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Taxonomy of Acanthophis pyrrhus (Reptilia: Elapidae)


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Posted by Richard Wells on March 17, 2002 at 20:33:01:

Hello all,
For those interested in the Family Elapidae I offer you my considerations regarding the genus Acanthophis in Australia which were recently published in the AUSTRALIAN BIODIVERSITY RECORD, 2002 (No 5): 1-18 (March, 2002)
A copy of this article is attached below, but owing to its size, I shall send it in parts:

The second part here deals with the pyrrhus group:

Kind Regards from

Richard Wells


Aggressiserpens Gen. Nov.
Type Species: Acanthophis pyrrhus Boulenger, 1898 [Description of a new death adder (Acanthophis) from central Australia. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 7 (2): 75]. Diagnosis: A genus of highly venomous snakes of the family Elapidae, and readily identified by the following combination of characters: dorsal scales strongly keeled and in some members this keeling extends well-down the flanks; 17-23 rows at mid-body; head scales mildly to strongly rugose, the rugosity aligned as longitudinal keeling in part, but always with some degree of irregular sculpting; very slender-bodied, with a broad and deep head that is distinct from the neck; eyes small with vertically elliptical pupils containing a yellow to reddish-brown iris; tail is slender and laterally compressed towards end, terminating with a soft slightly curved spine; a single supraocular scale usually without lateral flange, but if present only moderate; temporals usually arranged in 3+4+5, 3+3+5 or in 3+3+5, 3+4+5 pattern; primary temporals 2-4 (usually 3); secondary temporals 3-5 (usually 3 or 4); tertiary temporals 4-6 (usually 5); subocular scales 2-3 (usually 2) between supralabials and eye; supralabials 6 (with 5th and 6th largest); preocular always single; postoculars 1-3 (usually 2); rostral scale variable in shape, being either high and thin or low and broad; prefrontals 2-4 (i.e. either divided or entire, but always strongly keeled; ventrals 120-160; anal entire; subcaudals 40-65 with anterior subcaudal scales entire, but divided posteriorly. Content: Aggressiserpens armstrongi (Wells and Wellington, 1985); Aggressiserpens pyrrhus (Boulenger, 1898); and Aggressiserpens wellsi (Hoser, 1998).
Aggressiserpens armstrongi (Wells and Wellington, 1985)

