PILBARA DEATH ADDER
ACANTHOPHIS WELLSI HOSER, 1998
Pilbara Death Adder Acanthophis wellsi Hoser 1998
This species was formerly thought to be a variant of the Desert Death Adder Acanthophis pyrrhus (see Storr’s 1981 paper on the classification of West Australian Death Adders).
However as part of a global revision of the Death Adder genus Acanthophis, by the undisputed world authority on the genus, Australian Snakeman Raymond Hoser diagnosed Acanthophis wellsi as a new species along with several other hitherto unknown Death Adder species.
That paper was published in 1998, and after that in a later 2002 paper, Hoser named a second taxon from the Cape Range as Acanthophis wellsi donnellani as a subspecies of the former.
The name wellsi is an emendation of the original wellsei.
The following material is unedited text from the later 2002 paper. It is reproduced here to correct widespread and often deliberate misinformation about Death Adders being posted on the internet and elsewhere.
A number of persons adversely named in books by Raymond Hoser and business rivals of his demonstration company “Snakebusters” have tried to claim that the Hoser taxonomy for the Death Adders is incorrect and sought to prevent widespread usage of the so-called “Hoser names”. However all Hoser-named Acanthophis taxa, including those from New Guinea have had their status independently confirmed by mtDNA studies and also other studies involving multivariate analysis by herpetologists with no connection or affiliation with Snakeman Raymond Hoser.
Acanthophis wellsei Hoser, 1998
Holotype:An immature specimen 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. Ken Aplin from the WA Museum was working on this species at the time this paper was written.
Captivity: The species has been bred in captivity. Photos of the snake in life are shown in by Hoser (1998) 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, and in 2001 received an unconfirmed report of an adult female from near Newman WA, producing a total of 12 young.
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 appeared 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 apparently 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).
By 1998, this author had 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 was noted that a time frame of over 6 years had elapsed since the undescribed Pilbara Acanthophis was originally found by scientists and staff at the Western Australian museum. It was noted that to date in 1998 they had chosen not to describe it as a new species and hence this author’s decision to assign it the name wellsei in 1998..
Further noting the apparently 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 decided to publish a formal description of the snake as a new species in 1998 (see Hoser 1998).
This was later confirmed by Ken Aplin from WA as taxonomically correct (Aplin 1999). Unbeknown to myself, Aplin and Steve Donnellan of the South Australian Museum were in the process of compiling a description of the same species, but I had effectively beaten him to print. It is understood that Aplin and Donnelan intend publishing another more detailed paper incorporating my 1998 paper’s findings as well as the results of their own detailed studies of the genetics of West Australian Death Adders, a synopsis of which appeared in Aplin (1999).
Finally, since publication of Hoser (1998), a number of authors have cited the species as "A. wellsi". This is an error as the name was always intended to be "A. wellsei".
Original Etymology of "A. wellsei": 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 pair.
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 was 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 by this author of Wells’ taxonomic judgements in all matters.
Acanthophis wellsei donnellani subsp. nov.
Holotype: A specimen in the Western Australian Museum number: R2999, from Vlaming Head Lighthouse, Western Australia, Lat. 21°48'S, Long. 114°10'E.
Paratype: A specimen in the Western Australian Museum number: R19674, from Vlaming Head Lighthouse, Western Australia, Lat. 21°48'S, Long. 114°10'E.
Diagnosis: Similar in most respects to A. wellsei wellsei, from which it is separated by the following suite of characters.
Females have on average, statistically significantly lower ventral scale counts than A. wellsei from elsewhere, as well as a relatively longer tail.
The supraocular scales are distinctly flared when compared with other A. wellsei.
Keeling is more pronounced on scale rows 1-4 and specimens from this region appear to be paler in ground colour than those from elsewhere.
Dorsal ground colour is often lightish with yellowish greyish crossbands superimposed on a light-reddish-brown background, with black tips on the posterior margins of the yellowish grey crossband scales (black tips are on the last row only on each band).
A. wellsei donnellani subsp. nov. is restricted to the Cape Range area of Western Australia as opposed to the main A. wellsei wellsei population that is found in the region centered around the Hamersley and Chichester ranges of WA.
