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Chameleon-Like Snake Discovered in the Heart of Borneo

WASHINGTON - A new species of snake, with the ability to spontaneously change color, has been discovered in one of the most biologically diverse forests on earth, the "Heart of Borneo," a mountainous rainforest larger than Kansas. The ability to change colors is well-known in some reptiles such as the chameleon, but highly unusual and poorly understood in snakes. The, newly-named, "Kapuas-Mud-Snake" was discovered by a German researcher who described it with the collaboration of two American scientists.

"I put the reddish-brown snake in a dark bucket. When I retrieved it a few minutes later, it was almost entirely white," said Dr. Mark Auliya, reptile expert at the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Germany and WWF consultant. Scientists speculate that changing colors helps the snake control temperature. Like chameleons, snakes are darker during the day to attract the sun's warmth but turn to a creamy color in total darkness.

Auliya collected two specimens of the half-meter long, poisonous snake in the wetlands and swamp forests around the Kapuas river in Betung Kerihun National Park, an area in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) where WWF supports conservation work.

The snake is part of the genus Enhydris, comprised of 22 other species, only two of which are widespread. All the other species have a very restricted range. The scientists believe this snake might only occur in the Kapuas river drainage system.

Borneo is home to 160 known species of snakes including the world's most dangerous snake, the Russell's Viper, responsible for more human fatalities than any other venomous snake. The world's longest snake also makes its home in Borneo, the a reticulated python, which can reach more than 30 feet in length and 300 pounds. In the last 10 years 361 new animal and plant species have been discovered on the island of Borneo.

"The discovery of the 'chameleon' snake exposes one of nature's best kept secrets deep in the Heart of Borneo. Its ability to change color has kept it hidden from science until now," said Stuart Chapman, WWF's international coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Program. "I guess it just picked the wrong color that day."

The Heart of Borneo is threatened. Today, only half of Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 percent in the mid-1980s. Logging, land-clearing and land conversion, especially for palm plantations, are the greatest threats to the area. Deforestation may be significantly halted as the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia - recently launched the Heart of Borneo initiative, which aims to preserve the area.