Congo Quest for New SpeciesAugust 13 2007
Follow the expeditions (from 2007-present) of evolutionary biologist and herpetologist Eli Greenbaum as he collaborates with an all-Congolese team of biologists to search for new species of amphibians and reptiles in remote jungles of Central Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Because scientific research of biodiversity in DR Congo has been severely limited for decades, the team discovers several new species during every expedition to the country, which have been occurring nearly every year since 2007. These exciting discoveries come with a heavy price—the team must navigate a gauntlet of rebel militia, deadly tropical diseases, dangerous animals, rugged terrain, and crumbling infrastructure. This blog will tell stories about the challenges and triumphs of scientific research under some of the harshest fieldwork conditions in the world. Along the way, we will shed light on unexpected connections between science and the humanities, including surprising historical links between DR Congo and the United States.
When conducting an expedition in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), one of the most poorly developed countries in Africa, and indeed the world, it is important to be very careful when working in remote areas. If one should have the misfortune to get bitten by a venomous snake, chances of receiving basic medical treatment are slim to none, and access to lifesaving antivenom for more serious bites is nearly impossible. Because of crumbling infrastructure and limited resources, reliable sources of electricity are nonexistent in vast areas of the country, including some cities. As a result, most of the country’s hospitals and clinics are unable to keep stockpiles of polyvalent antivenom that require cool temperatures, and bites from the most dangerous species often cause serious and permanent injuries or death. Johan Marais, author of several books about African snakes and snakebite (https://www.africansnakebiteinstitute.com/),,) remarked that freeze-dried antivenoms are available, and although they do not require refrigeration, they are often “highly inefficient.”
My Congolese colleague Chifundera Kusamba published a study in 1990 about snakebite in DR Congo, and after visiting several hospitals, he estimated that on average, 3,500 snakebites occur in the country every year, of which about 8% are fatal. However, most snakebite victims in the country cannot travel long distances to hospitals or afford medical expenses, and the actual number of snakebite victims is likely to be substantially higher. Chifundera’s paper also identified the most dangerous snakes in DR Congo.
In the deadliest Category 1, eight species of snakes that “commonly cause death or serious disability,” included three species of vipers (Puff Adders, Gaboon Vipers and Rhinoceros Vipers), three species of mamba, the black-necked spitting cobra, and the forest cobra. In a previous post for the Smithsonian (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/getting-venom-spat-your-eye-cobra-for-science-180967568/),,) I described the dire consequences of a spray of venom from a black-necked spitting cobra into the eyes of my Congolese colleague Wandege Muninga. But for today’s Nat Geo Open Explorer post, I thought I would focus on the forest cobras, including recently published collaborative work that has shed new light on the evolutionary relationships of these interesting serpents.
Equally at home on the ground, in the tallest trees, or in water, the forest cobra is a voracious hunter of mammals, other snakes, amphibians, fish, lizards, and birds. Muscular, quick, and cunning, forest cobras in captivity will time their escape attempts with an uncanny intelligence, and when cornered, they will spread their narrow hood as a warning, and if pestered further, will attack readily. They also engage in male-male combat, sometimes engaging in brawls with multiple individuals, and females lay 15–26 eggs.
Like many other species of dangerously venomous elapid snakes (including mambas, cobras, kraits, New World coral snakes, and many iconic snakes in Australia), the forest cobra’s venom packs a deadly punch of neurotoxic components. Forest cobras are the largest cobras in Africa, routinely reaching lengths of seven feet (2.2 m), and may actually get as large as 10 feet (3 m). Larger individuals with big venom glands have the potential to inject enormous quantities of their powerful venom. Victims experience swelling, giddiness, slurring of speech, muscular spasms, breathing difficulty, tremors, and fever. Death from respiratory paralysis can occur as quickly as 20 minutes.
During one of many expeditions to Congo Brazzaville (the other Congo that borders DR Congo’s western edge along the Congo River), my colleague and fellow herpetologist Kate Jackson (https://www.whitman.edu/newsroom/whitman-magazine/2012/july-2012/feature-the-green-issue/call-of-the-congo)) was chasing a black snake as it tried to retreat into a pile of bricks in a remote village. As she explained in her book Mean and Lowly Things, the juvenile snake, which turned out to be a forest cobra, seemed to bite her on her right thumb as she pulled it from the brick pile, leaving a worrying trail of yellow venom on her forearm. Not certain if she had actually been bitten, Kate had her Congolese colleague Ange Zassi-Boulou inject her with a special freeze-dried antivenom as a precaution, but when nothing besides stomach cramps ensued, she concluded that the cobra’s fang had not penetrated her skin. To say that she is lucky would be an understatement.
Luckily, despite a decade of looking for venomous snakes in DR Congo, nobody on my team has ever been bitten by a venomous snake, at least during an expedition, but we have experienced some near-misses. In the vast majority of cases when we have come across a venomous snake, it has already been dispatched by someone with a stick, or if we find one on a road, it has been flattened by the tires of a car. However, we have encountered some forest cobras in unexpected ways.