Aplin and Donnellan (1999) page 285, stated that obvious differences between specimens of A. wellsei (Cape Range populations - now A. wellsei donnellani subsp. nov. and A. wellsei wellsei) "may also relate to differences in substrate between the two areas (limestone and sand vs iron-rich rocks and skeletal soils)", and then on page 289 provide a "detailed distribution" of A. pyrrhus and A. wellsei in north-west Western Australia. This map shows a disjunct distribution for the Cape Range population of A. wellsei, separated from the main Pilbara population by a population of the more widely distributed A. pyrrhus, thereby giving further evidence of the genetic isolation of the Cape Range population.
Furthermore, while it is obvious that habitat requirements (such as substrate) would influence the evolution of morphology of snakes, the character differences (scalation traits and so on) observed by Aplin and Donnellan are effectively genetically fixed in these snakes and while substrate may have led to these states arising, it does not at any given point in time affect the phenotypes produced by adult snakes in terms of the character states they have commented on. This is being genetically predetermined as evidenced by the same characters appearing in captive-bred snakes bred in plastic tubs on newspaper and similar set-ups.
By way of example, in the Sydney region A. antarcticus are known from various rock-type substrates, namely shale/clay (where they are relatively uncommon) and sandstone, and there is no evidence whatsoever of differing scale and other traits in terms of the habitat substrate the snakes are found on.
Furthermore bearing in mind that we are talking subspecific differences and not species divisions, it is not essential to prove total genetic isolation of the two populations as implied by Aplin and Donnellan (p. 285) in order to validly assign subspecific designation to the Cape Range population.
Bearing in mind the ongoing need to conserve an ever increasingly fragmented biodiversity, coupled with the risk of private keepers hybridizing snakes from widely differing gene pools, the need to properly name the Cape Range population of A. wellsei sooner rather than later is important.
It is also noted that West Australian herpetologists have in the past taken an overly conservative view in terms of naming taxa that they have inspected (e.g. Storr 1981). Rather than take the chance that another 20 years will elapse before this taxa is appropriately named, this author takes the opportunity to formally name it forthwith.
Distribution: restricted to the Cape Range area of Western Australia, where it is most common in hilly areas and near watercourses. There is also a population of Acanthophis pyrrhus in the generally lower region that apparently separates the population A. wellsei donnellani subsp. nov. from the main population of A. wellsei wellsei. It is assumed by both this author and Aplin and Donnellan, that A. pyrrhus is a more derived species than A. wellsei and it is further presumed (by this author at least) that in the relatively recent geological past, A. pyrrhus have extended their range and numbers at the expense of A. wellsei, this event perhaps occurring in tandem with the progressive drying out of Australiasia within the last million or so years.
Captivity: Little known, but thought to be similar in captive requirements to the type subspecies A. wellsei wellsei. A few live specimens of A. wellsei donnellani subsp. nov. from the Cape Range area are believed to be held in captivity in WA at the present time (Aplin and Donnellan, 1999).
Etymology: The diagnosis for this subspecies, including the information as provided above was essentially provided by Aplin and Donnellan (1999) and subsequently corroborated by this author from inspection of living specimens from the relevant places.
Hoser (2001) named a variant of Cannia australis in honour of Ken Aplin. Thus the opportunity is now taken to name a subspecies of snake in recognition of the research done (on these very snakes) by Steve Donnellan.
The above is from a paper:
Hoser, R. T. 2002. Death Adders (Genus Acanthophis): An Updated overview, including descriptions of 3 New Island species and 2 New Australian subspecies. Crocodilian - Journal of the Victorian Association of Amateur Herpetologists September 2002, pages 5-11,16-22,24-30, front and back covers.
Keywords for this webpage are: Pilbara Death Adder, Cape Range, Hoser, Death Adder, Ray Hoser, Raymond Hoser, Acanthophis, Acanthophis wellsei, Acanthophis wellsi, wellsi adder, adder from the Pilbara, Deaf Adder, Acanthophis wellsi donnellani, Cape Range Pilbara Death Adder, Donnellan’s Death Adder, Richard Wells, Ross Wellington, Wells’s Pilbara Death Adder, Black-headed Death Adder, Desert Death Adder, Acanthophis pyrrhus, pilbara death Adder, venomous, elapid, taxonomy, reclassification, Hoser, crocodilian journal, monitor, herpetology, Hamersley Range in the Pilbara of Western Australia has Pilbara Death Adders of the species Acanthophis wellsi wellsi.
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