The Anatolian meadow viper was always an enigmatic species. It belongs to the same group as many widespread vipers, such  as the common adder. However, unlike the common adder, which is distributed across Europe and Northern Asia, the Anatolian meadow viper lives only at the top of the Ciglikara mountain plateau, in south-west Turkey. Since the species discovery, in 1969, only five individuals have ever been found. Its discovery triggered the curiosity of researchers as this species is one of the smallest in its group, and being so isolated may be hiding more secrets. Separated from other viper species by hundreds of kilometers of hot lowland forests and sea straits, the Anatolian Meadow viper has been isolated for over five million years. In Southern Turkey, summer temperatures commonly rise above what small vipers can tolerate (about 37 ºC, the same as the human body). So the Anatolian Meadow Viper was trapped on a cool mountain top, also known as a sky island.

Surprisingly, the Anatolian Meadow viper was found by accident, in 1969, by an expedition that was looking for another rare species – the woolly dormouse. The dormouse shares the same habitat as the viper, and was discovered only a couple of years earlier. Both species survived under the canopy of the famous Cedar trees of Lebanon, in the Ciglikara forest, one of the last large cedar forests in the Mediterranean. Thankfully due to its protected status, human disturbance kept to a low level.

Of course, many viper researchers were excited about this unique finding. Many rushed to the area described in the discovery article to learn more about the animal. Unfortunately, they had little success, with the exception of Harry Sigg, who after months looking only ever found one individual. In spite of numerous other attempts, after 1984, no one was able to find this animal.

I first got interested in the Anatolian meadow viper when I tried to draw a viper family tree using genetics. I only had one DNA sample of this species and nobody knew where it came from or if it was even from an actual Anatolian meadow viper. As you can imagine, this sample wasn’t enough and I wanted to see the real Anatolian meadow viper of the lost world of Ciglikara, an inner valley inside mountains, with own eyes. This took me and a senior colleague, Nik Stuempel, who was familiar with Turkey and its fauna, on a trip to visit the Ciglikara in 2011, accompanied with Turkish herpetologist Aziz Avci. Together, we came from the North, through the ridge that surrounds the plateau and crossed on foot. I still see myself standing on top of the ridge, looking at the plateau – almost like the hero of a fiction novel of the nineteenths century, and thinking about the viper living here. Unfortunately, a freak mountain accident stopped us a few steps away from where I later discovered the viper, when my friend and colleague, Nik, lost his left-hand’s little finger.

The story does not end there however. With the support of key Turkish herpetologists and funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, we went back to the lost plateau in 2013, with only one goal – finding the Anatolian Meadow Viper and assessing how well the species was doing. To do so, we needed to know where it lived, what was going on there, what threats existed, if any, and what could be done to ensure its long-term survival. We spent day after day in a frantic search inside the Ciglikara. Most of the places we visited looked like perfect viper habitat to us, but apparently not to the viper. Every passing day, we woke up earlier and went farther – but without success. But we didn’t want to believe the species was really extinct! No, we though we must be looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

And then one day, I lost contact with one of our team members, Andrey Tupikov, and went searching for him. While I searched for Andrey, I thought to myself, as many do in these situations: “My mother was right, I should have been a doctor. Just let us find Andrey safe and sound, the viper is not that important, people are.”. We finally found him, sad and exhausted. With a fading voice he said: “nothing, except a small xanthine!” – Montivipera xanthine is the scientific name of the Ottoman Viper, a common snake in that region.

Except that the “small xanthina” turned out to be a full grown Anatolian meadow viper! We had found the Anatolian meadow viper, three decades after its last spotting. After that, everything seemed comparatively easy! We found an additional 17 individuals, including the first adult male ever recorded, we managed to do a population assessment, and we mapped other areas inhabited by the viper. The following season, Dr. Friederike Spitzenberger, the leader of the dormouse expedition, who collected the very first individual of this species, came to the study site, 45 years after her discovery and talked to us about her experience.

The irony of the story is that the snake while endangered, is not that rare after all. It just inhabits a small and very isolated area, restricted to a narrow altitude range. Our findings stimulated other scientists to continue our research and attracted the attention of local authorities to this singular species. While nobody can control all potential threats, it can at least now be protected from known local pressures.

AUTHOR

Oleksandr Zinenko
I am a zoologist who became fascinated by vipers twenty years ago. Since then, I have carried out several research projects. My research includes not only different aspects of ecology and taxonomy but also conservation, population genetics and species evolution.

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