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Rare burrowing water snake discovered from Western Ghats in Maharashtra

The snake was earlier wrongly identified as the Olive Forest Snake

mumbai Updated: Sep 13, 2017 11:20 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Western Ghats,burrowing water snake
Adult reptiles were seen at fresh water streams in the forests (Akshay Khandekar)

A new species of a burrowing water snake or Aquatic Rhabdops was discovered from the north of Western Ghats in Maharashtra, Goa and northern Karnataka by scientists after an eight-year-long research. The snake was earlier wrongly identified as the Olive Forest Snake, which is found in the Wayand district of Kerala.

Belonging to the genus Rhabdops, which is endemic to India, the medium-sized, non-venomous species is new to science and has been identified in several areas in Maharashtra such as the Koyna region, the Chandoli National Park, between Kolhapur and Sangli districts, Baraki in Kohlapur district and Amboli in Sindhudurg. In north Karnataka, it was identified from Castle Rock in Uttar Kannada and some areas in Goa.

The longest adult known specimen of this new species is 950mm in length. The average size of the King Cobra is 4,000mm. The findings were submitted to the scientific journal Zootaxa and a detailed research paper was recently published.

Adult reptiles were seen at fresh water streams in the forests and juveniles were mostly spotted in waterlogged areas near rocky plateaus. The juvenile and adult snakes are differently coloured. Their colour also varies owing to their habitat.

The discovery was a result of collaborative effort between scientists from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore; Natural History Museum (NHM), London, UK; Centre for Ecological Science (CES), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Indian Herpetological Society (IHS), Pune; Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun; Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), Peechi and College of Veterinary Science (CVS), Pookode, Kerala.

The team conducted the detailed study, both using deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and morphology, of the historical and recently collected specimens from various localities in the Western Ghats. This new species was previously thought to be the Olive Forest Snake (discovered in 1863 based on specimens collected from Mananthavady in Wayand District Kerala) owing to its similarities in characteristics and distribution.

“This new species was wrongly identified prior to our study. We concluded that this species was aquatic and has not been previously identified,” said Dr Varad Giri from NCBSA Bangalore, lead author of the paper, adding that the Olive Forest Snake is restricted to Kerala and Tamil Nadu only.

Study significant for protecting biodiversity of northern Western Ghats

Dr Varad Giri from NCBSA Bangalore said that further studies need to be done to identify their exact population but preliminary assessment found 40 individuals in one location. “There is good distribution of these species, especially in Maharashtra. So far the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had identified the Olive Forest Snake all along the Western Ghats. What we found is the distribution of snake species is different in the northern and southern parts of the Western Ghats and there is a need of reassessment for IUCN criteria for this new species,” he said.

This significance of this study highlights the organismal diversity in northern Western Ghats, which is slowly falling prey to developmental activities, said Giri. “The area is not considered very rich in biodiversity and highlights the importance of safeguarding this area consisting of rocky plateaus and forest streams,” he said.

First Published: Sep 13, 2017 11:12 IST