Acanthophis wellsei sp. nov.
Holotype:Held at the Western Australian Museum from Wittenoom Gorge,
WA, Lat: 22° 15' Long: 118° 23', R8886.
Paratypes:R21538 also from Wittenoom Gorge, WA, Lat: 22° 14'
Long: 118° 20'; R17121 and R18493 from Wittenoom, WA, Lat: 22°
20' Long: 118° 19'; R67921 from 31 km SE of Mount Meharry Lat: 23°
10' Long: 118° 54'; and R56097 from Marandoo, WA, Lat: 22° 38'
Long: 118° 07'.
Diagnosis: Known from Millstream and adjacent parts of the Pilbara
region of Western Australia, including Pannawonica and 60 km NNW of Newman,
WA, where it is very common (Ball 1993). Distribution appears to be centred
on the Hamersley Range area. It has been up until now an undescribed form.
Many specimens tend to have black bands and darkening of the head (usually
black), although this is not a diagnostic trait of the species as some
specimens are not marked this way (see Ball 1993).
A. wellsei appears to be most closely related to A. lancasteri
and/or A. pyrrhus, and tends to have smooth to moderately rugose
scales, particularly on the sides. Acanthophis wellsei can in all
cases known to this author, be distinguished from A. pyrrhus by
having two prefrontals as opposed to four in A. pyrrhus (Bush 1988).
The head of this species appears to be "deeper" than seen in
A. pyrrhus and the side of the head does not flare below the eye
as in A. pyrrhus. In these respects it is like A. lancasteri.
A. wellsei is unlikely to be confused with any other Acanthophis.
Distribution of this species appears restricted to the range areas
around the Hamersleys and Chichester Range of the Pilbara, although it
does extend to lower areas nearby. Coastal areas to the north and east
are evidently populated by A. pyrrhus. To date no areas of sympatry
are known. Bush (1988) speculated that hybridisation between the two forms
may occur. Further survey work in the Pilbara is required to fully resolve
the distributional status of both forms.
Captivity: The species has been bred in captivity. Photos of the
snake in life are shown in this journal and can also be seen in Ball (1993)
as well as in Mirtschin and Davis (1992). The author understands numbers
of this snake are being held captive at the present time, both in WA and
the eastern states.
Cannibalism has not been recorded but based on the fact the species
is similar to both A. pyrrhus and A. lancasteri, both
of which are known to have cannibalistic tendencies, the habit is likely
to be observed in A. wellsei. In terms of general husbandry matters,
private keepers have not indicated problems.
An instance of mite infestation in a long-term captive reported to
this author was cured without adverse incident on the captive snake.
Taxonomic History: In 1981, Glen Storr of the Western Australian
Museum published the results of his study of Acanthophis in Western
Australia (Storr 1981). The study was apparently based on preserved museum
specimens. Based on his records published for A. pyrrhus in that
paper, he clearly observed preserved specimens of A. wellsei but
placed them within the earlier described species. This fact is deduced
from his listing 11 out of 33 specimens of "A. pyrrhus"
having two prefrontals, which appears to be diagnostic for A. wellsei
as well as the locality information given for specimens examined as
some locations included areas now known to only have A. wellsei. Type
data given here was derived from that paper.
In 1991 the Western Australian Museum was supplied with two specimens
of A. wellsei (Ball 1993). Other specimens were found by Dave Robertson
and Brian Bush. Bird (1992) reported Ken Aplin of the Western Australian
Museum as having discovered the snake. In 1993, the Second World Congress
of Herpetology was told that Aplin would soon be publishing a description
of the snake. After further effluxion of time it became clear that Aplin
had chosen not to publish a description of the species as it was thought
that Wells and Wellington had already published a description in 1985 and
therefore the species was thought to already have a name ("armstrongi").
In 1997-8 when doing a taxonomic review of Acanthophis, this
author obtained a copy of the Wells and Wellington paper and noted that
they had in fact described "A. armstrongi" as a Pilbara
death adder. However what had apparently been overlooked was that the snake
described by Wells and Wellington had not been the undescribed form of
Acanthophis, but rather the local variant of what is commonly known
as A. pyrrhus.
Bush (1998) confirmed that the snake described by Wells and Wellington
was not the undescribed form herein described as A. wellsei. This
fact is further confirmed by referring directly to the Wells and Wellington
paper and the fact that the snake was apparantly unrecognised by all until
the early 1990's. The Death Adders from Giralia, WA are not the formerly
undescribed form, but rather A. pyrrhus, or what has been recognised
as such (noting Giralia as the type locality for "A. armstrongi")(also
see photo in (Storr 1981) of an A. pyrrhus from Giralia, WA).
