Locked down at home during the pandemic last year, a postgraduate student in India’s Himalayan region photographed a snake in his backyard that experts had never before seen.
Uploaded to Instagram, the picture caught the attention of a herpetologist in another part of the country, who set out to find out more about the snake.
In a newly published paper, they describe it as a new-to-science species of kukri snake (Oligodon spp.).
The authors say the discovery points to the hidden wealth of biodiversity in the western Himalayas, and call for more studies in this region.
Researchers have found a snake species never before described by science — on Instagram!
During the COVID-19 lockdowns in India, Virendar Bhardwaj, a master’s student at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, was home in Chamba, a six-hour drive away at the foot of the Himalayas. While exploring his own backyard, Bhardwaj began photographing the snakes, lizards, frogs and insects around his house and uploading those photos to Instagram.
In one of these posts, uploaded on June 5, 2020, Zeeshan A. Mirza, a herpetologist from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, in southern India, noticed an unfamiliar snake. The snake belonged to a group commonly called kukri snakes, so-called for their teeth which are curved like a kukri, or Nepali dagger. But this specimen didn’t match the common kukri snake of the region.
Bhardwaj was able to locate two of the snakes, enough for the team, which included Mirza and Harshil Patel of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat, western India, to begin the identification process.
The work was put on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, which made visiting labs and natural history museums difficult. But once the labs opened back up in early 2021, molecular data for the species confirmed it was indeed different from the common kukri snake. Morphological data from the literature, as well as computerized tomography (CT) scans of the species’ skeletal structure further revealed that the species was undescribed.
The new-to-science species was named Oligodon churahensis, after the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in the western Himalayas where the species was discovered. A description of the species is published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.
The western Himalayas are comparatively less explored than many other regions, and dedicated work in this region is necessary to reveal the biodiversity of the region, Mirza says. The region harbors unique species of reptiles that scientists have only begun to unravel in the last couple of years.
“It is quite interesting to note that how an image from Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that was unknown to the world, ” Mirza told Mongabay. “Exploration of your own backyard may yield species that are perhaps undocumented. Lately, people want to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks at their own backyard, one may end up finding a new species right there.”
Mirza, Z. A., Bhardwaj, V. K., & Patel, H. (2021). A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary Systematics, 5(2), 335-345. doi:10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564