In India, certain snake species are threatened because their skin and, in the case of venomous snakes, their venom are highly coveted, despite being protected under the Wildlife Act of 1972.
Because of the growing concern over the potential loss of these precious herps, scientists have been trying to develop new methods of identifying snake species used to make the products confiscated from poachers.
Most recently, Indian scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad developed a method of identifying species of snakes from dried snake venom samples. This study, published in published the Journal of Forensic Sciences, is the first successful attempt at DNA isolation and species identification through dried snake venom.
Under normal circumstances, it is nearly impossible to extract DNA from snake venom because when a snake voluntarily injects or ejects its venom, it usually does not contains snake cells. In a poaching scenario, however, the venom is forcefully collected from the specimen. This led the researchers in this study to believe that there might be some epithelial cells from the salivary gland present in the smuggled venom.
Following this assumption, the scientists extracted three 100mg samples of dried venom crystals from the confiscated venom and proceeded with a DNA-based species identification method.
First, the scientists used universal primers, short sequences of RNA, to amplify the cytochrome b region of the mitochondrial DNA. They then compared the sequence obtained to the most common venomous snakes of India and found that it shared more than 99% of its sequence with one specific species, the Indian cobra (Naja naja).
All Indian snakes are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, but the Indian cobra has special “high priority” status. Thanks to these results, the poachers are currently being prosecuted for the crime of illegal hunting of an endangered venomous snake and snake venom smuggling. The decision is pending.
This new approach will allow for rapid identification of endangered snake species and will, hopefully, contribute to the reduction of illegal snake and snake product trade.
Singh, C., Gaur, A., Sreenivas, A., & Singh, L. (2012). Species Identification from Dried Snake Venom* Journal of Forensic Sciences DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.02049.x