Instagram Post Leads to Discovery of New Himalayan Snake Species

The new species of kukri snake was photographed in a postdoctoral student's backyard.

kukri snake head from all angles

Evolutionary Systematics

During lockdown in the early days of the global pandemic, many of us filled the time by pursuing new hobbies or exploring local sights. For Virendar Bhardwaj, a master’s student at Guru Nanak Dev University in India, a lull in classes meant taking a stroll through his own backyard and uploading pictures of various plants and animals he found interesting to Instagram.

In June 2020, Bhardwaj, who lives in Chamba near the foot of the Himalayas, uploaded a picture of a small black and white snake flicking out its forked tongue. While he correctly tagged the photo as a species of kukri, so-named for its curved teeth shaped like a Nepali dagger of the same name, it turned out to be a completely unknown variety. 

According to Mongabay, a herpetologist (someone who studies amphibians and reptiles) named Zeeshan A. Mirza, from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, India, was browsing Instagram when he came across Bhardwaj’s post. After staring at the image for a few moments, he became increasingly convinced that this small snake was completely new to science. 

Together with Harshil Patel of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Mirza met up with Bhardwaj and proceeded to search for the mystery species. The team was subsequently able to capture two snakes—a male and a female. While they noted that the snakes, discovered just after dusk moving along a mud road, did not show any initial aggression, one of the researchers was bitten by the male during the capture process. Fortunately, kukri (if this new species was, in fact, a member—a nail-biting unknown at that very moment) are non-venomous. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the team’s findings would not be officially confirmed until labs reopened in early 2021. Once access resumed, molecular data, morphological information from literature, and skeletal scans of the snake all pointed to a newly unidentified species. 

Mirza and his colleagues named the snake Oligodon churahensis after the Churah Valley of Himachal Pradesh in which it was first discovered. In a paper published in the journal "Evolutionary Systematics," Bhardwaj joined Mirza and Patel in detailing the characteristics of the new species of kukri.

“The snake which Virendar found was similar to the Common Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis), however, it differed in several aspects,” Mirza told the India Times. These physical differences, while subtle, included a differing number of scales, as well as a lack of teeth in a certain region of the mouth indicating a diet possibly consisting of eggs. 

In the acknowledgements section of their paper, the team first thanked Instagram, noting that it would not have been possible to uncover the new species without the social media network. 

“It is quite interesting to note ... how an image from Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that was unknown to the world,” Mirza told Mongabay. “Exploration of your own backyard may yield species that are perhaps undocumented. Lately, people want to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks at their own backyard, one may end up finding a new species right there."

View Article Sources
  1. Mirza, Zeeshan A., et al. "A New Species of Snake of the Genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas." Evolutionary Systematics, vol. 5, no. 2, 2021, pp. 335-345., doi:10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564