Congo Quest for New SpeciesLatest update January 12, 2019 Started on August 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.
The Knights’ Lizards
For my first post of 2019, I wrote a historical tale to explain the interesting taxonomy of a group of lizards from my latest scientific paper, which was recently published in Herpetological Monographs https://bioone.org/journals/herpetological-monographs/volume-32/issue-1 Enjoy!
Soon after arriving in Bukavu, one of the largest cities in eastern Congo on my first expedition in 2007, I noticed that Jackson’s Forest Lizards (Adolfus jacksoni), with their distinctive blue spots on their flanks, were absolutely everywhere (see photos below of examples from DR Congo & Uganda- these photos do not show the lizard on a tree). One of the few reptiles in the region to thrive around human habitations, these diurnal lizards are happy to soak up the sun and chase down insects along rock walls, near sewers, and on the colorful walls of houses, storefronts, and shacks. Over 6 inches long from head to tail in the largest adults, they lay 3–5 eggs and have an enormous distribution from the mountains of the Albertine Rift in eastern Congo all the way to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but not in the lower elevations or driest habitats.
The lizard was first brought to the attention of the scientific community in 1899 when famous herpetologist George Boulenger (1858–1937) https://tinyurl.com/pam3nd9 described it from a single specimen in the British Museum. Boulenger is a bit of a legend among zoologists because he was exceptionally productive—over the course of his long career he wrote several important multi-volume books (including an enormous 2-volume work on lizards in the family Lacertidae, including Adolfus) and nearly 900 scientific papers, which described hundreds of species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles from all over the world. As this impressive list shows, Boulenger’s knowledge of these animals was global and encyclopedic, and one chronicler remarked “it may safely be said that no person ever was as familiar with the world’s species of lower vertebrates as he was” (Adler, 1989). Some have remarked that he probably had a photographic memory, and he could speak and write six different languages.
But Boulenger did not find the lizard. Sir Frederick John Jackson (1860–1929) https://tinyurl.com/j2b46qp was an ornithologist, administrator, and explorer. During one of his forays along the Mau Escarpment in west-central Kenya, he captured the first specimen of Adolfus jacksoni, the only one known at the time, and presented it to the British Museum where Boulenger was working. In addition to collecting numerous specimens of other vertebrates, several of which were described in his honor, Jackson was a key figure in the Imperial British East Africa Company, earning his knighthood during a Sudanese troop mutiny in 1898, and eventually served as governor of the Uganda protectorate from 1911–1917.
In 2011, while working on a study that examined the evolutionary relationships of lacertid lizards based on DNA sequence data, including Adolfus species, I noticed that one of the A. jacksoni samples from Arusha, Tanzania was closely related to, but genetically distinct from the other samples I had collected from eastern DR Congo (Greenbaum et al., 2011). If you’d like to know more details about this study, you can check out the scientific paper directly (see citation details below), or you can see Chapter 11 of my book Emerald Labyrinth https://tinyurl.com/y8a9lc83, which uses this specific example to explain phylogenetic studies for the layperson. My 2011 study was focused on a new genus I described from eastern DR Congo called Congolacerta, including a new species from the Itombwe Plateau named in honor of our late Congolese guide through those mountains (see the book for more about that story too), but I never forgot about the divergent Tanzanian sample.
A few years after the Congolacerta study was published, I decided to team up with several of my students and colleagues to do a more thorough DNA-based study of Adolfus jacksoni. This time, with the help of these colleagues, I expanded the study’s sampling to several distinct and separate mountainous regions in East Africa, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Our results indicated that A. jacksoni should be split into three distinct lineages, all of which deserve to be recognized as distinct species: 1) the bona fide Adolfus jacksoni from the Albertine Rift mountains of eastern DR Congo east through Mt. Elgon to the western highlands of Kenya; 2) a second species from the central highlands of Kenya to the northeastern mountains of Tanzania, including the famous Mt. Kilimanjaro https://tinyurl.com/c7rc3dl and 3) a third species in an isolated highland area in north-central Kenya called the Mathews Range (Greenbaum et al., 2018).
Adolfus jacksoni and the 2nd species that ranges into Tanzania are separated by a famous biogeographic barrier called the Kenyan Rift (aka, Gregory Rift, https://tinyurl.com/y8ck3lt4 ). The rift is a relatively dry lowland corridor that divides Kenya in a north–south direction at approximately 36°E longitude, just west of Nairobi. Several famous lakes are found in the rift, and in a north-to-south direction, these include Turkana, Logipi, Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru, Elmenteita, Naivasha, Magadi, and Natron. Given the stark differences in elevation, climate, and habitat between highland areas on the western and eastern side of the rift, it is not surprising that it is a barrier to dispersal for several groups of plants and animals, including acacia trees, lobelias, mosquitoes, termites, butterflies, snakes, lizards, mice, rats, anetelope, wildebeest, and even bats (Greenbaum et al., 2018).
