Archive for the ‘New Species’ Category

Warrior of Wellassa rebellion lives on in tiny gecko

July 24, 2019

New Gecko Godagedaras’ Day Gecko – Cnemaspis godagedarai (c) Chen Lee

While Keppetipola Disawe is the best-known chieftain who fought in the 1817 Wellassa rebellion against the British, another warrior, often forgotten, has now been honoured in the naming of a newly-discovered gecko found only in Sri Lanka.

The name of the hero, Godagedara Rate Adhikaram, now lives on in Cnemaspis godagedarai, or Godagedaras’ Day Gecko, which inhabits a small area in Ensalwatte, Deniyaya, in the Matara district.

The new species is a diurnal gecko, active in daytime, unlike nocturnal species such as the common house gecko or “hoona”. It is tiny, 34-35mm long. In comparison, house geckos can grow to 75-150mm. Godagedaras’ Day Gecko was first observed by well-known herpetologist Dr. Anslem de Silva in 2018. Fellow researcher Suranjan Karunaratne combed the Ensalwatte area to find more geckos of same species and establish its identity scientifically.

Their study, co-authored by Aaron M. Bauer and Madhava Botejue, was published this month in the international herpetology peer-reviewed journal, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

The forest patches of Ensalwatte are linked to the Sinharaja rainforest and home to a number of creatures found only in the area. Only about six specimens of the newly-discovered gecko have so far been observed, causing it to be categorised as “critically endangered”.

Most geckos do not have eyelids and have to lick their own eyes to clean them of dust and dirt. Specialised toe pads help them to climb vertical surfaces such as walls, or even cross ceilings. Most geckos can detach their tails in defence. Mr. Karunaratne said Godagedaras’ Day Gecko has these abilities.

Sri Lanka’s list of geckos has now risen to 48 with this discovery; nearly all of them are not found anywhere else in the world. Most of the wild geckos are sensitive to environmental changes and most of their habitats are shrinking, making them a group vulnerable to extinction.

New gecko’s Habitat of Ensalwatthe (c) Suranjan Karunarathna

New spiders named after Enid Blyton’s goblins and brownies

July 22, 2018

Published on 01.07.2018 on SundayTimes

With interest in books high this week with the Big Bad Wolf book sale reaching Sri Lanka, a second time, it seems fitting that names for six tiny spiders newly discovered in this country come from the books of the famous children’s writer, Enid Blyton.

These goblin spiders, minute six-eyed creatures living in leaf litter, were discovered during a country-wide survey conducted by Professor Suresh Benjamin and Sasanka Ranasinghe of the National Institute of Fundamental Studies.

They will be known as Cavisternum bom, Ischnothyreus chippy, Pelicinus snooky, P. tumpy, Silhouetella snippy and S. tiggy after Blyton’s goblins Bom, Snooky and Tumpy, and brownies Chippy, Snippy and Tiggy, from The Goblins Looking-Glass (1947), Billy’s Little Boats (1971) and The Firework Goblins (1971).

In European folklore, according to the website, Science News, goblins and brownies are mischievous fairy-like creatures that live in human homes and even do chores while people are asleep in exchange for food.

“I enjoyed reading Enid Blyton as a child,” Prof. Benjamin said.

The six “Blyton goblins” are part of a group of nine discovered by Prof. Benjamin and Ms Ranasinghe, with the first three named after Sri Lankan literary giants, Carl Muller, Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvedorai.

“I enjoyed reading the work of these authors and, given their contribution to the field of literature, it was decided to name the new spiders after them,” said Prof. Benjamin at the time, his appreciation of literature clearly evident.

The new discoveries bring to 45 the number of scientifically detailed goblin spiders found in Sri Lanka, across 13 genera (groups). Goblin spiders, or Oonopidae, are one of the biggest spider families in the world, with more than 1,600 species.

They range from 1mm to 3mm in length and live in leaf litter, rarely spotted by people.

Prof. Benjamin said a characteristic of these spiders is that they do not make webs but actively hunt smaller prey such as soil mites and worms that wriggle through the humus of the forest floor.

The research team surveyed more than 100 localities all over Sri Lanka. “Many goblin spider species were often only found in a few sites whilst others were found only in a single forest patch and absent even in the immediate surrounding forests. These species, short-range endemics with very restricted distributions, may prove to be important flagship taxa [group of species] for monitoring the effects of climate change and other threats on forest habitats in Sri Lanka,” the research team stated.

The results of another study by Prof. Benjamin, on crab spiders, was also published earlier this month in the prestigious journal ZooTaxa. Crab spiders have two front pairs of legs angled outward and bodies that are flattened and often angular, also, like crabs. Crab spiders do not build webs and usually sit among flowers, bark, fruit or leaves to hunt visiting insects.

The new discoveries see Sri Lanka being home to 393 species of spiders. A large proportion of these species was described over the past two decades and almost all of the new species (55 of 58 new species) are endemic, currently not known outside Sri Lanka.

Field sampling

Prof.Suresh Benjamin



Roadkill leads to discovery of burrowing snake

July 31, 2017

A new burrowing snake was added to the list of species endemic to Sri Lanka when International Day of Biological Diversity was marked on Monday, strengthening the country’s image as a biodiversity hotspot.

Mendis Wickremasinghe

A new non-venomous ‘shield tailed snake’ that lives under the soil was discovered from the Badulla District. The scientific paper describing this new species appeared in prestigious scientific journal ZooTaxa.

The new species is yet another discovery by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe, who recalls that he first saw the snake as a single roadkill specimen in 1999 in Beragala. Later, during an island-wide herpetology survey, Mr Wickremasinghe decided to search the area.

The researchers dug randomly selected locations that are habitats for such species. They got lucky and found a snake hidden under the soil layer of a banana plant of a home garden in 2010. The snake was found about 15 centimetres deep and had a highly-modified head, bearing a blade-like rostral scale for burrowing.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said about 30 individuals could be observed during subsequent visits to the same locations. More such snakes were observed from the same locality and in suburban areas like Haldummulla with some of them seen moving above ground at night.

The new snake belongs to a group called rhinophis. It was named rhinophis roshanpererai to honour the late Roshan Perera, who was an instructor of the reptiles group of the Young Zoologist’s Association of Sri Lanka in recognition of his dedicated services to wildlife conservation.

With the new discovery, this rhinophis genus now has 20 such snake species with 16 of them found in Sri Lanka that are endemic to the country. The other four snakes are endemic to India. Three of these Sri Lankan species have been recently described in 2009 and 2011. Mr Wickremasinghe said there could be more snake species that belongs to this group, emphasising need for more studies.

Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana and Gehan Rajeev too assisted in this new finding. Mr Wickremasinghe also thanked the principal sponsors, Dilmah Conservation.

New gecko species with black markings
A new species of gecko, too, joined the list of Sri Lankan species last month. This creature lives in the Knuckles range and was previously confused with a similar gecko species. The researchers Sudesh Batuwita and Sampath Udugampala extensively studied the features of these geckos and established the identity of the new species. They named it cnemaspis kandambyi.The gecko has distinct black markings on the nape and a black lateral stripe begins behind the eye and extends laterally beyond the origin of the forearm.The species was named in honour of Dharma Sri Kandamby, the former curator of the vertebrate section of the National Museum of Sri Lanka, for his contributions to the herpetology and for his guidance to a number of researchers.

Published on 28.05.2017 on SundayTimes

Whiskered native – handle with care

December 25, 2016
New Catfish Mystus nanus

New Catfish Mystus nanus

In this season of giving, scientists studying biodiversity at the University of Peradeniya have offered Sri Lanka a gift that generations will want to remember – two new species of catfish endemic to the island.

One specimen is scientifically named as Mystus nanus with its latin name ‘nanus’ meaning ‘dwarf’ as the fish is comparatively small, growing between 8 centimeters and 10 cm. The other, is named as Ompok argestes, where ‘argestes’ refers to its range meaning ‘southwest’ indicating its presence in the southern wet zone.

Both these catfish were earlier thought to be native to Sri Lanka and India, but based on scientific findings, researcher Hiranya Sudasinghe determined they are separate species. The species in Sri Lanka only inhabits the island. Sudasinghe told the Sunday Times that he had visited South India to study the Indian catfish in same area where these species had been first detected.

Experts Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr Kalana Maduwage, and Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura assisted the researchers. Studies also established the existence of another catfish species named Callichrous ceylonensis, earlier identified as a different species.

New Catfish Ompok argestes

New Catfish Ompok argestes

Catfish are a diverse group of ray-finned fish, with their fins being webs of skin supported by bony or horny spines. Catfish have two or four pairs of barbels and its resemblance to cat’s whiskers resulted in them being called that name. They inhabit the dark depths of rivers and muddy environments. They are also mostly nocturnal carnivores.

There are nearly 3,000 known species of catfish in the world and with the new discoveries, now there are nine different catfish species in Sri Lanka. The largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka is also a catfish known in Sinhala as Walaya(shark catfish) which can grow up to a meter in length. “But now this large catfish is very rare, so its even categorised as endangered in the Red List of Sri Lanka published on 2012,” said Sudasinghe.

Hiranya Sudasinghe

The largest species of catfish is the Mekong catfish with the largest recorded measuring nearly three metres in length according to some reports.

Several exotic catfish species are popular aquarium fish with the most popular in Sri Lanka being the iridescent shark catfish, native to the rivers of Southeast Asia. It appears to glow because of its slimy skin.

Catfish are also known to be able to survive long out of the water. Some species move to a different water source, when their water hole dries up. They use their rigid pectoral fins as stilts to move. In Sri Lanka, both the walking catfish and stinging catfish are noted for being able to crawl on land.

Catfish do not have scales, but spines on dorsal and pectoral fins provide protection against predators. These spines can be locked into place so that they stick outwards. The hunga or stinging catfish as its name suggests, need to be handled with caution as it has venom glands linked to the fin spine that can deliver an extremely painful sting.

Another interesting fact about cat fish is that many can produce different types of sounds by rubbing their fins.

Habitat loss is a threat to this freshwater fish. Walaya and Ankutta are already tagged as endangered, and two other catfish as ‘near threatened’. Experts urge that freshwater habitat that remain be protected.

The invasive ‘tank cleaner’ catfishKnown colloquially as ‘tank cleaners’ – the suckermouth catfish has now become an invasive species in a number of waterways in Sri Lanka. It native range is tropical South America, but it has become a popular aquarium fish due to its ability to clean algae from fish tanks. The fish are sold when they are small but with their feeding habits, they can quickly overgrow the tanks. Owners then release them to local waterways.

“Be responsible and never release your aquarium fish to any natural waterway,” appeals Subasinghe. This he, says can cause an imbalance in the ecology of the island’s freshwater habitats.

Sri Lanka's largest freshwater fish - වලයා (Wallago attu)

Sri Lanka’s largest freshwater fish – වලයා (Wallago attu)

List of catfish species found in Sri Lanka 

* Mystus nanus: endemic (the new discovery) – Sri Lankan Striped Dwarf Catfish (conservation status – LC)

* Mystus ankutta: endemic – Sri Lanka Dwarf Catfish {Endangered – EN}

* Mystus gulio: long-whiskered catfish; Anguluwa, {Least Concern – LC}

* Mystus zeylanicus: endemic – Sri Lankan yellow catfish {Least Concern – LC}

Family: siluridae

* Ompok argestes – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as near threatened)

* Ompok ceylonensis – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as least concern)

* Wallago attu – shark catfish – Walaya in Sinhala (about 1 m – rare) {ENDANGERED – EN}: This is the largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka

Family: claridae

* Clarias brachysoma – walking cat fish – (- Magura) endemic (about 50 cm ) {Near Threatened – NT}

Family: heteropneustidae

*Heteropneustes fossilis : Stinging catfish, (- Hunga) (about 30 cm) {Least Concern – LC}


* Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus – suckermouth catfish

* Clarias batrachus – marbled catfish: Most popular in the aquarium trade

*Iridescent shark catfish – pangasianodon hypophthalmus

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2016

A new huna emerges from unprotected Salgala forest

October 16, 2016
 Published on SundayTimes on 25.09.2016

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe who revealed a brightly-coloured new tree snake from the Sinharaja forest last week has now announced the discovery of a new endemic gecko, found in the Salgala forest in Kegalle district.

The gecko, or huna in Sinhala, is a familiar creature: most of our houses are inhabited by a family of “house geckos” that mostly come out at dusk. The new gecko is different, being mostly active during the daytime. It prefers rocky habitats and is also smaller than the house gecko.

The researcher first found this Salgala gecko in 2012 while exploring the least explored areas of the country to fill in the gaps in knowledge on the reptiles and amphibians that live in those habitats. The research team found a healthy population of this gecko living in the wild around the Salgala area and also inhabiting outer walls of some of the houses close to the forest.

