Armenian Viper Research

To study range sizes, movement patterns and genetic diversity in Armenian vipers in Armenia

 

The Armenian viper, Montivipera raddei, is a medium-sized snake with a known range that includes easternmost Turkey, extreme northwestern Iran, and adjacent Armenia. In Armenia it occurs at elevations between 1100 and 2400 meters in rocky habitat covered by thin oak forests and bushes. Although the rapid decline of M. raddei populations was documented in the early 1980s and the species was subsequently listed as a species of concern in the Red Data Book of the USSR (Borodin, 1984) and the Red Data Book of Armenian S.S.R. Animals (Movsesjan, 1987), there has not been any conservation action directed towards this species. Throughout Armenia the habitat of M. raddei has been subject to considerable modification for agricultural activities. In addition, large numbers of vipers have been collected for the pet trade during the past 10 years. The population density of M. raddei was estimated at 20 – 50 specimens/hectare in the mid-1960’s; 10 – 25 specimens/hectare in the 1980’s; and current estimates indicate that there are only 3 – 9 specimens/hectare. The only protected habitat for the species is in Khosrov Nature Reserve.

As a consequence of restricted distributions, habitat destruction/alteration, over-collection and unnaturally high mortality resulting from human persecution, many species of vipers in the Caucasus and Transcaucasus regions are considered highly vulnerable to extinction. Approximately 15 taxa of vipers inhabit these regions, including members of the mountain viper (Montivipera) complex. We have limited knowledge of their biology in the wild,  in part becaucse of their isolated, restricted distribution.

 

The current objectives of the Armenian Viper Conservation Programme are:

 

  1. Estimate the home range size of M. raddei and determine whether there is seasonal variation in their movements and habitat use.
  2.  Assess the genetic distinctiveness of the fragmented populations using mtDNA analyses to look for phylogeographic patterns and to evaluate the genetic variation within and between populations.

 
In 2004 a preliminary radio-telemetry project was initiated to study the ecology of M. raddei in Khosrov Nature Reserve. This study collaboratively undertaken by the Armenian Ministry of Nature and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Preliminary data suggest that it is feasible to track the movements of M. raddei in the complex mountainous terrain of Armenia. In addition, the data  indicate that the movement patterns are similar to those of other viperid snakes.

To date, genetic studies have focused on the phylogenetic relationships between the eight species comprising Montivipera and the taxonomic position of the genus within the Viperidae. No studies have been conducted on any of the Montivipera species to examine their population structure or possible evolutionary subdivisions.

To address questions regarding activity patterns, home range size and habitat requirements, the project will build upon what was learned from the preliminary study conducted in 2004-05. A radio-telemetry study will be carried out in the Abovian region (30 minutues north of Yerevan) and will continue until 2010. It should provide a solid base of ecological data for M. raddei in Armenia. A second component will involve mtDNA analyses to look for phylogeographic patterns. We will examine mtDNA cytochrome b sequence variation, which has proven useful for elucidating phylogeographic patterns in other snakes. The primary goals are to assess the genetic distinctiveness of populations and to evaluate the genetics variation within and between populations. The data from the radio-telemetry study and mtDNA analyses will be used to help formulate management strategies for M. raddei populations and their habitat.

WAZA Conservation Project 08018 is implemented by the Saint Louis Zoo’s Wild Care Institute in collaboration with and supported by the Ministry of Nature Protection (Republic of Armenia), Russian Academy of Sciences, Tula Exotarium, and Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo.

 

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