News

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.33 Published online 4 March 2016

Snake that remained hidden for 145 years found

Richa Malhotra

M. Khairei
© Varad Giri
Indian researchers, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London, have found a new species of burrowing, non-venomous snake that has smooth, shiny scales1.

The species remained misidentified and stashed among museum specimens for a long time before scientists thought it might be distinct. To confirm their doubts, they looked in the wild – and unlike many museum finds that are extinct by the time they are discovered, this one still existed. And it continues to do so in the semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India.

“This highlights the need for exploring museums to properly understand our biodiversity,” according to Varad Giri, a post-doctoral research fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore.  

Giri and colleagues have named the new species ‘Khaire’s black shieldtail’ (Melanophidium khairei) after Neelimkumar Khaire, Director of the Snake Park in Pune, thus acknowledging his work in snake conservation.

Living deep in the soil covered in leaf litter and surfacing occasionally, M. khairei is bluish-black and up to 55 cm long. Its bullet-shaped head and small eyes are adaptations for a burrowing lifestyle. Smooth, iridescent scales keep its body dirt-free even in wet mud during the rains.

Before M. khairei’s discovery, the genus Melanophidium was known by three species, all native to the Western Ghats. Last of the three to be found – M. punctatum – was described 145 years ago, in 1871. All these years M. khairei has been wrongly labelled as its similar-looking cousin, M. punctatum.  

This revelation calls for a celebration but scientists have concerns for M. punctatum instead. All the reported specimens of this species from south Maharashtra, Goa and north Karnataka are actually that of M. khairei.

This means M. punctatum may only be restricted to some parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and its status as that of ‘least concern’ on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species might need a check.

“We will have to do intensive surveys to know what its present status is,” Giri told Nature India.

But even the newfound M. khairei, which lives at altitudes ranging from 510 to 780 m, faces its own set of threats. In Maharashtra, Giri noticed several roadkills and live individuals on the roads day and night. In some localities, the snake’s habitat is being destroyed to make way for rubber plantations.

Giri explains that these snakes are endemic to the Western Ghats because they need a particular kind of habitat; so even tiny alterations could spell disaster.


References

1.  Gower, D. J. et al. A reassessment of Melanophidium Günther, 1864 (Squamata: Serpentes: Uropeltidae) from the Western Ghats of peninsular India, with the description of a new species. Zootaxa (2016) doi:  http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4085.4