The new gecko is scientifically described as Cnemaspis rajakarunai, named in honour of Henry Rajakaruna, one of the masters of Sri Lankan photography, in recognition of his services to promote Fine Art Photography for over half a century. Mr.Rajakaruna perfected a technique of low shutter speed motion capture internationally known as “Rajakaruna style”.

In common language the Salgala gecko is called  Rajakarunage diva huna, Rajakaruna pahalpalli and Rajakaruna’s day gecko in Sinhala, Tamil and in English, respectively.

Geckos are interesting creatures: they lack eyelids and have a transparent skin that they clean by licking. It also has a well-known defence mechanism of being able to lose its tail. While a predator is distracted by a still-alive detached tail, the gecko is able to hide in a safe place and, in time, grow a new tail.

Geckos move upside down on ceilings using specialised adhesive toe pads that enable them to climb smooth, vertical surfaces. Geckos shed their skin and, it is said, is able to replace each of their 100 teeth every three to four months.

The new discovery brings to 45 the number of gecko species in Sri Lanka. There are about 1,500 species worldwide.


Salgala, where the new discovery was made, is a few kilometres away from Galapitamada, where the critically-endangered freshwater fish, bandula barb, has its sole habitat. Salgala is an unprotected forest patch, and that is of concern to researchers. Mr. Wickramasinghe said there was an urgent need to survey the unprotected ecosystems there since other new species awaiting discovery could perish if the habitat was destroyed.

Mr.Wickramasinghe’s work has been assisted by the Ministry of Environment, the Nagao Natural Environment Foundation and principal sponsor, Dilmah Conservation. Dulan Vidanapathirana and Gayan Rathnayake helped him with the research.

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna


Dance in Trance – Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Garden lizard gains an elite relative from Knuckles

April 11, 2014
Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai

Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

 The The common green garden lizard that belongs to the Agamid lizard family this week gained a new relative that brings to 19 the number of spcies in this group, 16 of them endemic to Sri Lanka. new addition is been a result of strenuous scientific analysis under difficult conditions by young researchers Thasun Amarasinghe and Sameera Suranjan Karunaratne.

This lizard lives in the forests in the Knuckles Range. It had been misidentified as the Crestless Lizard – Calotes liocephalus. Studying the lizard in the Central Highlands and the Knuckles Range, researchers Amarasinghe and Karunaratne spotted some differences in the Crestless Lizards found in Knuckles Range from the same species found in the Peak Wilderness in the Central Highlands. After further study they concluded that the Knuckles lizards were a different species.

Researchers only had nine male specimens from the Knuckles and five males from the central highland to conduct this study but they said the differences were significant enough to classify this species. The specimens in the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) and other museums too had been studied.

Males of the new species are different from males of C. liocephalus because of the absence of a gular pouch and by having mid-gular scales smaller in size than those of its counterpart. The scales in different parts of the body too had clear distinctions, helping the researchers to separately identifying the two species.

But this left researchers with another challenge. C. liocephalus was classified by a researcher named Günther in 1872 using a single male specimen. He did not mention the precise location of the type specimen collected. Thus Amarasinghe and Karunaratne had to compare the holotype with museum specimens and live specimens (not collected) from the Knuckles massif and Central Highlands. The type specimen has been secured in the Natural History Museum in London and Mr Amarasingha also visited the museum to carry out further research.

“After identifying the specimens, we saw that the holotype resembled the Central Highlands populations. Hence we describe the population distributed in the Knuckles massif as a distinct species” said Mr Karunaratne. He and his colleague named the new lizard Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai – to honour Rohan Pethiyagoda for his effort to make Sri Lanka a biodiversity hotspot. In Sinhala the lizard’s is name is Pethiyagodagë Nosilu Katussa.

The scientific paper describing this finding was published in the prestigious journal ZooTaxa. Researchers from Germany, Japan, Austria and England where specimens of these species exist helped the local researchers to make the comparison.

“It is not easy to get measurements of this specimen as it involves a physical count of the scales. It takes about a day to study a single specimen so scientists who helped us had to spend days analysing the specimens in their possession. So they too have been included as authors of this paper: they are Jakob Hallerann, Junichi Fujinuma, Heiz Grillitsch and Patrick D. Campbell.

Knuckles is already famous for its Horned Lizard and this new find will add more value to the area declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage.

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe

Beaked whale with Sinhala name retakes its place in history

February 23, 2014
Push to honour Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala for his research

This week, an enigmatic whale first described studying a specimen found in Sri Lanka has been reclassified as a new marine mammal species. The whale species – member of a family known as beaked whales for their elongated beak-like snouts – bears an interesting history.On 26 January 1963 a specimen of a dying 4.5m-long, blue-grey female beaked whale was washed ashore at Ratmalana. After carefully studying its form and structure, marine scientists led by Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Director of National Museum 1939-1963) declared it to be a new species of beaked whale belonging to the family Ziphidae.

Dr. Deraniayagala named the whale Mesoplodon hotaula for its pointed “beak” (in Sinhala, hota means beak and ula means pointed”).The skull of the holotype- the term for a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based – was kept in the National Museum Collection.Two years later, however, the Mesoplodon hotaula was re-grouped into the related ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon ginkgodens, by overseas scientists and the Mesoplodon hotaula name was dropped.

Beaked whales are deep divers that are believed to be able to dive to 1,800m (5,900 feet).A total of 22 beaked whale species have now been identified but most of them have not been studied alive in their oceanic habitats. Identification of most have been based on dead or dying whales that have been washed ashore.

As belief began to grow again that the whale found in Sri Lanka was a distinct species, a visiting research scientist at the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Merel Dalebout, wrote to the Director of the National Museum in Colombo inquiring about the possibility of taking a DNA sample from the whale to make comparisons with samples taken from elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Researcher Dr. Manori Goonatilake inspecting the specimen Deraniyagala collected in 1963

Dr. Manori Goonatilake, Assistant Director National Museum, became involved in the study. With the permission of Department of Wildlife Conservation she had sent the DNA samples taken from the holotype’s mandible bone, tooth, and skull using a special hand drill without harming the external appearance of the specimen.

Artist Gamini Ratnavira’s conception of a pod of Hotaula. Courtesy ‘Mammals of Sri Lanka’ by Asoka Yapa/Gamini Ratnavira

The scientists managed to find seven specimens of this species including the Sri Lankan specimen. The haul included three whale carcasses from the United States and one each from the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, and Seychelles.

