The Endangered Greek meadow viper Vipera graeca is one of the world’s rarest snakes, endemic to the high-elevation alpine meadow grasslands in the Pindos Mountain chain of Albania and Greece. First recorded on the highest Greek mountains in 1985 and subsequently described as a unique subspecies 3 years later, it was elevated to full species in 2017. Sadly, our research predicts that 90% of its habitat will be lost by the 2080s as a result of climate change and habitat degradation.

The Endangered Greek meadow viper Vipera graeca.

Spatial prioritization in conservation planning has traditionally been developed for several species and/or habitats, and applications for single species are rare. However, we were interested in identifying priority areas specifically for the conservation of the Greek meadow viper. We therefore developed a novel spatial prioritization model based on accurate, remotely sensed estimates of threats that could be affecting the long-term persistence of the species.

A Greek meadow viper hiding among the grass in an alpine meadow.

We mapped known threats to the species, comprising climate change (likelihood of future persistence, potential for altitudinal range shift) and land-use impact (habitat alteration, degradation, disturbance). We also mapped habitat suitability (climate suitability, habitat size, occupancy, vegetation suitability). By applying the Zonation systematic conservation planning tool, we found that 90% of current habitats will become unsuitable by the 2080s. Conservation actions need to be implemented urgently to avoid extinction of this already a threatened species, which occupies a narrow ecological niche.

Our results outline the species’ strongholds and reveal the imminent negative effect climate change will have on alpine meadow ecosystems. We identified where grazing pressure is having the greatest effect on the viper and can now work with local shepherds to promote more sustainable grazing practices in these areas.

Meadows of the Pindos Mountains.

Our study demonstrates that spatial prioritization for a single species is a promising approach for conservation planning. Having a strong baseline knowledge of where to focus conservation actions is invaluable. Realizing that most of the snake’s populations could go extinct within the next few decades, we recommend exploring the possibility of establishing an ex situ breeding programme as insurance in case there is a future need for reintroductions. We hope our work can act as a template for securing funding to implement a conservation programme to preserve this unique viper and other endemic species of the alpine meadows in the Pindos Mountains.

Snowy slopes of the Pindos mountains.

All photos: E. Mizsei

The article Determining priority areas for an Endangered cold-adapted snake on warming mountaintops is available at Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Edvárd Mizsei previously worked as an amphibian and reptile specialist in Natura 2000 management planning, and is currently a PhD student at the Conservation Ecology Research Group, Centre for Ecological Research, Hungary. He spent the last 10 years studying the Greek meadow viper Vipera graeca in Albania and Greece, and currently works on a LIFE project on the Hungarian meadow viper Vipera ursinii rakosiensis. He is a dedicated conservation ecologist with experience in geoinformatics, biodiversity mapping and other fields of conservation science.

Dr Stephen Roussos is a Research Scientist at the University of North Texas, Denton, USA. His research focuses on vipers and other reptiles of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, in particular the ecology and evolution of fragmented and isolated populations.