Sometime in 2011, Guwahati-based reptile expert Jayaditya Purkayastha was shown a photograph of a snake with a mark just below its eyes. He was in the outskirts of the Basar town located in what is now Arunachal Pradesh’s Lepa-Rada district. A month before, Purkayastha had distributed cameras among the locals for this very purpose — “So that they could photograph snakes they spotted.”
It was only several years later —in 2017 — that Purkayastha started studying the snake with the black spot below its eyes. Now, in scientific journal Zootaxa, the finding has been recorded as the Hebius lacrima or the Crying Keelback named for the mark below its eyes, that gives the illusion that it is crying.
“The genus Hebius is represented by 44 species worldwide out of which six species are from Northeast India,” says Purkyastha, adding that there are 3,709 species of snakes globally. “The first time I saw the snake in the photo, I noticed it was different. It was not matching with any species I knew. We then studied it: its scale, size etc,” says Purkayastha, who is director of Guwahati-based NGO Help Earth. He has been working in this field since 2006, and credited with the discovery of many new species of frogs and lizards.
The Crying Keelback has a set of characteristics that together make it different from other species in the Habeas genus: the mark under its eyes, the interrupted pale head stripe, among others.
The species was found in a rice field along a hill slope: an area where jhum or shifting cultivation was cleared. “It is common for lizards and snakes to occupy habitats where jhum or slash-and-burn cultivation is practised. Once the area is burnt, these species come out.” says Purkayastha, “Many times, because they live in the thicket, we do not even realise these species exist.” For the paper, Purkyastha worked with Patrick David of the Paris-based National Museum of Natural History, who had done research on other the other species of snakes around the world that fall under the Hebius genus.
The Northeast has around 110 species of snakes with the state of Arunachal Pradesh accounting for 55 species. But Purkayastha calls this data “half-hearted”. “These are not proper surveys. The field of Herpetology requires a lot of funds and research than it currently has,” says Purkyastha, adding that it is common for researches to move away from the field because of the lack of funds.