Salazar Slytherin – the parseltongue wizard who talks with snakes in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy Harry Potter is not just a mystical character name of the Potterverse anymore! Now, its found a place in India’s biodiversity as a newly discovered pit viper from Arunachal Pradesh has been named after this character.
“I am a Potterhead and so are the two other authors on the paper. By naming this snake after Salazar Slytherin, we wanted to thank J. K. Rowling for introducing the world to the Harry Potter universe,” says Dr Zeeshan Mirza, the lead author of the study.
The study, published in the journal Zoosytematics and Evolution, describes the new species of green pit viper, now called Trimeresurus salazar. The discovery is the result of an ecological expedition looking for arachnids and reptiles across Arunachal Pradesh. The team consisted of ecologists and herpetologists from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai, Abasaheb Garware College and Fergusson College, Pune, and Veer Narmad South Gujarat University Gujarat.
“As part of the expedition, we travelled across the state from June to August in 2019. Documenting species of our expertise, we visited the Pakke Tiger Reserve where this discovery happened,” recalls Mr Zeeshan Mirza.
The new species, also called Salazar’s pit viper, has a distinct orange-reddish stripe running from the lower border of the eye to the posterior part of the head. It also has more teeth than other related species and a short bilobed hemipenis - the male sex organ. This new species is distributed in the eastern parts of the Himalayas and was found at an elevation of 172 m above sea level. Its sister species, the northern white-lipped pit viper Trimeresurus septentrionalis, is known to occur at higher altitudes. While the elevational gradient in the Himalayas could play a key role in speciation of different organisms, the researchers are yet to understand if it is valid for these pit vipers.
“There is enormous evidence that shows that elevation plays a key role in speciation as each species occupies a different elevational niche. Given that we still do not know how many species of pit vipers exist, and most may be wrongly identified, we do not know their exact distribution,” says Zeeshan. “These pit vipers may be adapted to specific elevation, but it is difficult to say due to lack of data even on the most common species,” he adds.
Trimeresurus salazar from Pakke Tiger Reserve [Image credits: Dr .Zeeshan Mirza]
Discovering a new species from such rugged terrain is challenging, to say the least! “Identification is impossible in the field and at times, even scalation data, which is a standard data for snake species identification, will not be sufficient,” explains Zeeshan. Arunachal Pradesh, like other states in the North East, has enormous forests and its biodiversity remains poorly documented. In the recent past, many reptiles and amphibians have been discovered in these hotspots. So, could more pit vipers be waiting to be found soon?
“Most species of pit vipers of northeast India are green, and I will not be surprised that if we get more new species on our next trip,” he says.
As Salazar’s pit viper enters the books of India’s known biodiversity, it is already threatened by the construction of new roads, habitat destruction and overexploitation of forest resources. “Large expanses of forests across Arunachal Pradesh are being cleared for roads, hydroelectric power plants, agriculture and other human-induced pressures,” regrets Zeeshan. The recent approval of the Dibang hydroelectric project is already facing a backlash.
“I urge everyone to oppose the destruction of forests across Arunachal Pradesh not to protect only this new species but also many more that might be wiped out even before they are discovered,” he signs off with a call to action.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.