Found: new vine snake species after a gap 113 years


Zoologists have discovered a new vine snake species from the eastern State of Odisha. A new taxon of vine snake is being found after a gap of over a century. The last time a vine snake species was described was in 1906.

Vine snake is a slender rear-fanged snake with narrow heads and pointed snouts. Belonging to the family Colubridae, it has three prominent genera –Oxybelis found in the American continent, Thelotornis found in Africa, and Ahaetull, which is distributed through India and Southeast Asia. Seven vine snake species are found in India. The taxonomy of Ahaetulla vine snake is not fully understood, and there is no consensus on species characterization. The recent advancements in molecular technology are helping to study the species.

It took about 10 years of field and laboratory work to describe the new species. Scientists have named it Ahaetulla Laudankia or Laudankia vine snake since it was found in Odisha. The local name for vine snakes in the eastern State is Laudankia or Laudaka, as the snake resembles dried stems (‘Danka’) of bottle gourd (‘Lau’).

Discovery has an interesting story behind it. In 2009, researchers collected a brown-colored snake from Similipal Biosphere Reserve, and they initially thought it might be haetullana sutaisabellinus, a sub-species of the common vine snake found in India.

However, after studying another brown vine snake specimen (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) from Baripada also in Odisha, they noticed some variations in color between the specimens. The researchers felt that the specimen they had collected from Similipal may be a new variety. However, they came across three more specimens from Balasore district of Odisha, which further intrigued them.

Ahaetulla laudankia from Odisha state. Photo credit: Pratyush P. Mohapatra
Ahaetulla laudankia from Odisha state.
Photo credit: Pratyush P. Mohapatra

A molecular analysis was conducted, and it proved that the initial specimen was indeed a unique species. It was genetically distinct from green vine snakes. After reviewing all the literature pertaining to the brown coloured vine snakes from India and after cross-validating with two old collections of brown vine snakes from Rajasthan, the team was convinced it had discovered of a new species. They have published a report on their work in the Journal of Natural History. The entire sequence of research took about a decade.

Speaking about the future programme, Dr. Pratyush P. Mohapatra, a member of the research team at the Central Zone Regional Centre of Zoological Survey of India, said, “We are now trying to find the snake’s distribution range. The immediate target is to find the original distribution range. We are mapping its presence throughout India. We are getting information about its occurrence from different parts of the country.”

The research team included scientists from different institutions – V. Deepak (Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru); Surya Narayanan (Wayanad Wild), Vivek Sarkar (Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun) and Sushil K. Dutta (Nature, Environment & Wildlife Society, Angul). (India Science Wire)

Journal Reference

  1. V. Deepak, Surya Narayanan, Vivek Sarkar, Sushil K. Dutta & Pratyush P. Mohapatra (2019) A new species of Ahaetulla Link, 1807 (Serpentes: Colubridae: Ahaetullinae) from India, Journal of Natural History, 53:9-10, 497-516, DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2019.1589591
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