A 23-year-old in Himachal Pradesh discovered a new species of Himalayan snake, entirely by accident and via Instagram. That’s the short version. Here, blow by intriguing blow, is the story of how it happened.
Virender Kumar Bhardwaj, a PhD student of zoology in Amritsar, returned home to Chamba during the first lockdown in March 2020, and began to spend hours every day indulging his passion for nature photography. The surroundings were ideal for this: the road that connects his family’s home in the village of Thanai Kothi to the nearest main road is a hilly tract that runs down into a valley on one side and up into lush green forests on the other.
Bhardwaj began spotting numerous colourful and unusual species here, and posted pictures of his favourite insects, birds and reptiles on Instagram (@himalayan_xplorer). He posted images of animals such as the yellow-throated marten and Himalayan weasel, birds like the chukar partridge.
On one of these walks, he noticed a snake that looked like a banded kukri. The snake is named for the black bands on its body, and its sharp curved teeth that resemble the Nepali dagger called the kukri. “I was not carrying my camera so I took a few photographs with my cellphone and released the kukri,” Bhardwaj says. The banded kukri is found across India, but this one looked quite distinct, so Bhardwaj posted his pictures on Instagram with some excitement. This was in June 2020.
The images caught the eye of Zeeshan Mirza, a scientist studying reptiles and amphibians at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru. He brought them to the attention of Harshil Patel, a PhD student from Surat whom he has worked with often. No, this wasn’t a regular banded kukri, the two men agreed. Mirza reached out to Bhardwaj. This snake looked really unusual; could he get some more images?
It took Bhardwaj two more trips to the same spot, this time armed with his DSLR, before he spotted a male and a female. By this time, Mirza had applied for and received a permit from the Himachal Pradesh forest department to collect two samples, which Bhardwaj did.
The two scientists were now fairly certain that this was an undocumented species. Mirza collected morphological data such as the shape of the skull and number of teeth and scales. He and Patel also conducted DNA sequencing and compared the results with those of related species. Their findings confirmed what Mirza had suspected: the locals knew this snake, but science still didn’t. Further research confirmed that this species had never been named and described in scientific literature. In all, it took a year for their discovery to make it through these phases.
In November, the trio published a description of the new species, Oligodon churahensis, in the journal Evolutionary Systematic. Oligodon is the genus; churahensis is for the Churah Valley of Himachal Pradesh, where it was found.
“What was unique about the Himalayan kukri in Bhardwaj’s photographs was that the bands were more and different. Even the colour was slightly different from the regular banded kukri,” Mirza says, adding that it was an exciting find to make, particularly in a pandemic year when fieldwork has been restricted.
Both Bhardwaj and Mirza are keen to continue working together to document more species in Himachal Pradesh. “About 80% of species on earth are undescribed and several go extinct undiscovered, so it feels really good to have contributed to discovering a new species,” Bhardwaj says.
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