While working at the edge of Kibira National Park in Burundi in 2011, my Congolese colleague Mwenebatu Aristote appeared at the door of a small hut that was serving as my laboratory to inform me that an elderly pygmy had caught a snake alive. Wearing a patchwork of tattered rags that were once a flannel shirt and a pair of threadbare shorts, a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, and a smoldering pipe that dangled from the corner of his mouth, the barefoot man regarded me with curious and bloodshot eyes. Aristote translated that he had found a cobra wandering around the village, and somehow, he had trapped it in the hollow shaft of a piece of bamboo. A fistful of banana leaves had plugged up the end of the container, and eager to see the animal, my trusty snake handler Wandege Muninga unblocked the bamboo and spilled its contents onto the ground.
When a 2.5-foot long, black snake emerged and spread its hood in anger, the entire village erupted into a collective shriek, and Swahili screams of “nyoka,” the word for snake, resonated in frightened echoes around us. A photograph of this animal is shown below, and you can see the white spots that are typical for subadult individuals on its body. You can also see a glimpse of the cobra at about 8:30 on the Expedition Video. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this particular individual was an example of the poorly known Brown Forest Cobra (Naja subfulva), a species that has been confused with the Central African Forest Cobra (Naja melanoleuca) for decades. The confusion is understandable, because both species have similar color patterns, especially as juveniles, but the Brown Forest Cobra tends to live in savannas and forest edges, including habitats in mountains, whereas the Central African Forest Cobra seems to be a denizen of lowland rainforest.
In another memorable incident in 2014, my team, including American doctoral student Danny Hughes (who I might add has his own blog on Nat Geo Open Explorer- https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/thegreatchameleonsearch),,) was dealing with a flat tire in a very remote road in the lowland rainforest of DR Congo’s Bas-Uele Province. Large clumps of bamboo towered above us, blocking out much of the sun and creating a claustrophobic feeling that we were fighting our way through the serpentine belly of the jungle (see photo below). Given the frequency of our vehicle breakdowns and the sticky mud that seemed to thwart our progress at every turn, it certainly felt like the jungle was winning.
When a local villager passed by and happened to complain that a large cobra was stuck in a snare trap that he had set to catch a rodent for his dinner, I was skeptical that the snake could be tracked down quickly. Perceptions of distance can vary in Africa, and I had wasted countless hours in the past while trying to find something that the locals had told me was only a “short distance” away. Nonetheless, I knew that it would likely be hours before we could repair our tire, and when Danny asked if he could look for the trapped serpent, I relented and told him to be very careful.
You can imagine my shock when only a little while later, Danny emerged from the forest with an enormous forest cobra. Apparently the snare trap had been successful and a rodent was captured, but a hungry cobra happened to find it first, and after swallowing the animal, it became trapped in the snare itself. Unfortunately, the cobra was not alive when Danny was led to it, but perhaps this was just as well, because it would have been too dangerous to free the animal otherwise. When we had a chance to measure it, we found that it was truly a monster—the total length of the male specimen was over 9 feet (2.8 m). In the photo below, Chifundera Kusamba holds the cobra over his head while team member Mwenebatu Aristote looks on with two teenagers from the local village.
For many years, herpetologists have noticed that forest cobras in different parts of Africa vary in color pattern. The typical Central African Forest Cobra, including the large snake found in the snare trap, is almost always jet black with black-and-white or yellowish bands on its belly, whereas cobras in West Africa have more variable patterns of bands on their backs and bellies. In 2017, Luis Ceríaco and colleagues published a study (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2148751-invasive-snake-is-really-a-new-species-and-should-be-protected/)) that recognized forest cobras from the isolated island of São Tomé as a new species, Naja peroescobari, named in honor of a 15th century Portuguese explorer who discovered the island.
Suspecting that more than one species might be involved in all of this variation, venomous snake expert Wolfgang Wüster (http://mefgl.bangor.ac.uk/staff/wuster.php)) and several colleagues, including myself, utilized a massive data set from DNA sequence data and morphological characters (size, scale patterns, color pattern) to see how many species of forest cobras occur in Africa. We were shocked to discover that what had been thought to be one widespread species was in fact FIVE species, including two new species to science—the Black Forest Cobra (N. guineensis) and the West African Banded Cobra (N. savannula). The paper we published is open access to the public, and you can read the study and see several photos of these snakes HERE (https://biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.4455.1.3)..)
Our results are important to understand in the context of conservation, because species with limited geographic distributions and smaller population sizes are more vulnerable to extinction. Antivenom efficacy will be improved if it is made from the venom of all forest cobra species in the future. Moreover, venom varies from species to species, and even within populations, and some components of forest cobra venom might have beneficial uses for human medicine.
Many mysteries about forest cobra ecology, behavior, venom, and natural history remain, and it will be exciting to unlock more of their secrets in the future. These powerful snakes have garnered my respect and awe, and I feel very lucky to have encountered them several times in the wild.
Greenbaum, E. 2017. Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo. ForeEdge, Lebanon, NH.
Jackson, K. 2008. Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo. Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London.
Marais, J. 2014. Snakes & Snakebite in Southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Nature, Cape Town, South Africa.