Finally, after a series of DNA and morphological analyses it was recognised that these seven specimens belonged to a distinct species of beaked whale. So 51 years after its discovery off Ratmalana the whale regained its first scientific classification, Mesoplodon hotaula, given by Professor Deraniyagala.“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” Dr Dalebout says in an article on the university website.

It has been suggested that the common name of the species be “Deraniyagala’s beaked whale” to honour the late scientist for his finding. This is perhaps the only marine mammal carrying a Sinhala name in its scientific name and is a showcase of Sri Lankan researchers’ talent in the field of natural history.
The smelly whale carcasses that wash ashore once in a while grab our attention but are often soon forgotten. This new discovery highlights the Importance of studying these carcasses when they come to light, as studying them in the vast ocean is difficult

New research on jungle giant

Dr. P.E.P.Deraniyagala, director of National Meuseum from 1939-63, was a pioneer in zoology and paleobiodiversity (the study of extinct animals in prehistoric time through studying of fossils) and his research led to the finding of clues of the existenceof species such as the lion, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and gaur (giant wild cow) in Sri Lanka.

At a memorial to Dr. Deraniyagala held a few weeks ago to honour the late professor’s services to his country, scientist Kelum Manamendrarachchie revealed a plan of conducting further research on the “vil aliya”, described as a separate subspecies of the Asian elephant.According to Dr. Deraniyagala, the vil aliya (scientifically classified as Elephas maximus vilaliya) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant that inhabited the flood plains in the current Somawathie National Park Region and was bigger than elephants elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

These elephants fed on grasses and other vegetation on marshy areas and shallow water which are very nutritious, so they grew larger. The vil aliya’s foot became larger, which is believed to be an adaptation more suitable for a life in marshy areas. Plans are underway to perform DNA analysis on specimens collected by Dr Deraniyagala.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.02.2014 

Ankutta join list of endemic fish

December 16, 2013

Sri Lanka is home to four species of Ankutta or catfish. One, scientifically classified as Mystus keletius, has been identified as a species native to both Sri Lanka and India, but new analysis by Dr. Heok Hee Ng and Rohan Pethiyagoda on this species has confirmed the Sri Lankan species is different from the Indian fish and found only in the streams of this island.

Mr Pethiyagoda said the new species was widespread in both the wet and the dry zones and found in rivers and reservoirs up to an elevation of about 500 metres. The species was described entirely from specimens that had been collected in Sri Lanka in the period 1934-1969 and preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and California Academy of Sciences, which lent them to the researchers for study. Dr. Heok Ng is Asia’s foremost expert on catfish.

A mosquito genus new to country discovered

August 9, 2013
MRI researchers say since these species were known to eat the larvae of other mosquitoes, more studies being done to find out whether they could be used in the control of deadly dengue – Malaka Rodrigo 

Two species of mosquitoes belonging to a genus new to Sri Lanka have been discovered, scientists at the Medical Research Institute (MRI) have announced. The mosquitoes of this genus, known as Topomyia, are found in countries like India and Thailand. These species are also known to feed on the larvae of other mosquitoes, therefore they have the potential of being used to control the dengue mosquito, a senior Entomological Assistant at MRI, N.W.G. Premaratna said. However he said more research would have to be done in this field.

Larvae that revealed new discovery

These specimens were collected from water collected on habarala leaves in the Agalawatte area in Kalutara district. The water also consisted of dengue-mosquito larvae. The researchers therefore believe this could be nature’s way of controlling dengue and other disease-carrying mosquitoes. Mr. Premaratna said the MRI team would conduct more scientific investigations before publishing their discovery. They also pointed out that there was very little research done on mosquitoes like many other insect species and that made the task of identification more difficult.

Although people are mostly aware of the existence of mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue, malaria and filaria, about 140 species of mosquitoes inhabit Sri Lanka. The Topo myia genus would be the 17th genera of mosquitoes in Sri Lanka. The researchers say based on studies done in other countries, Topolmyia mosquitoes are not known to carry any diseases. Therefore, if the researchers succeed these species could be used as a means of bio control of dengue mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes have been around for more than 30 million years and there are 3,500 named species of mosquitoes, of which only a couple of hundred sting or bother humans.

One of the newly discovered species

Published on SundayTimes on 04.08.2013

Newly discovered Tarantula is part of north’s peace dividend

April 1, 2013

By Malaka Rodrigo. A tarantula almost as big as a dinner plate has been discovered in northern Sri Lanka by a team of researchers who named it after a keen police officer who helped track down live specimens of the giant spider. �The researchers fortuitously happened to be in Mankulam, conducting an island-wide tarantula survey, when a local villager gave them the tarantula he had just killed – a species then unknown to science.

New Tarantula Poecilotheria rajaei

The spider is a smaller member of the Bird-Eating Tarantula sub-species found in South America that can kill animals as large as lizards, mice, birds and small snakes. �Lead researcher Ranil Nanayakkara said his team needed to find live specimens, preferably females and juveniles, to establish whether the Mankulam spider was indeed a species new to science by the researchers.

His team had to comb pockets of jungles in the area, searching every single tree hole and bark peel that could possibly house this elusive species. The researchers finally managed to find a female spider of the species, along with her babies, in the old doctors’ quarters of Mankulam hospital.

In gratitude for the help given to them by Mankulam’s Sub Inspector of Police, Michael Rajkumar Purajah, Mr Nanayakka and team co-leader Nilantha Vishvantha named the spider Poecilotheria rajaei.�The tarantula found in Mankulam has a ventral band on the belly. No other Sri Lankan tarantulas have such a feature. A similar species is found in India but has different markings on the foot and the body.

The team’s findings are described in a recent edition of the British Tarantula Journal, in a paper authored by Ranil Nananayakkara, Peter J. Kirk, Salindra Dayananda, G.A. Ganehiarachchi, Nilantha Vishvanath and Tharaka Kusuminda.�The tarantula find could be counted as part of the peace dividend following the end of the civil war, Mr. Nanayakkara said, as his team stumbled across the discovery after entering the northern area in October 2009, a few months since the end of the conflict.

Tarantulas are usually arboreal creatures that inhabit bark peels, naturally occurring tree hollows and are also found under rocks, decaying trees and in cracks in brick walls.�During monsoons, they display an unlucky tendency to enter human dwellings that border forested areas, whereupon they are promptly killed by frightened villagers who believe the “diwi mukuluwa” bite is deadly. Literature states, however, that the venom of most tarantula species is similar to the venom of a bee sting.

