Whitman College Associate Professor of Biology Kate Jackson was part of a team of scientists who published a research paper recognizing the African forest cobra, once thought to be a single species, as five separate species, two of which are described as new species.
Jackson, a herpetologist (snake expert), worked with colleagues from around the world, including faculty from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and the University of Texas at El Paso, to document their discoveries.
"My contribution to this project was collecting forest cobras in northern Congo, an area which turned out to be especially interesting because I collected what we now know to be two separate species," explained Jackson, who lived to tell the tale after being bitten by a cobra herself in 2006 while conducting field research in a remote corner of the Republic of Congo.
"In other parts of Africa, these two species can be distinguished from one another by their patterns, but in northern Congo I collected both species and the patterns were so alike that they were only shown to represent different species when the DNA was sequenced in Wolfgang Wüster's lab in Wales," she continued, noting, "But it is important to remember that the snakes can tell the difference and recognize another snake as not from their own species ... otherwise, they would interbreed."
Wüster, a herpetologist at Bangor University's School of Natural Sciences, said in a statement that "the fact that such an iconic snake can contain five cryptic species hiding in plain sight shows how much more there is to be discovered about the natural world. Unfortunately, even as we are making these discoveries, individual species will be disappearing before we even know they exist."
Cobras are among the most widely known venomous snakes. Before the discovery of the new species, forest cobras were not considered threatened; however, as this research reveals, what was thought to be a single widespread cobra species is, in fact, five separate ones, some far less common than others. Both the Black Forest Cobra and West African Banded Cobra are newly named in the paper.
According to Wüster, "The findings raise more questions about their status and the steps which need to be taken to safeguard their conservation."
This is not the first time Jackson has helped uncover a new species of snake. She also created an online database, Snakes of Western and Central Africa, as a guide to identifying snakes to the genus level. Her book of the same name with physician Jean-Philippe Chippaux, who specializes in tropical medicine, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Over the years, Jackson has collaborated with students from Whitman as well as the Université Marien Ngouabi in Brazzaville, training one doctoral student there to become the country's first herpetologist.