In his revision of Acanthophis in 1998 Hoser regarded armstrongi as just a subspecies of pyrrhus viz. Acanthophis pyrrhus armstrongi. This is rejected here as armstrongi reaches a much larger size than pyrrhus, has a totally different colour pattern and is allopatric with A. pyrrhus in the southern part of the Northern Territory. Aplin and Donnellan (1999) noted that the holotype A. armstrongi may represent ‘a hybrid between A. wellsi and A. pyrrhus’ , however the specimen is entirely within the range of variation of all characters for A. pyrrhus in Western Australia (excluding A. wellsi). Therefore I still maintain my belief that A. armstrongi is valid and the holotype is not, as Aplin and Donnellan (1999) contends, representative of a ‘hybrid back-cross’ or part of a ‘hybrid-swarm’. Additionally, the isolated population of A. wellsi on the Cape Range Peninsula, WA may well represent an undescribed species, but the range of variation within the Pilbara-Hamersley Ranges population includes some features of this isolate. The lower ventral counts, paler colouration and longer tail of this isolate may warrant its recognition as a separate species to Aggressiserpens wellsi, but this isolate is not what I regard as Aggressiserpens armstrongi. The map supposedly showing putative hybrids between A. wellsi and A. pyrrhus [fig 4 in Aplin and Donnellan, 1999], in my opinion might also show the author’s confused understanding of the range of variation in Aggressiserpens armstrongi at the western edge of its distribution.
Diagnosis: This is a relatively slender-bodied species with a broad and deep head that is distinct from the neck. The head scales are strongly rugose in appearance and the eyes are small with vertically elliptical pupils and the iris yellow to reddish-brown. The tail is slender and laterally compressed towards the end, terminating with a series of slightly enlarged rough scales and a soft slightly curved spine. Dorsal body colour usually yellowish, but also reddish or orange-red in body colour, with 50-70 paler reddish brown or whitish-brown transverse bands. Along the edges of the bands some of the strongly keeled scales may be blackish or brownish coloured, and so highlight the keeling as well as the banding effects of the body. The ventral area is whitish, lips white and the distal portion of tail is creamish-yellow (unlike A. pyrrhus in which the distal portion of the tail is black). Some important features of the scalation of this species are: dorsal scales strongly keeled and extending well-down the flanks and in 19-23 (usually 21) rows at mid-body; ventrals 135-160; anal entire; subcaudals 42-63 anterior scales entire, but divided posteriorly; prefrontals divided and strongly keeled; supralabials 6 (with 5th and 6th largest); supraocular 1 and with lateral flanging; preocular always single; suboculars 2-3 (usually 2); postoculars 2-3 (usually 2); temporals usually arranged in 3+3+5, 3+4+5 pattern; primary temporals always 3; secondary temporals 3-4 (usually 3); tertiary temporals 4-6 (usually 5); rostral scale low and broad. Aggressiserpens armstrongi reaches a maximum total length of about 0.7 m., but usually a mature specimen is around 0.6 m. [Holotype: Western Australian Museum R61357 collected at 5 km east of Giralia, Western Australia.
Notes: This species is confined to arid areas of Western Australia, from the southern Kimberley region through most of the State, and into the south-western corner of the Northern Territory. This species occupies the most arid and waterless region in Australia. Within its distribution it lives in a diverse range of habitats, varying from places some have regarded as virtual 'moonscapes' of sand-dunes and stony country (such as in the Great Sandy Desert) with sometimes only the most sparse of vegetation cover, to open sandy plains with Triodia grass cover and coastal sandplains with scattered low shrubland. It is likely that the south-western WA and southern NT population is taxonomically distinct from specimens occurring in north-western Australia. Aggressiserpens armstrongi produces live young, usually numbering less than 20 in a litter. It feeds mainly on lizards but small mammals are also taken. This is a dangerously venomous species so urgent medical attention should always be sought following a bite from this or any other Death Adder. Protected under the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (1998) and the WA Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (as amended). The conservation status of this species is best regarded as probably secure given the extent of distribution and its remote habitat. The name 'armstrongi' honours Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon.

Aggressiserpens pyrrhus (Boulenger, 1898)

A relatively slender-bodied species with a broad and deep head that is distinct from the neck. The head scales are strongly rugose in appearance and the eyes are small with vertically elliptical pupils and the iris yellow to reddish-brown. The tail is slender and laterally compressed towards the end, terminating with a series of slightly enlarged rough scales and a soft slightly curved spine. Dorsal body colour usually reddish or orange-red in body colour, with about 70 paler whitish-brown or yellowish transverse bands that are strongest in colour on the body. The edges of the bands may have a scattering of blackish or dark brownish spots, and so highlight the banding effect. The ventral area can vary from creamish to reddish, and the distal portion of tail is blackish. Some important features of the scalation of this species are: dorsal scales strongly keeled and extending well-down the flanks and in 19, or 21 (usually 21) rows at mid-body; ventrals 120-160; anal entire; subcaudals 40-65 (anterior scales entire, but divided posteriorly); a series of subocular scales between supralabials and eye; supralabials 6; prefrontals divided and strongly keeled. Reaches a maximum total length of about 0.8 m., but usually a mature specimen is around 0.6 m. Confined to arid central Australia, ranging from the far south-western corner of Queensland, northern South Australia, and the southern, south-eastern and central parts of the Northern Territory. Its preferred habitats range from arid rocky ranges, sand-dunes to adjacent sandplain shrublands with Triodia ground-cover. This is a live-bearing species that has been recorded producing up to 13 in a litter. It consumes mainly lizards as prey, but is also known to be cannibalistic, and will also take small mammals. Although the tail is used as a lure to capture prey in the manner of the rest of the death adders there is a notable difference, in that pyrrhus tends to raise the tail higher, positioning its wriggling tail above the head rather than in front as in members of the antarcticus complex. Additionally, when agitated, this species will also wildly wriggle or thrash its tail in a manner reminiscent of the American rattlesnakes. In mode of progression members of the genus Aggressiserpens are quite different to Acanthophis, in being able to rapidly move over loose sand in the characteristic sidewinding locomotion of some Crotalid snakes. This is largely a nocturnal species that begins its activity about sunset, when they emerge from under cover to active forage for prey. Once they detect the scent of a potential prey item, the snake will seek concealment beneath sand and ground litter (often under a low shrub as well) and wait for its prey to return. This is a dangerously venomous species so urgent medical attention should always be sought following a bite from this or any other Death Adder. Protected under the SA National Parks and Wildlife Act (1972), the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (1998) and the Qld Nature Conservation Act (1992). Known to be very common where ever it occurs. Given the extent of distribution and the remoteness of its habitat this species is probably secure. The name 'pyrrhus' means 'fire-coloured' and refers to the body colouration of the species.

