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Masquerading, deadly snake discovered and named after shape-shifting Chinese goddess

The new krait species Bungarus suzhenae, also known as Suzhen's krait.
The new krait species Bungarus suzhenae, also known as Suzhen's krait. (Image credit: Dr Li Ding)

A deadly new snake has been discovered after spending decades masquerading as a much less dangerous species, according to researchers — who named the snake after a shape-shifting serpent goddess from a Chinese folktale.

The new species is a type of krait snake found in Southwest China and northern Myanmar and had previously been categorized as the many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus). However, morphological and genetic differences, as well as a particularly painful and deadly bite, were enough to classify this reptile as its own species.

The researchers named the new snake Suzhen's krait (Bungarus suzhenae) after Bai Su Zhen — a powerful snake goddess from a traditional Chinese myth. 

Related: 7 shocking snake stories 

"It is very dangerous," study researcher Gernot Vogel, of the Society for Southeast Asian Herpetology in Germany, told Live Science. "Because kraits are highly lethal, understanding their species diversity and geographic distribution is vital for saving human lives."

Researchers hope the new classification will enable local communities to identify the deadly snake and avoid potentially fatal interactions, as well as help scientists to develop a new antivenom to treat Suzhen's krait bites.

New snake species 

Kraits have long been a nightmare for taxonomists. Suzhen's krait was one of four different species that were, until recently, collectively labeled as one species called many-banded kraits. The species are all predominantly black and white and look very similar at first glance, but Suzhen's krait has a distinct number of bands on its body and is longer than the other species.

"Our longest specimen was 135.5 centimeters [4.5 feet] but part of the tail was missing, so it was surely larger than 150 cm [4.9 feet]," Vogel told Live Science in an email. "We can expect a length of about 180 cm [5.9 feet]."

Other subtle differences were found in the teeth, coloration on the underside of the tail and the shape of the hemipenes — the snake equivalent of a penis, which is split into two parts — in males, Vogel said.

However, one of the main reasons researchers became aware of Suzhen's krait was its bite. Although most kraits are venomous, not all are deadly, and being bitten by a many-banded krait is usually painless and doesn't cause a visual mark. However, a bite from a Suzhen's krait is painful, leaves a dark patch around the bitten area and can be deadly. 

A legendary snake 

Suzhen's krait gets its name from one of China's most famous folktales — the Legend of the White Snake. In this tale, the snake goddess Bai Su Zhen takes human form and falls in love with a man, but this is forbidden by the gods and she is imprisoned in a tower for eternity. As such, Bai Su Zhen is considered a symbol of love and good-heartedness in Chinese mythology.

This story has been retold in many different formats, including a Netflix original series of the same name, but Suzhen's krait is the first snake to be named after the shape-shifting serpent goddess.

Actors of the Beijing Opera Troupe perform the famous story "Legend of the White Snake" at the Huguang Theatre on May 7, 2012. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

"The black-and-white banded krait [Suzhen's krait] is one of the snakes most similar to the white snake in nature, so we decided to name it after Bai Su Zhen," the researchers said in a statement

An important discovery 

Suzhen's krait is extremely dangerous due to a combination of its lethal venom and, until now, anonymity among other krait snakes in Asia.

Suzhen's krait is believed to be responsible for a number of high-profile incidents involving herpetologists, including the death of the renowned snake researcher Joseph B. Slowinski in 2001 after he was bitten by one. More recently, Chinese herpetologist Mian Hou survived being bitten in 2015 after being rushed to the hospital.

However, locals are most at risk from being bitten. "Krait species are active at night and they often enter houses in search for food," Vogel said. "So often sleeping people are bitten while touching the snake during their sleep."

Hopefully, the classification of Suzhen's krait as its own species can help raise awareness and speed up the development of a treatment. 

"Thanks to adequate description and classification of deadly snakes, research on venom, antivenom development and proper snakebite treatment can advance more rapidly," Vogel said.

The study was published online April 6 in the journal ZooKeys.

Originally published on Live Science.