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Malabar Pit Viper

Malabar Pit Viper

Snake rescuer Rahul Alvares elaborates on the colour morphs and picky behaviour of the Malabar pit viper.

The Malabar pit viper has a heat-sensitive pit located in between the eye and nostril. Photo: Rahul Alvares.

“Have you seen the bright yellow viper in the bush in front of the building?” asked Chetana. “Is it still there?” I responded, while continuing to eat my lunch in the dining shed of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. “Oh, yes, I just saw it,” came the nonchalant reply. “Ok, thanks for letting me know! I’ll check it out after lunch,” I replied while continuing to eat at a leisurely pace.

It was an odd reaction coming from me considering that under normal circumstances I would drop anything and everything, and rush out to find the snake. Just about any snake enthusiast knows that snakes don’t wait around. They disappear in seconds.

The only reason this was the exception was because I knew that Chetana was talking about a Malabar pit viper. A few species of snakes are known to frequent their preferred spots with fair regularity, and some even use the same tree to rest for several successive nights. But none of them are as particular, and therefore, as predictable as Malabar pit vipers.

Over the years I have seen several different Malabar pit vipers choosing to not just visit the same tree or bush, but also the exact same branch or twig to nestle on for days on end!

On my first evening, Chetana had shown me a bush about three metres tall saying that by nine p.m. there would be a pit viper sitting on the twig she was pointing at. I did not believe her until later when I checked and actually found a snake that had seemingly materialised out of nowhere to coil around the exact twig Chetana had mentioned!

A day later, Brian (a visiting researcher from California) showed me a Malabar pit viper sitting on a low bush about a hundred metres from the station building. He had been seeing it in the same spot for days.

The pit viper that Chetana was talking about had chosen a low bush just outside the entrance of the research station. It had obviously been there for several days since none of the other researchers batted an eyelid on hearing Chetana’s comment! The snake stayed still while I photographed it. It was indeed bright yellow, which at the time seemed to me to be an unusual colour for a Malabar pit viper. I was going by the colours of the previous two Malabar pit vipers that had been in shades of brown and grey.

Over the years, and about a dozen Malabar pit vipers later however, I have come to understand that there is no such thing as a usual colour or pattern. I look for Malabar pit vipers every year during the rains in Ambolim and I have found them in shades of grey, azure green, brown, yellow and a rusty chocolate!

Different colour morphs in a single species is known as polymorphism. Polymorphism may be a strategy used by certain species to give them a survival advantage since it confuses predators. This could make sense when you think about the fact that most predators often lock onto particular characteristics such as body colour to identify their prey. But then why don’t most other snakes exhibit polymorphism? Well, there is a lot we don’t know, and in nature, there are always exceptions!

Whatever the possible reason for the Malabar pit viper’s varied avatars, it certainly makes for a very beautiful and interesting species to observe and photograph.

Author: Rahul Alvares, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, January, 2015.

 
 
 

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