It turns out that the 2nd species was tentatively named as a new subspecies of Adolfus jacksoni by Swedish zoologist Einar Lönnberg (1865–1942) https://tinyurl.com/yat6go75 in 1907. Based on a single specimen caught on the trunk of a tree at Kibonoto (in the foothills of the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania https://tinyurl.com/ydxfo2ml collected by a professor and curator of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Yngve Sjöstedt (1866–1948) https://tinyurl.com/ybwuox9n , Lönnberg described the subspecies kibonotensis. However, Lönnberg wrote the new name next to a question mark, suggesting he was unsure about his own taxonomic moniker. With the 21st century advantage of DNA technology and additional specimens in natural history collections, we were able to show that Lönnberg’s instincts were correct, but he should have gone a taxonomic step further. In my current study, my colleagues and I demonstrated that Adolfus kibonotensis is a distinct species from A. jacksoni, based on genetic data and significant differences in certain scale counts. Beautiful photos of this newly recognized and colorful species, taken by my late colleague Bill Branch, can be seen in the paper and this German website: http://www.lacerta.de/AS/Taxon.php?Genus=50&Species=374.
There was a new surprise that popped up in our results too. My Kenyan colleague Patrick Malonza had participated in a biodiversity survey of the Mathews Range, where he collected a handful of Adolfus lizards. Our results, again based on DNA sequence data and morphological data, showed that these lizards were a 3rd distinct species, which we named Adolfus mathewsensis. You can check out one of Patrick’s photos of the new species on a tree below.
According to a colleague who reviewed the first draft of our paper, the Mathews Range (often misspelled as Matthews Range) was named by the explorers Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék (1845–1916) https://tinyurl.com/pglttlc and Lieutenant Ludwig Ritter von Höhnel (1857–1942) https://tinyurl.com/ptpx7ob for Sir Lloyd Mathews (1850–1901), Brigadier-General of Zanzibar https://tinyurl.com/yaz4pob5 who had given generous support to the explorers during their expedition to northern Kenya in 1887–1888.
The Mathews Range is a beautiful and interesting place- you can get a tourist’s perspective of it and see photos here: https://tinyurl.com/y9laxz25 The forested part of the range is approximately 940 square kilometers, it was protected as a forest reserve in 1964, and it is part of the Ewaso ecosystem-landscape of Kenya. Because of its remoteness and rugged terrain, much of the reserve is inaccessible and pristine, and it still harbors important populations of rare butterflies, five species of primates, elephant, lion, and endangered African wild dogs, which have been wiped out in many areas of their former range in Africa https://tinyurl.com/y8svkbwv . The flora and fauna of Mathews is threatened by some human activities, including livestock grazing, honey harvesting, firewood collection, and of course global climate change. Interestingly, there are other isolated mountain ranges in northern Kenya that might have additional populations of Adolfus (e.g., Ndoto Mountains and Nyiru Range), and additional fieldwork efforts are needed in the future.
Perhaps you are wondering at this point where the name Adolfus came from in the first place—I can assure you that it was not named for Adolf Hitler, but the name is a patronym that honors a German. The genus was first coined by German-Jewish zoologist Richard Sternfeld (1884–1943) in 1912 in honor of a famous German duke and African explorer named Adolf Friedrich (1873–1969) https://tinyurl.com/y9a95o26 . During his time working as a herpetologist at the zoological museum at the University of Berlin, Sternfeld published 26 scientific works, including several large works on herpetofauna of the pre-WWI German colonies. After accepting a job as curator at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt in 1913, he left to serve in Macedonia in WWI, but didn’t get along well with the museum director when he returned, and he was fired in 1920 (Adler, 2007). According to his Wikipedia page https://tinyurl.com/y7uy26mt Sternfeld switched careers to become an expert on thoroughbred horses. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed from Sternfeld’s date of death in 1943, he perished at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Let me end this post by pointing out that history has been made in DR Congo’s recent election, and I am cautiously hopeful that a peaceful future is in store for the country. To see a great summary of this, check out this video from CBS news: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-DqDDUta2c&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR1278xhKGlCm1yMynQIHZwzVPExTAiG6pWNAyIubVWdJ-xWs7MTflaGVQQ
I anticipate my next post will be about a new species of snake that I am describing with several colleagues—it is on track to be published later this month. Until then, happy new year!
Adler, K., Ed. 1989. Contributions to the History of Herpetology. Vol. 1. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Oxford, UK.
Adler, K., Ed. 2007. Contributions to the History of Herpetology. Vol. 2. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Saint Louis, MO, USA.
Anonymous. 1929. Frederick John Jackson. Obituary. Ibis 71:344–354.
Greenbaum, E. 2017. Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo. ForeEdge, Lebanon, NH. https://tinyurl.com/y8a9lc83
Greenbaum, E., C. O. Villanueva, C. Kusamba, M. M. Aristote, and W. R. Branch. 2011. A molecular phylogeny of Equatorial African Lacertidae, with the description of a new genus and species from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 163: 913–942.
Greenbaum, E., S. A. Dowell Beer, P. Wagner, C. G. Anderson, C. O. Villanueva, P. Malonza, C. Kusamba, W. M. Muninga, M. M. Aristote, and W. R. Branch. 2018. Phylogeography of Jackson’s Forest Lizard Adolfus jacksoni (Sauria: Lacertidae) reveals cryptic diversity in the highlands of East Africa. Herpetological Monographs 32:51–68. https://bioone.org/journals/herpetological-monographs/volume-32/issue-1
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.
