A new snake with the ability to spontaneously change colour has been discovered in the forests of the Heart of Borneo, one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth, possessing staggeringly high numbers of unique species across all groups of plants and animals.
The half-metre-long venomous snake is normally brown with an iridescent sheen, but can turn white. It is not yet known whether the snake can become other colours too, or what exactly causes the change.
The chameleon is the best known colour-changing reptile, but many other lizards, a handful of snakes and turtles can pull the stunt too. A semi-permanent colour change that happens over days or weeks is more common in snakes – for example during the mating season. However, rare and sporadic examples of “physiological” colour change, caused by rapid changes in pigmented skin cells, have been recorded too.
“I put the reddish-brown snake in a dark bucket. When I retrieved it a few minutes later, it was almost entirely white,” says Mark Auliya of the Alexander Koenig Museum in Bonn, Germany, and WWF consultant. Auliya was part of a team that discovered the snake while conducting a survey of reptile diversity in the park in 2003.
“The discovery of the ‘chameleon’ snake exposes one of nature’s best kept secrets deep in the Heart of Borneo,” said Stuart Chapman, WWF’s international co-ordinator of the Heart of Borneo initiative.
“Its ability to change colour has kept it hidden from science until now. I guess it just picked the wrong colour that day.”
In the last ten years, 361 new animal and plants species have been discovered on the island of Borneo. This amounts to three new species a month in an area only a little more than twice the size of Germany.