The king cobra, considered for nearly two centuries as a single species occurring in South and Southeast Asia, should be classified into four distinct species originating from specific geographic regions.
Indian scientists and their collaborators identified four independently evolving and geographically separated king cobra species which they named the Western Ghats lineage, Indo-Chinese lineage, Indo-Malay lineage, and Luzon Island lineage, found in the Philippines.
Their research provides the first evidence of several unrecognized species of Ophiophagus hannah, the zoological name for the king cobra.
The snake was first described in 1836 by Danish zoologist Theodore Cantor who examined three specimens captured in the Sunderbans and one captured in a jungle near Calcutta.
Cantor had described the snake as a “hooded snake with fangs and maxillary teeth” which was locally known as “sunkr choar” (shonkhochur) and frightened native snake catchers more than the cobra.
“The existence of several species of king cobra is surprising because they look alike, share similar habitats, exhibit similar behavior,” said Kartik Shanker, evolutionary biologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a fellow of the team.
The Shankar-led team included Priyanka Swamy, SR Ganesh, Gunanidhi Sahoo, SP Vijaykumar, Shanker and Sushil Dutta from academic institutions across India and collaborators in Sweden, Malaysia and the UK.
In their study, the Indian researchers and their foreign collaborators analyzed key genetic markers indicating proximity or distance between 62 king cobra specimens collected across the snake’s geographic range.
They used scales from wild or captive specimens for their genetic analyzes; lose the skin of private breeders; liver, muscle tissue, ribs and scales from specimens kept in a natural history museum in France; and freshly dead specimens – road victims or snakes killed by humans.
Their study, published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, suggested four candidate species: CS1 in the Western Ghats; CS2 (Indo-Chinese lineage) north of the Kra Isthmus, the Eastern Ghats, the Eastern Himalayas, southern China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Andaman Islands; CS3 in the Indo-Malay region south of the Kra Isthmus, Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, Bali, Sumatra, Java and Mindoro; and CS4 in the Luzon Islands in the Philippines.
âThe overlap of genetic diversity with distinct geographic regions suggests that species evolved separately without any gene flow between them,â said P. Gowri Shankar, principal investigator of the study. âThe results have implications for the conservation of these species. “
An abundance of previous evidence from the plant and animal kingdoms across the world had established that geographic separation can lead to speciation or the emergence of distinct species.
The Western Ghats lineage, or CS1, is spatially separated from its geographically and genetically closest relative, the Indochinese lineage, or CS2, by the arid regions of peninsular India.
Researchers believe the king cobra dispersed to islands in Southeast Asia during the Ice Ages when natural land bridges connected the islands.
Similar studies conducted over the past two decades by independent research groups had identified the West African forest elephant, a species of kiwi in New Zealand, the Sunda leopard in Indonesia, an orang -utan in Sumatra and the Indus dolphin as new species.