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Finding and Photographing one of South Africa’s Rarest Snakes

As a child, the idea of finding a long-lost dinosaur was my greatest fantasy. As I grew older and learned more about our amazing biodiversity, the idea of rediscovering a more recently lost species took over. While stumbling across a thylacine or dodo in my home nation of South Africa was unlikely, I was lucky...

As a child, the idea of finding a long-lost dinosaur was my greatest fantasy. As I grew older and learned more about our amazing biodiversity, the idea of rediscovering a more recently lost species took over. While stumbling across a thylacine or dodo in my home nation of South Africa was unlikely, I was lucky enough to be born in a country with an incredible assortment of fauna and flora. As an adult biologist, finding these species was no longer just a fantasy, but a very exciting reality.

My earliest memory, visiting the Sudwala Dinosaur Park in South Africa at age 2 –- a pivotal moment in my life. ©Vinesh Parusnath.

In November 2015, I joined a team of six biologists on an expedition to find one of South Africa’s rarest and most threatened animals, the plain mountain adder (Bitis inornata). This dwarf adder is one of the smallest adders in the world, and is currently classified as an Endangered species as a result of significant habitat transformation across its range. It is only known from two locations in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, and only seven of these snakes had been encountered in the wild before. The species was first described in 1838, and the next specimen was found 137 years later. Since then, only a handful more plain mountain adders have been found, most recently around 2006.

Prominent African herpetologist Dr. Bill Branch, with one of the seven plain mountain adders found in the 1980s. ©Bill Branch.

Herpetologist Bryan Maritz from the University of the Western Cape initiated a research project to try and understand more about this species. With limited data available, Dr. Maritz decided to start the search at the last known spot a plain mountain adder had been found. Going against everything I’d learned in TV shows, where the host goes in search of an animal only to find it in the last five minutes of the show, on the first day, on the first mountain the team climbed, Dr. Maritz lifted a rock to find, underneath, the eighth-ever wild Bitis inornata known to science!

In high spirits, the team continued lifting rocks, looking for any signs of activity in the surrounding area, but to no avail. Not only did we not find another plain mountain adder that day, but we hardly saw any other signs of animal life. The barrenness of our search area was truly astonishing. I could not fathom how a member of this species would be able to find food, let alone find a mate. Over the next week, despite having six experienced pairs of eyes scouring the area, we didn’t see another plain mountain adder.

The team taking a well-earned break at the top of a mountain somewhere in the Sneeuberg range. Project leader Dr. Bryan Maritz on the left. ©Shivan Parusnath.

We did eventually find some other great animals though.

A colourful male puff adder (Bitis arietans) ©Shivan Parusnath.

A spotted rock snake (Lamprophis guttatus) with the Sneeuberg mountain range in the background ©Shivan Parusnath.

Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) ©Shivan Parusnath.

Burrowing scorpion (Ophistophthalmus sp) ©Shivan Parusnath.

Back to the main attraction: We kept the plain mountain adder overnight, so that we could obtain as much data as we could from her. This included length, weight, and other measurements; a tissue sample; and finally, we fitted her with a tiny transponder that will allow us to identify her in future.

Before embarking on this trip, I envisioned the photographs I wanted to take of this snake. It is always more difficult to get people to “connect” with life forms further from us on the tree of life. But I know the impact that powerful photographs can have in changing perspectives, and I wanted to get some emotive portraits of this demure snake. As it is, having the word “plain” in the species’ name isn’t helping things

I started with capturing studio-like portraits using a 100mm macro lens and a twin-flash system. Using multiple light sources accentuated the rough, keeled scales on the snake’s head. Suddenly in this lighting, the plain mountain adder didn’t look so plain, and looked more like a dragon.

Plain mountain adder portrait. ©Shivan Parusnath.

Plain mountain adder portrait. ©Shivan Parusnath.

Next, I created some wide-angle macro shots. Using a wide-angle lens allowed me to show off the beautiful, expansive mountain range in the background so that it too became part of the story.

Plain mountain adder: wide-angle macro portrait. ©Shivan Parusnath.

Plain mountain adder: wide-angle macro portrait. ©Shivan Parusnath.

Johan Marais from the African Snakebite Institute photographs the plain mountain adder, showing how tiny this snake is. ©Shivan Parusnath.

The experience provided the perfect intersection of my two primary loves: biology and photography. More than that, through these photographs we have been able to raise the profile of a species that most people in South Africa have never heard of. Through the power of social media, our story reached tens of thousands of viewers, many of who responded with concern for the species’ plight, and an appreciation for a species that has received negligible attention since it was discovered 177 years ago. Certainly, it has inspired me to lead my own expeditions in South Africa, to find, photograph, study, and tell the story of our rarest reptiles and amphibians.

What’s next for the species? Since our survey, the tissue samples have already been used in a phylogenetic study to further understand the complex Bitis genus that the species belongs to. And of course, further research on the distribution and ecology of the species is planned. Although studying this species sounds impossible — and it may take weeks or months of searching to find another individual, — eventually we will know enough about the species’ ecology and behaviour to know how to conserve it.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Shivan Parusnath
Shivan Parusnath is a Ph.D. student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where he researches the population genetics of the sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a threatened lizard species. He has been working on this rare and charismatic lizard since 2011, and the findings from his master’s research on the conservation status of the sungazer have led to important changes to the national legislature on trading the species, and helped create a network of safe habitats for sungazer populations. His work on sungazers led him to research the illegal reptile trade in South Africa, and how it affects wild populations. Shivan is also a keen photographer. His goal is to link his passions for reptiles and photography through investigative photography and videography to shed light on the illegal reptile trade in South Africa. Shivan is a 2014 National Geographic Young Explorer grantee and is part of the 2017 Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program.