Spawls, S., K. Howell, H. Hinkel, and M. Menegon. 2018. Field Guide to East African Reptiles. 2nd Edition. Bloomsbury, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney.
Warrell, D. A. 1995. Clinical toxicology of snakebite in Africa and the Middle East/Arabian Peninsula. In: Meier, J., and J. White (Eds), Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons, CRC Press, Boca Raton, New York, London and Tokyo, pp. 433–492.
Wüster, W., L. Chirio, J. -F. Trape, I. Ineich, K. Jackson, E. Greenbaum, C. Kusamba, C. Barron, Z. Nagy, R. Storey, C. Hall, C. Wüster, A. Barlow, and D. G. Broadley. 2018. Integration of nuclear and mitochondrial gene sequences and morphology reveal unexpected diversity in the forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca) species complex in Central and West Africa (Serpentes: Elapidae). Zootaxa 4455:068–098.
Special thanks to Johan Marais for his feedback about antivenom.
All photos in this post are copyrighted by Eli Greenbaum, 2012–2014. All rights reserved.
As an evolutionary biologist and herpetologist with a specialization on the amphibians and reptiles (aka, herps) of Central Africa, I have been participating in expeditions to sub-Saharan Africa since 2001. In 2007, I established a collaborative research program with Chifundera Kusamba, chief herpetologist at the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles (Center for Research and Natural Sciences) at Lwiro, Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo for short), Africa’s second largest country. Since then, I have led an all-Congolese team of scientists and researchers to understand the evolutionary history and biodiversity of herps in DR Congo’s forests, savannas, swamps, and rivers. Because of its chaotic history, DR Congo’s biodiversity has been neglected for decades, and we discover several new species during every expedition to the country.
But these exciting new discoveries come with a heavy physical toll and dangerous risks. Central Africa is infamous for its smorgasbord of crippling and deadly tropical diseases, with everything from monkeypox—think chickenpox on steroids—to river blindness and Ebola. Because of its long and troubled history, first as the Belgian Congo, then as Zaïre under the dictatorship of Mobutu, DR Congo is now among the poorest and least-developed countries in the world. DR Congo has been struggling to recover from the deadliest conflict since World War II—Africa’s World War claimed around 5 million lives before it came to an end, sort of, in 2003. Today, many armed militias that were active in the war linger in the mountainous and remote region near the country’s eastern border.
Because an incredible diversity of endemic plant and animal species are only found in the Albertine Rift Mountains along DR Congo’s eastern border region, we have spent most of the last decade climbing into deep jungle in these mountains to search for rare, forgotten, or new species to science. We often run into trouble, sometimes in ways that are completely unexpected. Our misadventures include stumbling into an enormous swarm of dangerously venomous ants, flipping our truck on muddy roads in the middle of nowhere, and my personal favorite, bankrolling a palm wine party to convince an entire village that I am, in fact, NOT a vampire.
My scientific interest in Central Africa stems from the fact that it is one of the most poorly known terrestrial regions in the world, and it is always exciting to discover a new creature that is unknown to science. Also, I want to understand how, why, where, and when species of African amphibians and reptiles evolved, and reconstruct their evolutionary relationships to each other. This information, including the naming of new species, is used by conservation biologists, government officials and local stakeholders to make important decisions about national parks and other protected areas. This work is urgent, because deforestation and global climate change are threatening to wipe out DR Congo’s incredible biodiversity just as we are beginning to understand it.
This blog will explore different aspects of my experience working as a biodiversity scientist in Central Africa over the last decade, including two expeditions that were funded by the National Geographic Society. My Congolese colleagues Chifundera Kusamba, Wandege M. Muninga, and Mwenebatu M. Aristote loom large in the stories because they have been with me during every trip, and I am grateful to all of them for their dedication, compassion, incredible powers of observation, and sense of humor. To put my scientific work in context, the blog will be interdisciplinary and include unexpected connections between science, medicine, and the humanities.
Sometimes it is possible to recognize that a creature is a new species to science immediately following its discovery, because it is remarkably different from all known species in the same genus or family. However, most discoveries are confirmed months or even years after the expeditions are over, and the blog will explain how this meticulous research process occurs. I am an associate professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where I also serve as director of the university’s biodiversity collections. Utilizing a combination of DNA sequence data and natural history specimens collected during expeditions, I work with American and African students and colleagues to understand the evolutionary relationships among the amazing animals we are studying.
My research has resulted in more than 100 articles in refereed science journals, which have been cited over 2,500 times in other scientific publications. This work has been covered in NBC News, National Geographic Daily News, Africa Geographic Magazine, Reptiles Magazine, Smithsonian.com, Nature.com, and The Huffington Post. My book Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist's Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo (ForeEdge, imprint of University Press of New England) was honored as one of the Top 10 Biology Books of 2017 by Forbes Magazine.
For a complete list of my work, see my academic website at: http://eligreenbaum.utep.edu/
Follow me on Twitter: @EliGreenbaumPhD
Contribute to this expedition
Thank You for Your Contribution!