NOTE: All photos in this post, with the exception of Adolfus mathewsensis on a tree, are copyrighted by Eli Greenbaum, 2008-2015. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Patrick Malonza for use of the Adolfus mathewsensis photo.
An American Vampire in Congo
One of the most exciting aspects of working in Democratic Republic of the Congo is the opportunity to interact with an incredible diversity of different cultures. One of the most memorable interactions I experienced was in 2008 while working along the western slopes of the Ruwenzori Mountains (aka, Rwenzoris) where the Banande people have lived for centuries. During the colonial era, they were referred to as révoltés because they refused to recognize or submit to the authority of the Belgian colonizers. Although many Congolese have been surprised and suspicious when I suddenly showed up in a remote village, I never dreamed that the Banande would suspect I was a vampire.
In honor of Halloween, I thought I would recount this story with an excerpt from my book Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary just after Halloween on November 7th. As an added bonus for this post, check out the one-minute video that National Geographic posted about my latest expedition too!
“Within an hour everyone returned to the truck, and we had the supplies and a local guide ready to lead us into the foothills of the Ruwenzoris. He said there was a village called Mbili at the end of an old road to the east where we could hire porters. We had barely crossed the eastern edge of the village when we encountered a small group of women and children descending a small footpath from the mountains. One of the teenage girls looked wide-eyed at me, then said something in Swahili that included the ever-present word muzungu (white man). Aristote must have thought she was cute, because he stopped in front of her, gently wrapped his fingers around her chin, and lifted her face so he could get a better look at her. Following a stern comment from Aristote, she swatted his hand away and looked extremely perturbed as she slowly walked away, pausing every few steps to look back at him with an angry stare. I told Aristote that he should not be so rude.
“Noooo,” he said with his typical drawn-out accentuation of the word when he felt very strongly about something. “She said something bad, so I had to correct her.”
I recalled that she must have said something about me and asked him what it was.
“She said, ‘Look, there is a muzungu! He must have come to drink our blood!’” “WHAT?!” I was not expecting that at all.
“Yes!” Aristote continued. “She thinks you have come to kill the black man and drink his blood so that you can be strong.”
“Why in the world would she possibly think that?” I asked in shock.
“This is what they are taught in the schools—everybody knows that.”
“Are you kidding me, Aristote? That is completely crazy!” Dumbfounded and unsettled, I asked him if we should rethink going into the mountains. I stopped walking to wait for his answer. But without stopping, he simply made a dismissive gesture and said that I should not worry about it. For a few moments I was paralyzed with fear and hesitation, and I could not bring myself to continue climbing up the side of the mountain. But as I watched everyone disappearing into the distance above me, I decided to have faith in Aristote and started walking again. My trepidation caused a surge of adrenaline, and I gasped for air as the combination of nervous energy and uphill climbing taxed my weary body.
What I did not know at the time was that there is a long history of Africans believing that white men, particularly colonizers, had come to drink the blood of Africans. Suspicious of white workers in the medical field, some African rumors suggested the colonizers were using the blood of slain African patients to treat Europeans with anemic diseases. In other cases, colonial white firefighters wore black overalls and were rumored to drink the blood of Africans because of a similarity in clothing to blood-sucking “Mumiani men,” who were akin to vampires and supposedly gained strength by drinking human blood. The origins of these rumors are not entirely clear, but they seem to have started in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and might be associated with colonizers’ technologies that Africans did not understand. One of these disturbing technologies was associated with medicine: some Africans were astonished by the use of chloroform for operations, because the chemical seemed to mysteriously paralyze African patients. Given the innumerable injustices perpetrated by European colonizers against Africans, it should not be surprising that unexplained phenomena of the former gave rise to negative stories by the latter. But the astonishing thing to me was that these twentieth-century rumors persisted and were apparently perpetuated in Congolese schools!”
The photos below show the scenery, people (our guide), and of course, one of the herps that we encountered at Ruwenzori during the 2008 expedition described above. The Carpenter’s Chameleon (Kinyongia carpenteri) is endemic to the Ruwenzori Mountains—they tend to live in the canopy of large trees, eat insects, lay eggs, and males probably use the horn-like structures to fight for mates, just like many other species of chameleons. When stressed by a predator, they will jump off their high perch in the trees, roll into a tight ball as they fall, and then seek cover on the ground and remain motionless until the threat passes.
SOURCES: Greenbaum, E. 2017. Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo. ForeEdge, Lebanon, NH. https://www.upne.com/1512600971.html
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.
All photos in this post are copyrighted by Eli Greenbaum, 2008. All rights reserved.
Reptile Awareness Day: Eli Greenbaum
Despite encountering challenges throughout their fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from vehicle breakdowns to warfare, Explorer Eli Greenbaum and his team reached remote sites to collect 239 reptile and amphibian specimens—including one new species of gecko. #ReptileAwarenessDayPosted by National Geographic Society on Friday, October 19, 2018
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
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