Mr. Nanayakkara says many people are under the impression that when a tarantula bites, the victim curls up and draws in the arms and legs in a manner of a spider trying to hide. This is, in fact, due to the muscle spasms and pain that a victim experiences after a bite, he said, adding that none of the tarantulas found in Sri Lanka had deadly bites.


He also points out that six sub-species of the Sri Lankan Poecilotheria tarantulas are under threat of extinction. Five of them are listed as “Endangered” while the sixth, P. smithi, is “Critically Endangered”. The research team is endeavouring to gain more information on the population sizes of these species.

“The results indicate that the Sri Lankan tarantulas are in dire need of protection, and if stringent measures are not taken many of them will become extinct,” warns Mr. Nanayakkara. The current rate of deforestation and urbanization brought manifold threats.�The tarantulas recorded in Sri Lanka are: Chilobrachys nitelinus; Plesiophrictus tenuipes; Poecilotheria fasciata (Lemon Leg Tiger Spider); Poecilotheria ornata (Ornate Tiger Spider); Poecilotheria pederseni (Pederseni’s Tiger Spider/ Hambanthota Tiger Spider);

Poecilotheria smithi CR (Smithi’s Tiger Spider); Poecilotheria subfusca EN (Ivory Bird-eating Tiger Spider); Poecilotheria rajaei (new species, yet to assessed); Poecilotheria uniformis. �There is a dire need for a biodiversity survey in the war-ravaged territories in the north.

Prof. Devaka Weerakoon, co-ordinator for animal groups in the National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka on Conservation Status, recently said some of the animal groups common in the north have received a revised status based on new data.�There are birds specific to the area, he said. The northern part of the country could be considered a special avi-faunal zone with several birds such as the Black Kite found only there. The Black Drongo, Grey Partridge, Long-tailed Shrike, Golden-backed Woodpecker, Indian Courser are other unique representatives of the region. There can be other smaller animals unique to this region, he said.

Conservationists warn that with many areas of the north due to be opened up for development, some of the unique animals and plants specific to the north would be affected.�Peace brings mayhem for the environment under the name of development, they say. The north’s development should be carried out in a planned manner so as not to repeat the environmental destruction recorded in other areas. In this way, the benefits of peace would become available to every creature.


Published on SundayTimes on

Eight new shrub frogs discovered from the Peak Wilderness

March 26, 2013

Sri Lanka’s fame as a global amphibian hotspot got a further boost last week with the discovery of eight new amphibian species. The new discovery, takes the number of amphibians found in Sri Lanka to 119 with 103 being found only in this country and was published in the prestigious ‘Journal of Threatened Taxa’. But these unique creatures will be the first line of victims of Climate Change, says researchers. – reports Malaka Rodrigo 

The new species possess unique characteristics that make them distinct from one another and easily identifiable in the field, Mendis Wickremasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka who made the discoveries with his research team said. However the conservation status of the species except for one has to be seen as “Critically Endangered”, as they were discovered in single locations where their habitats are under threat, he said.

The discoveries were made by the research team during a study of herpetofaunal diversity (diversity of amphibians and reptiles) in the Sri Pada World Heritage site. The frogs were discovered along the trail leading from Palabaddala to the Sri Pada Peak, and the trail from Erathna/Kuruvita to the Sri Pada Peak during phase I and Phase II of the project conducted from 2009 to 2011.

Acknowledging the hard work carried out by the research team that included himself, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Gehan Rajeev, Chathuranga Ariyarathne, Amila Chanaka, Nethu Wickramasinghe, Imesh Nuwan Bandara and Dharshana Priyantha, Mr. Wickremesinghe said they braved the chilly nights and harsh conditions of the Peak Wilderness during the survey. Amphibians are mostly nocturnal creatures and the team guided by GPS locators, cameras and other equipment followed the amphibians in leech-infested territories.

The new species belong to the Pseudophilautus group that includes shrub frogs known as Panduru Mediya in Sinhala. This genus Pseudophilautus consists of 65 known species that are endemic to Sri Lanka. This group of frogs is believed to have separated from India long time ago with their evolution to taking place in isolation in Sri Lanka. Most of the shrub frogs are direct developers that are born directly from eggs, bypassing the tadpole stage. Therefore they don’t need to live near a waterway and can survive on moist cloud forests like the Peak Wilderness.

The researchers named these amphibians after eight individuals who play a role in protecting the environment or the conservation of wildlife. Among them are leading ecologists and botanists, Dr.Channa Bambaradeniya, Dr. Siril Wijesundara, Dr.Nihan Dayawansa and environmental activist Jagath Gunawardane. Wildlife officers Y.G.P. Karunarathna, Vijith Samarakoon have also been honoured while a leading surgeon and ardent naturalist Dr. Newton Jayawardane too has been recognized.

One of the frogs has been named after Veera Puran Appu (1812–1848) a freedom fighter who stood up to the might of the British rulers.


The researchers rate the Peak Wilderness as one of the most threatened habitats of Sri Lanka as its unique cloud forest is surround by tea plantations that are rapidly encroaching the forest. In addition pilgrims to Sri Pada due to ignorance contribute to the pollution of this virgin forest. Attempts to build a helipad at the summit, and moves to introduce a cable car system have been condemned by environmentalists and researchers. The latter group fears that the unique biodiversity of the Peak Wilderness will be lost, even before it is discovered.

However, Climate Change will be a greater threat to all these amphibians they fear. Most of the Amphibians need right level of moisture for their survival. But global warming will change these parameters and even a slight change will make a big impact for these environmentally sensitive creatures also known as environmental indicators. Unlike reptiles or birds, which have hard-shelled eggs, amphibians have jelly-like, unshelled eggs that cannot survive desiccation. Amphibians also need moist climates to reproduce, and this makes them extremely sensitive to climate variabilities, he calls.

The frogs in high mountain areas are highly vulnerable to climate change claims the researcher. Many of Endemic Sri Lankan frogs live on cloud forests such as Peak Wilderness and Hortan Plains. It is feared the global warming will elevate the moist cloud drying the soil on lower areas. Other larger animals could move to other areas and adopt, but small creatures and largely immobile frogs would not be able to survive. Other factor is many of these frogs already lives in highest grounds, so they will have no place to move, making these creatures live in higher level the most vulnerable as when their habitat dries or warms, they have nowhere left to go. Other fact is that mountains are cony shapes and as you go higher, there are little living space. So there will be limited ecosystems for these frogs to survive.