Aggressiserpens wellsi (Hoser, 1998)

A relatively slender-bodied species with a broad and deep head that is pear-shaped and very distinct from the neck. The head scales are weakly to mildly rugose in appearance and the eyes are small with vertically elliptical pupils and the iris yellow to reddish-brown. The tail is slender and lacks the compressed caudal lure or highly differentiated scales (other than the terminal spine) present in other species of Acanthophis or Aggressiserpens. The base dorsal body colour is usually a form of reddish-brown, but the base colour is pale yellowish brown in melanistic (dark banded, black-headed specimens). There is a large series of narrow transverse bands along the body and tail. Up to 40-45 blackish or dark brown bands occur along the body - each 1-3 scales in width, and there are about 15 bands on the tail. The ventral area is whitish, and the distal portion of tail is white, although in some the tail tip may be banded or be almost black. Some important features of the scalation of this species are: dorsal scales smooth to moderately keeled in 17-21 (but usually 19) rows at mid-body - keeling strongest on upper 4 dorsal rows; ventrals 123-141; anal entire, and subcaudals 43-63 anterior scales entire, but divided posteriorly; preocular single; a single supraocular scale without lateral flange; prefrontals undivided (1 each side); subocular scales 2-3 (usually 2) between supralabials and eye; supralabials 6 (5th and 6th largest); postoculars 1-2 (usually 2); temporals usually either 3+4+5 or 3+3+5; primary temporals 2-4 (usually 3); secondary temporals 3-5 (usually 4); tertiary temporals 4-6 (usually 5); rostral scale high and thin.
Notes: Aggressiserpens wellsi reaches a maximum total length of about 0.6 m., but usually a mature specimen is around 0.45 m. It is confined to the Hamersley Range and Chichester Range areas in the Pilbara region of central Western Australia, where it inhabits Triodia-covered rocky ranges, such as the Hamersleys, and nearby stoney lowlands. It is live-bearing, but the litter-size is unknown. This species feeds mainly on small lizards and small mammals. It is a rock-dwelling species that also shelters beneath clumps of Triodia. Like most death adders, it is usually inoffensive and secretive in nature, preferring to remain undetected in sheltered positions. However, should this snake be harassed or provoked in any way, it can deliver a rapid and highly accurate strike. It is a dangerously venomous species so urgent medical attention should always be sought following a bite, as envenomation may result in rapid death to the victim if not treated. Protected under the WA Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (as amended). Conservation status unknown, but this species may be considered as potentially vulnerable due to its limited distribution and specialised habitat requirements, although it is a common species in some parts of its range. The name 'wellsi' honours Australian naturalist Richard W. Wells.

References

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[Note: This list of references is only a selection of the available publications that deal with the species mentioned in this paper. If readers would like a larger listing they are invited to write to the author of this paper]

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