Finding Wallace In Gujarat
With the discovery of a new snake species from Gujarat, Zeeshan A. Mirza and colleagues realise a dream.
Photo: Zeeshan A. Mirza
In July 2014, while I was home in Mumbai on a break after a long field trip to Kerala, followed by exhaustive lab work, a friend, Harshil Patel, called to inform me that a snake I had been looking for had been found! He was referring to a rare colubrid snake, the Indian smooth snake Coronella brachyuran, which Raju Vyas, a well-known Gujarat-based herpetologist, had written about in 2007. Concerning its distribution, he had suggested that a variation of the species, which bore two lateral-longitudinal stripes could be found in Bhavnagar. When I called him, and expressed my doubts about it even being the same species, he said that since all we had was an image of the reptile, we could only consider it a morph of the Indian smooth snake. The proper identification of snakes requires careful examination of scales and their dental morphology, neither of which can be done from a photograph. Over the years, images of this snake from Bhavnagar had surfaced on social media groups, usually identified as the Indian smooth snake. But the true identification could not be verified by anyone in the scientific community.
Now, finally after seven years we had a live individual in hand to help make a positive identification. The snake had been found by a fellow snake rescuer, Jaydeep Maheta, in a shallow pool of water at a construction site near Khengariya, Viramgam taluka in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district.
Snakes have always fascinated me. Even during my school days, I would rescue snakes from houses and societies near my home and release them in the nearby woods. But as time progressed, I realised that the practice of ‘snake rehabilitation’ often did not end well for the unfortunate reptiles. I, therefore, chose to concentrate on snake taxonomy. After having spent time at the Natural History Museum, London, and trained at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, I was better equipped to shed light on the identity of this ‘Gujarati’ snake!
The precious live specimen was deposited at the national research facility where I was able to study it carefully. Close observation revealed the presence of a scale usually present in racer snakes and a unique pattern of scales on its back, which separated it from most non-venomous snakes belonging to the colubrid family. I contacted Raju Vyas to share these findings and to my surprise, he too had more data on this snake, including photographs from several localities across Gujarat, plus two dead specimens that had been sent to him by his colleagues.
Data from the dead specimens and the one rescued by Jaydeep were congruent. Now it was time to compare this data with available literature and museum specimens. Harshil spent time at the Bombay Natural History Society matching the new snake with those housed in their collection, while Rajesh Sanap and I compared morphological data of the new snake with images from my trip to the Natural History Museum and with old literature on snakes. The morphology of the jawbones and vertebrae confirmed that the snake was indeed a member of the group of racers. But neither did it match any known species, nor could it be accommodated in any recorded genus! When this was confirmed by way of DNA comparison with other snake species… it slowly dawned on us that we had struck gold!
The snake from Gujarat not only turned out to be a new species, but also a new genus. This was beyond exciting. Describing a new vertebrate genus is a dream for most researchers. For us, it was a dream-come-true.
As protocol demanded, a paper, jointly authored by Raju Vyas, Harshil Patel, Jaydeep Maheta, Rajesh Sanap and I was submitted to the journal Plos One in July 2015. It was accepted and duly published on March 3, 2016. The new genus Wallaceophis was named after Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a British naturalist, geographer, biologist and anthropologist, for his pioneering work on biogeography and for co-discovering the theory of natural selection. The species gujaratensis was named after the state of Gujarat where the snake was discovered.
The new discovery of the Wallace’s striped snake merely reflects the paucity of knowledge on lesser known taxa across India, and our team advocates dedicated surveys to document biodiversity across landscapes that have been otherwise considered less biodiverse. A large number of projects and expeditions are routinely carried out in biodiversity hotspots such as the Western Ghats and Northeast India, but this find dramatically highlights the need to channel funding and effort to lesser explored parts of India too.
Apart from mammals and birds among vertebrates, and a few invertebrate groups like butterflies, we are far from having a complete understanding of our rich biodiversity. The present work was the outcome of collaboration between researchers, a naturalist and a reptile enthusiast, and the integration of classic taxonomy with advanced DNA techniques. Such endeavours should be encouraged more readily, both with funding and permissions, because a mere researcher, working on his or her own, can never hope to reach every corner of our vast and beautiful country. How unfortunate it would be if the myriad life forms that we are blessed to have, remain unearthed and possibly, even go extinct, because their preferred habitats were lost before our realizing their existence!
Author: Zeeshan Mirza, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, April 2016.