This author has been in regular contact with the Western Australian
Museum staff for many years and received correspondences from them implying
that they may undertake and publish a second review of the genus Acanthophis
(e.g. Smith 1997), the first review being that of Storr (1981). It is noted
that a time frame of over 6 years has elapsed since the undescribed Pilbara
Acanthophis was originally found by scientists and staff at the Western
Australian museum. It is noted that to date they have chosen not to describe
it as a new species.
Further noting the conflicting views from Western Australian herpetologists
over their impressions of the true taxonomic status of the previously undescribed
Pilbara Acanthophis, (e.g. Storr 1981, Bird 1992), this author has
decided to publish a formal description of the snake as a new species here.
It is not proper for one group of workers to apparantly monopolise a species
and then fail to publish on it within an acceptable period, noting that
6 years is deemed by this author to be an unacceptable delay. Of course
other authors including those from Western Australia may dispute the assertion
published here that A. wellsei sp. nov. is in fact a separate and
distinct form of Acanthophis. Nothing in the above should be taken
as a personal criticism of anyone at the WA Museum, all of whom this author
holds in highest regard.
Etymology: Named after Richard Wells. He is a highly knowledgeable
and talented herpetologist who in the mid 1980's published a series of
controversial taxonomic works, described by some critics as "reckless"
(cited at the end of this paper).
An attempt was made by a number of high profile herpetologists to
have the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to
have the relevant works of Wells and co-author, C. Ross Wellington formally
suppressed. Such did not occur (Shea 1998) and many of the names proposed
by the pair have found their way into widespread acceptance (e.g. Antaresia,
Morelia spilota mcdowelli). Other taxonomic judgements by the two have
either been disagreed with or following further research found to be in
error. However such a situation is not unusual in taxonomy, noting for
example similar judgements being made against the taxonomic works and conclusions
of Storr (e.g. Bohme 1992), Sprackland (e.g. Shea 1998) and others, whom
are still highly regarded and respected within their areas of publication.
Therefore disagreement by peers with the conclusions of Wells and Wellington
should not be in itself relied upon to cast adverse judgement upon the
Disagreements about taxonomic conclusions are part and parcel of
the science of zoology. In the main the papers of Wells and Wellington
assigned species names to well recognised taxa that until then did not
have such names and as such their taxonomic judgements are not in doubt.
In recent years there seems to have been an attempt by some in the
"herpetological establishment" to wipe any references to Wells
and Wellington from the record, perhaps encapsulated in the attempt by
Sprackland et. al. to wipe the name Varanus keithhornei (Wells and
Wellington 1985) in favour of his later proposed name Varanus teriae
(Sprackland 1991), which violates the basic ICZN rule of "priority".
That case being before the ICZN in 1998. Refer to Shea (1998), or other
relevant articles within the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature
published in 1997-8 (cases 3042-3043). Another example is the apparent
suppression of a name given by Wells and Wellington in 1985 to the western
form of "Children's Python", subsequently re-named as "stimsoni"
again in violation of the ICZN priority rule.
The name wellsei has been chosen to help ensure that recognition
of the substantial contribution to herpetology in Australia of Richard
Wells remains in the future and is not "erased" from the historical
record. This should not be taken as a carte-blanche endorsement of Wells'
taxonomic judgements in all matters.
From the paper:Death Adders Acanthophis: An overview, including descriptions of FIVE new species and ONE subspecies
ORIGINALLY Published in Monitor
9 (2) April 1998. Pages 20-41.
To download the 5 mb pdf (Acrobat) file of the
exact article as it appeared in the journal Monitor (incl. colour photos
of type specimens) - click here - it will take about 30-40 minutes to download.
Raymond Hoser has
been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 120
papers in journals worldwide. He has written nine books including the
definitive works "Australian Reptiles and Frogs",
"Endangered Animals of Australia" and
the controversial best sellers "Smuggled
- The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife",
Police Corruption" and "Victoria Police
Corruption - 2"
Snakes - Death Adders
- Genus Acanthophis - The Definitive Paper - by Raymond Hoser, published
in The Reptilian Magazine (UK) in 1995 - ...The Full text.
Over 70 Reptile Papers that
can be downloaded.
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