Mr. Wickrememsinghe said their ongoing survey at Peak Wilderness would lead to more discoveries in the future, adding that he was grateful to the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, Nagao Natural Environment Foundation, and Dilmah Conservation for funding the survey.

Published on SundayTimes on 24.03.2013

A tree frog leaps into list of Endemic Amphibians

October 14, 2012

Researchers worry that the only known population of new endemic tree frogs Polypedates ranwellai, named in honour of Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella, could soon become extinct. 

Sri Lanka, already known as an Amphibian hotspot, reveals another new frog at the Gilimale Forest of Peak Wilderness. Leading researcher Mendis Wickramasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka, who, together with the late Dr. Amith Munindadasa and Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, published a scientific paper in a world’s leading journal, recently updated Sri Lanka’s Amphibians to 112.

The new frog has been named Polypedates ranwellai or Ranwella’s spined tree frog. Mr Wickramasinghe said the frog was named after the late Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella in honour of his exceptional dedication towards wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. Dr Ranwella was an active member and an instructor at the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) who met with an untimely death at a young age in a boat accident in 2003. Dr. Ranwella and Mr Wickramasinghe were colleagues at YZA and had conducted many field excursions together. Mr Mendis said the new species had been first observed in 2000 during a field visit to the Gilimale forest reserve with Dr. Ranwella. The research team later collected specimens and subjected them to a rigorous scientific process to establish that the species is unique and endemic to Sri Lanka.

Although the new species tentatively categorised under the genus Polypedates, the researchers pointed out that this species shows extreme deviations, especially in the skull, from other specimens of the same group, indicating that the new frog could belong to a new genus. Its specialty is the 6 spines located on the sides of its jaws and on the parietal area on the back of the head. Mr Wickramasinghe said that tree frogs with these kinds of spines were found in Brazil and Ghana. The female of this species is about 6 cm, so it is a comparatively large frog.

However, the habitat of this endemic frog is already threatened. Forest fragmentation has become the major threat in this area due to accelerated deforestation. The Induruwa mukalana and Guruluwana regions have become separated by deforestation in the past 10 years, and are now two separate islands according to Mr Mendis. Researchers point out that the many pot holes in its gravel road, which filled with water during the monsoons and served as breeding grounds for these species, has now been concreted, while the existing pot holes quickly run dry when vehicle go over them. Concreting of the road attracts more visitors, and hence more vehicles visit the forest reserve, and consequently, large amounts of garbage is being left behind in the forest.

Apart from logging and encroachment by tea plantations, hazardous activities such as gem mining, sand mining, use of agro chemicals, cutting down and setting fires in the forest edge are also posing threats. All these continued harmful anthropogenic activities consequently, pose other harmful effects such as drying out of water bodies and soil erosion.
Researchers also worry that the proposed construction of a dam across the Kalu Ganga will flood a large area including the Gilimale reserve, completely wiping out the only known population of Polypedates ranwellai from the island – hence a loss to the whole world.

Mr Mendis also dedicates this research paper to the memory of Dr. Amith Munindradasa, one of the co-authors of the publication, whose untimely death was a great loss to the country. An electronic engineer by profession, Dr. Munindradasa was a man of many talents. He had discovered many species new to science, and worked together with the research team till his death.

International meeting on Biodiversity opens in Hyderabad India

Representatives from over 170 countries including Sri Lanka, meet in Hyderabad, India, this week, to discuss the way forward to protect the earth’s biodiversity. This meeting – 11th Conference of Parties of United Nation’s Convention of Biological Diversity will focus on adopting a new Strategic Plan to halt biodiversity loss by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including experts on biodiversity too, has held its congress in South Korea. Scientists highlight that the rate of species extinction has doubled and that, many known species as well as species new to science, will soon become extinct, if the current level of threats continue. Their decline have been mainly caused by humans, but, in almost all cases, scientists believe their extinction can still be avoided, if conservation efforts are specifically focused. They also point out that species extinction will even indirectly affect humans.

Published on 14.10.2012

‘Bulathhapaya’ and its clan get new scientific Names

August 26, 2012

Research shows exceptional diversity among popular ornamental fish known as ‘puntius’ – Malaka Rodrigo

Pethia nigrofasciata – Bulath Hapaya

Popular freshwater fish that belonged to the genus Puntiushave been re-classified into 5 new genera by Sri Lankan scientists. The results were published last week in a paper in the journal ‘Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters’, authored by Rohan Pethiyagoda, now attached to the Australian Museum in Sydney, together with Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura and Dr Kalana Maduwage, both of the University of Peradeniya.

A genus (genera in plural) is a grouping of one or several species that possess common characteristics which also denotes by the first part of binomial scientific names. Based on this new analysis, the South Asian fishes formerly in Puntius have been divided into five genera, namely Puntius, Systomus, Dawkinsia, Pethia and Dravidia. While the first four genera have representatives in Sri Lanka, Dravidia (named for the Dravidian people of South India) is restricted to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The filamented-fin barbs have been allocated to a new genus, Dawkinsia, named after the British evolutionary biologist and anti-religion advocate Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller ‘The selfish gene’. These now include Dawkinsia singhala and Dawkinsia srilankensis. The following four species, meanwhile, have been transferred to the genus Systomus: asoka, martenstyni, pleurotaenia, spilurus (the wet-zone species formerly known as ‘sarana’) and sarana. The bulk of the remaining species have been allocated to a new genus, Pethia, which is also the local Sinhala name for these small fishes. These are Pethia bandula, cumingii, melanomaculata, nigrofasciata and reval. The only Sri Lankan fish that still remain in the genus Puntius are kamalika, vittatus, bimaculatus, thermalis and titteya.

These small freshwater fishes commonly called ‘pethia’ in Sinhala, are also among the most popular inhabitants of tropical aquariums. Many of the 18 species of Sri Lankan Puntius, have for decades been bred by aquarists worldwide and are very popular ornamental fish. These include the ‘bulathhapaya’ (Puntius nigrofasciatus), ‘le titteya’ (Puntius titteya) and Cuming’s Barb (Puntius cumingii). The relationships of such species to Southeast Asian ones such as the Tiger Barb (Puntius tetrazona) have for long been questioned. Could fishes that show such a variety of shapes, sizes and other anatomical characters all belong to a single genus, or have scientists over the years simply been ‘dumping’ new species into Puntius simply for reasons of convenience?

