Chameleon snake discovered in Borneo

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Scientists from the United States and Germany have discovered a new species of snake capable of changing it's colours, in the Betung Kerihun National Park on the island of Borneo.

Researchers Mark Auliya from the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Bonn and a consultant for the World Wildlife Federation(WWF), and John Murphy and Harold Voris from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were collecting specimens from the wetlands of the Kapuas river when they stumbled upon the snake's colour changing ability.

"I put the reddish-brown snake in a dark bucket," Auliya explained. "When I retrieved it a few minutes later, it was almost entirely white."

The ability to change colour is known from some reptiles, famously the chameleon, but scientists have seen it very rarely with snakes and are yet to understand the phenomenon. In chameleons, colour change is an expression of it's physiological condition. Skin color is also influenced by light and temperature.

The two snakes, initially brown with an iridescent sheen, are about a half metre long and venomous. The scientists named them the 'Kapus-Mud-Snake'.

They are believed to belong to the Enhydris genus, which is composed of 22 species of rear-fanged water snakes, only two of which are widespread. The scientists believe this newly discovered snake might only occur in the Kapuas river drainage system.

"The discovery of the "chameleon" snake exposes one of nature's best kept secrets deep in the Heart of Borneo." Said Stuart Chapman, WWF's international coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Programme. "Its ability to change colour has kept it hidden from science until now."

In the last ten years 361 new animal and plants species have been discovered on the island of Borneo, however, WWF says wildlife in the region is threatened by deforestation. Today, only half of Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s.

There is hope, however, that this trend can be halted. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia - the three governments which hold jurisdiction over Borneo - recently launched the Heart of Borneo initiative. This aims to preserve approximately 220,000km2 of equatorial forests and numerous wildlife species.