What they found was a result of an expedition that was as much herpetological as it was literary. And a year on, it has a name: Trimeresurus salazar or Salazar’s pit viper — a bright green snake discovered slithering in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh — named after a character in author JK Rowling’s cult Harry Potter series.
“All of us are obviously very big fans,” said researcher Zeeshan A Mirza, part of the five-member team which had travelled to Arunachal Pradesh between June and August 2019. On a July night, they found two pit vipers in the evergreen thickets of Pakke Tiger Reserve.
Months later, in a paper published in the international science journal Zoosystematics and Evolution, the two have been described as “new species” and christened after Salazar Slytherin, the founder of the famous fictional school for wizards, who had a dark penchant for talking to snakes.
“The specific epithet is a noun in apposition for JK Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s co-founder, Salazar Slytherin. He was a Parselmouth that links him to serpents. Suggested common name: Salazar’s pit viper” states a paragraph marked under the ‘etymology’ section in the paper.
What sets apart this species from its other venomous counterparts (Trimeresurus septentrionalis, Trimeresurus insularis and Trimeresurus albolabris) is “an orange to reddish stripe running from the lower border of the eye to the posterior part of the head in males, higher number of pterygoid and dentary teeth, and a short, bilobed hemipenis.”
“This basically means it is morphologically different from other kinds of pit vipers — it has small red lines near its lips, more teeth and a completely different hemipenal structure,” explained Harshal S Bhosale, of Bombay Natural History Society, who was also part of the expedition.
It was in 2012 that Bhosale first went to Arunachal Pradesh. “What can I say? That place is like heaven for herpetologists,” he said, adding that a “lack of research” had marred the field of herpetology in India. “Not many people have studied reptiles and amphibians in India. The reference books we have are mostly written by British people, published in the 1930s,” said Bhosale.
However, the group comprising, Pushkar Phansalkar (of the Wildlife Institute of India), Mandar Sawant (Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai), Gaurang Gowande (of Pune’s Fergusson College) and Harshil Patel (of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University), apart from Mirza and Bhosale, has always had an affinity for reptiles. In fact, the expedition in 2019, attended by all five but Patel, was part of a project called “Accessing the herpetological biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh.”
Northeast India has around 110 species of snakes with the state of Arunachal Pradesh accounting for more than fifty species. Pit vipers are found across east and southeast Asia — out of 48 known ones, 15 have been recorded in India, and seven in Northeast India. However, the researchers feel that the diversity could be more as such snakes are “morphologically cryptic making it difficult to distinguish them in the field.”
While the new discovery is a cause of much cheer in Indian herpetology, the researchers expressed concern about the dams, roads and other developmental activities proposed in the area. In March, a survey for a proposed 49km road between Sejosa and Bhalokpong threatened to cut through Pakke Tiger Reserve (PTR), the natural habitat of the species, was kept in abeyance by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu‘s office following opposition from environmental activists. PTR is home to over 2,000 species of plants, 300 species of birds, 40 species of mammals, 30 species of amphibians and 36 species of reptiles.
“We should have a basic structure to understand what species are there [in Arunachal Pradesh] so that can aid conservation. This was one of the focuses of the project,” said Bhosale.
The other focus was the love for Harry Potter. Mirza, who is associated National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, said they almost named the species ‘Nagini’, after Lord Voldemort’s snake but then later decided to “save it for when, and if, they discover a new cobra species since Nagini was a cobra.”
“Childhood experiences largely stay with you,” said Mirza, “When I was growing up, JK Rowling was a big part of my childhood, and perhaps everyone else who has read the book. Now what better way to honour and thank her than naming the species after one of her characters?” As they say, it’s one for the books.
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