While many have asked the question, few have elected to do a comprehensive study to find answers. The scientists anlysed 31 species of fishes belonging to Puntius from across South Asia using three methods: analysis of DNA, their osteology (a study of their bone structures) and external morphometrics (the proportions of their bodies, the number of scales, etc). The study was by no means easy, they say, and took eight years to complete.

Pethiyagoda explains that there has been a long-felt need to bring the taxonomy of these fishes into line with their evolutionary context. “Attempts to do these using external characters alone over the past several decades have failed. It was time for a multi-pronged approach.” As a result of the species-groups they identified among the Southeast Asian fish formerly in Puntius, it is expected that a cascade of new genera will follow from that region, too.

Being among the most popular ornamental fishes, Sri Lanka Customs’ data show that many of these species are being heavily exported. It is believed that many of them are caught from the wild, which will deplete their wil populations. Loss of quality of riverine habitats suited to them and invasive fish introduced to waterways too, make an impact on their decline. One of the endemic fish that got a new name, Pethia bandula, is confined only to single stream and if this gets contaminated, the entire species could go extinct. So the scientists call for more attention to be paid to the conservation of these fishes.

Published in July.2012

‘Lost’ shrub frog turns up after 100 years

April 1, 2012

Pseudophilautus semiruber (Tiny-Red Shrub-Frog) is one of the smallest frog species in the world. So far, out of the total of 5000 plus species of frogs in the world, only 46 species   smaller than 15 mm are known; these are referred to as diminutive species. These species are so small that they can rest on the tip of your small finger, comfortably. With the new discovery, Sri Lanka has three such species (P. simba and P. tanu, in addition to P. semiruber).

A scientist called N. Annandale in 1911, found a 12 mm long individual, with a nondescript sex, from Pattipola, at an elevation of 1850 m above sea level. It was formerly described in 1913, using only this single specimen. For the next 95 years nobody ever saw this species again. But in 2005, a single female was discovered by Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura and Mohomed Bahir, from amongst the wet leaf litter, under the cover of a misty montane forest canopy, close to the Horton Plains National Park.

This specimen was subjected to rigorous scrutiny, both using morphology and molecular techniques to determine its systematic relationships. Its morphology was compared to asimilar species, Ps. simba, from Rakwana Hills (Morningside Estate) and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, and to the 1913 description of Annandale. This specimen had been deposited in the collection of the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata. However, this specimen was later found lost. Due to the unprecedented lack of data, the IUCN Redlist considers this endemic frog to be Data Deficient. The rediscovery was announced and a new description was presented in the March 2012 issue of the journal ZOOTAXA clearing the doubts.

This tiny red frog is at the edge of extinction, so immediate conservation measures should be taken, calls the researchers. Sri Lanka is already named as an Amphibian Hotspot with many species new to science, but 21 species of them are already categorized as extinct. This background makes the new re-discovery an important finding as otherwise it could eventually be listed into the list of Extinct Amphibians.

Sri Lanka has a wide diversity of Shrub frogs. Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura (University of Peradeniya) who has been the leading researcher of this discovery has also discovered many other Shrub Frogs, and even an endemic genus Taruga that are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently he is involved in another research in Knuckles region together with another young scientist from the University of Peradeniya, Ruchira Somaweera, to study the ecological correlates of Horned Lizards, so that these highly forest adapted lizards can be better conserved in the face of impending climate change resulting in continued habitat degradation.

However some elements have recently misinterpreted this work as  an act of biopiracy, which discourages the students and the conservation biologists conducting the work. The  researcher takes this as an example to emphasize the importance of all elements, including the public, in supporting legitimate research in the country so that Sri Lanka’s endemic fauna can be better understood and conserved.

Sri Lanka’s Shrub frogs are a special group of amphibians that are different from other frogs. Frogs usually have a tadpole stage and also needs water for their survival. But these shrub frogs are known as ‘Direct Developers’ that gets baby frogs directly from eggs that they lay on soil after digging a hole or on leaf surfaces. They do not need water or a pond to survive, however they require moisture in the ecosystem such as the cloud forests in Sri Lanka’s central highland.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.04.2012

Two new Lichens from Horton Plains

March 18, 2012
Considered one of the oldest organisms on earth, there are some 600 species of lichen in Sri Lanka – By Malaka Rodrigo
Two new lichen species have been discovered at Horton Plains by botanists. Scientifically named Anzia mahaeliyensis and Anzia flavotenuis, these will upgrade the endemic checklist of Sri Lankan Lichens.
A field study on lichen diversity in Horton Plains conducted by Dr. Udeni Jayalal together with Dr. Siril Wijesundara and Prof. Veranja Karunaratne in 2004/2005 under a research grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) led to this discovery.

Anzia flavotenuis
Anzia mahaeliyensis

Dr. Jayalal said they collected over 3000 lichen specimens from different ecosystems of Horton Plains and these were first analyzed considering their morphology or external characteristics. Those that didn’t match with known lichens were sent to the Natural History Museum of the UK for further analysis on molecular characters through DNA tests. The DNA patterns of these two did not match any existing lichens so it was concluded that the researchers had made a breakthrough in discovering two new lichen species.

According to the accepted norm, the researchers were given the chance to name them. Dr. Jayalal wanted to name them after his mentors Dr. Wijesundara and Prof. Karunaratne, but they opted for a more suitable name depicting the characteristics of the lichens and habitats that they were discovered in. One was named Anzia mahaeliyensis from the local name of Horton Plains – “Mahaeliya Thenne” and as the internal parts of the second lichen were yellowish, it was named Anzia flavotenuis, flavotenuis referring to yellow.

Lichens are believed to be one of the oldest organisms colonized on earth. But presently they are threatened due to many factors including pollution and habitat loss. However, little work has been done on lichens in Sri Lanka and knowledge of their diversity and distribution is incomplete. Dr. Jayalal says that presently there are over 600 lichens found in Sri Lanka, but this number can be as high as 1500 pointing to the need to do more studies.

On a roadside rock at Ramboda Pass near Nuwara Eliya, the same group of researchers found another lichen species Lepraria atrotomentosa that had gone unrecognized for years. But sadly this rock has been blasted away during recent road widening. Likewise there could be many lichens yet to be discovered. Lichen is not a single organism the way most other living things are, but rather a combination of two organisms which live together intimately.

