Authored by Professor Jelka Crnobrnja-Isailović, VSG Coordinator for Europe
Thirty four viper biologists attended the fourth Biology of Vipers conference in Athens, Greece, on October 10-13, 2014, supported by Societas Hellenica Herpetologica and Viper Specialist Group (VSG) and co-chaired by Dr. Maria Dimaki and Stephen Roussos. Two plenary lectures were given by our distinguished colleagues, Dr. Luca Luiselli and Dr. Goran Nilson. Two round tables were held by Dr. Konrad Mebert and Prof. Jelka Crnobrnja-Isailovic, and 26 oral and 14 poster presentations were grouped into five sessions: distribution patterns and dynamics, general and population biology, phylogenetics, phylogeography and taxonomy, genetic and phenotypic variation, and conservation. In total, 105 authors contributed to this conference.
The VSG meeting was organized as a round table and held by European regional coordinator Prof. J. Crnobrnja-Isailović on the last day of the meeting. The topics discussed there were: 1) proposed taxonomic changes; 2) priorities for ongoing Red List assessment on European vipers; 3) report on illegal trade of vipers; 4) information on the new round of competition for the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation (MBZSC) Fund; 5) a call for regional contributions for the next issue of VSG Newsletter; and 6) varia.
The questionnaire addressing changes of taxonomic and/or conservation status within the Viperidae family was distributed among conference attendees a day before the VSG meeting. Around 20 questionnaires were taken by the participants, but only nine participants have answered them so far. The PDFs of filled questionnaires were forwarded to the VSG IUCN Red List Authority Coordinator, Dr. Johannes Penner.
Regarding taxonomic changes, Vipera ursinii graeca was mostly in focus because of the specific position of graeca clade, which suggested proclaiming it a separate species. There were also individual suggestions written in the questionnaires regarding change of taxonomic position of Vipera (berus) nikolskii, Vipera aspis hugyi and Croatian populations of V. ursinii. All these comments were forwarded in electronic format to the VSG IUCN Red List Authority Coordinator. However, European VSG members who are experts in molecular phylogeny and systematics should be, with no exception, consulted before acceptance of any taxonomic change related to these viper taxa.
For ongoing European assessment, the viper experts proposed following species as Red List priorities: Macrovipera lebetina, Vipera berus, V. (berus) nikolskii, V. (aspis) hugyi and V.( ursinii) graeca. For some other species there were also proposed changes of Red List status, e.g. for V. eriwanensis, V. darevskii , V. kaznakovi, Bothrops pulchra, B. punctatus, Bothrocophias campbelli and Porthidium lansbergii.
The question was posed about finding an effective way to underline a specific status of threat to Aegean island viper populations, e.g. those of V. ammodytes and Montivipera xanthina, because there are some that can go extinct in the near future. It was underlined that Macrovipera schweizeri should keep its priority status.
Additionally, a separate round table on the vipers from Northeastern Turkey, coordinated by Dr. Konrad Mebert, occurred a day before where some goals for VSG were suggested: a) an update and adjustment of the content, including threat assessment of all vipers of northeastern Turkey to reflect the status quo of knowledge; b) evaluation of the status of newly-described species; and c) promotion of more efficient use of the scarce financial funds from governments, academic institutions and foundations. In summary, there were many open questions that cannot be solved without a joint meeting of the experts, related both to conservation and taxonomy, in order to reach a reliable consensus.
The topic on illegal trade on vipers was of great interest among the viper experts. A vivid discussion occurred after a short introduction by the regional VSG coordinator for Europe. A number of participants denied occurrence of high interest for wild caught African viper species. By their own knowledge, for herpetoculturists it is much more easy and safe to buy and maintain individuals bred in captivity, as the risks of importing and spreading parasites and diseases in terraria are minimized. The experts explained that customers’ interest for certain viper species is always a short-term, because increase of the number of individuals of certain species on the market leads to decrease of both interest for it and its price. The experts claimed that what could be dangerous for long-term species survival is uncontrolled export from the country (or countries) of origin as a result of false information about the interest on the market, but it is always a problem that cannot be solved without the support of local governments.
Participants were informed about recent recipients of the MBZSC Fund who are also European VSG members. The e-mail address of coordinator Dr. Pritpal Soorae was shared among participants with encouragement to continue submitting project proposals related to the conservation of vipers to this foundation.
A link to the VSG webpage within The Orianne Society website was presented to the participants, as well as European contributions to the first issue of VSG Newsletter. The participants were encouraged to submit reports related to their current research on vipers. A number of participants who had not heard of VSG yet expressed their interest in joining the group. There were also suggestions that VSG should be more active in initiating viper conservation actions.