survive at these higher elevations.” (See snake pictures.)

The newfound snake does seem to have one vulnerability, however, as evidenced by the squashed specimen. 

“The number of fresh roadkills was very high in relation to the few cars driving around,” says Wagner, whose study appeared in the January issue of Amphibia-Reptilia. “Probably it was a bit warmer there on the road, and as it was late in the year, this was enough to be attractive.” But Gernot Vogel, an independent herpetologist based in Heidelberg, Germany, points out that roads in the area are stony, not asphalted, so they should be no warmer than the surrounding rocky, treeless landscape.

Snakes on a Road

Instead, Vogel suspects that the expedition team collected mostly roadkill specimens because the newfound pit viper is nocturnal, as are other pit vipers. 

“They didn’t look for them at night,” when the snakes are active, says Vogel, who wasn’t involved in the new find. “The snakes were run over at night and they found them in the daytime.”

Vogel, who has described eight new pit viper species, says G. rickmersi belongs to a poorly researched group of half a dozen or so closely related species found across the vast, dry highlands of Central Asia, Russia, China, and Mongolia.

“These areas are under-collected, and there aren’t many researchers,” Vogel said. “Surely there will be more species.” (See "Pictures: New Ruby-Eyed Pit Viper Discovered.")

Indeed, Wagner may have another unknown species up his sleeve from the same Kyrgyz expedition.

 “It’s an agamid lizard, which is only found at these high elevations ... starting at 3,000 meters [9,800 feet] and going up to 5,000 meters [16,400 feet] or more.” 

Seems pit vipers aren’t the only reptiles that like the high life.