Every lichen species is a fungus that encompasses a photosynthesis organism that uses sunlight to produce foods from carbon dioxide and water. Usually the other species is a photosynthesizing alga, but sometimes it can be a photosynthesizing bacterium known as cyanobacteria (neela haritha algae in Sinhala). This is a symbiotic relationship where both fungus and algae need each other for their own survival. Algae provide the food for the fungus and in return the fungi provide protection. Fungi also make a medium to soak up water and nutrients which provide the algae a medium to grow.

The fungus holds the lichen firmly onto the surface on which it is growing. This partnership also allows lichens to grow in harsh environments, at low temperatures and in low light conditions. The main body of lichen is called a thallus. The thallus may be covered by or enmeshed by the fungus. The inner region of an organ or tissue of lichen is known as Medulla. A. mahaeliyensis is characterised by a white single-layered medulla and A. flavotenuis by a two-layered medulla with the upper layer yellow and the lower part white.

“Lichens are good environmental indicators since they are sensitive to pollutants,” points out Dr. Wijesundara. Lichens, unlike most living organisms, are unable to ‘refuse’ entry to many chemicals into their bodies. This means that chemicals can freely invade them and interfere with their metabolic processes, often killing the lichen. However, some species of lichens are tolerant to some pollutants, so by observing the kind of lichens and their prevalence, one can predict about the air quality of the area without sophisticated equipments.

Horton Plains is very rich in lichens, so the researcher suggests this prime ecosystem is still unaffected by air pollution. “We see very few lichens in Colombo and other cities, but their numbers increase as we get to rural areas” Dr. Jayalal says. Lichens have other uses.

There are many dyes, medicines and important chemicals extracted from lichens. Litmus, the colour-changing dye used to make pH indicator paper, is in fact a compound extracted from lichens. While biologists are primarily interested in studying the natural habitat and its organisms, chemists have their eyes on the pharmaceutical value of the organic compounds isolated from natural organisms. Scientific tests have proved there are antibiotic values in these lichanic substances.

Many creatures including squirrels and birds use lichens for cushioning and patching their nests to camouflage them. Moths and butterflies also feed on lichens.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.03.2012 

8.7 million species exist on Earth, study shows

September 10, 2011

91% of marine species, 86% of land species yet to be discovered By Malaka Rodrigo  

While Sri Lanka’s elephant census estimated the number of elephants live in the island to 5,879, an international study revealed a new estimation that there are a total of 8.7 million different species live on Earth.

This has been tagged as the most precise calculation ever offered – with 6.5 million species found on land and 2.2 million (about 25 percent of the total) dwelling in the ocean depths, as per the scientists’ of Census of Marine Life. This also means a staggering 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued.

Until now, estimates of the world’s species ranged from three million to 100 million. The new study refined the number by compiling taxonomic data for roughly 1.2 million known species and identifying numerical patterns. The animals are one of the best studied groups and these academics had spotted a predictable ratio of species to broader categories among these known groups. They applied these numerical patterns to all five major kingdoms of life- Animalia, Fungi, Plants, Protozoa (single celled organisms such as Amoebas), Chromista (such as photosynthetic Algae) to derive this more narrow estimate.

The researchers also noted that the recently-updated Red List issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed 59,508 species, of which 19,625 are classified as threatened. This means the IUCN Red List, the most sophisticated ongoing study of its kind, monitors less than 1% of the world’s species.

However, scientists fear that many of these unidentified species will go extinct even before they have been discovered. Earth has so far undergone 5 mass Extinction Crisis and it is believed that we are in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction mainly due to ill-effects triggered by human activities.

The ocean depths are also a last hideout for many of the species. The pressure at these depths deny man the ability to explore the area until recently. However new species are increasingly emerging through new studies done using sophisticated remotely operated underwater exploration vehicles that are similar to those used by astronomers.

Based on current costs and requirements, the study suggests that describing all the remaining species using traditional approaches could require up to 1,200 years of work by more than 300,000 taxonomists at an approximate cost of $US 364 billion. Fortunately, new techniques such as DNA barcoding are radically reducing the cost and time involved in new species’ identification.

Considering the land species, the tropical countries like Sri Lanka have the potential to discover the majority of the new species. The tropical rainforests like Sinharaja are refuge to high biodiversity and continued discoveries of new species testify the need for more research to identify the rest of the species living in these areas. It is important that Sri Lankan researchers too are given access to new techniques and equipment in discovering the new species which will also heighten the need of conserving the remaining habitats in order to protect the species. 

Two new endemic snakes slither into Lanka’s unique biodiversity list

May 22, 2011

As the world marks International Day of Biological Diversity today –May 22, two new endemic snakes have been added to Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity list – by Malaka Rodrigo 

New burrowing snake – Rhinophis lineatus 
Rhinophis zigzag 

Both snakes are non-venomous primitive burrowing snakes that live underground in loose soil and are commonly referred to as Shield-tailed snakes because of the keratinous shield at the end of their tail which helps them to burrow in loose soil.

The new snakes are classified as Rhinophis lineatus and Rhinophis zigzag. Dr. Maduwage first spotted the differences in these Uropetid or shield-tail snakes from similar breeds during a stint at the world Heritage Trust (WHT) a few years ago as a researcher.

Having carefully examined the specimens, he discovered three specimens from one species and two from another. Dr. Maduwage then compared scale characteristics with published evidence of other snakes of this genus and found that the two snakes did not match any other shield-tail snake.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage – a medical officer who has been studying snakes for over 10 years specially the Hump-nosed pit viper. In addition he also discovered 10 varieties of fish and discovered another species of Sri Lankan snake previously.

The numerous distinguished scale characters, the presence of multiple, narrow longitudinal stripes around and along most of the body helped distinguished Rhinophis lineatus from all other members of this genus.

Dr. Maduwage said the Rhinophis zigzag also had a distinctive and consistent colour pattern of a dark meandering/zigzag stripe which was absent in all other species of the group.

After initial observations in 2007, Dr.Maduwage contacted Dr David Gower –a leading expert on Shield-tail snakes. The experts then worked together on a research paper, which were published last week.
These unique variety of snakes are found only in Western Ghats of India & in Sri Lanka –both of which are hotspots in the world of biodiversity.

Prior to the latest discovery, only 13 species of the Uropetid snakes were known to exist. The 12 Sri Lankan species are endemic to the country. This means they are found only here.

In 2009, another species of the shield-tail snake was discovered at Rakwana by herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe and was categorized Rhinophis erangaviraji. The two new species were discovered at a single locality.

The Rhinophis lineatus is found only at Harasbedda near Ragala while Rhinophis zigzag was discovered at “Bibilegema Rd.” near Passara, in the Uva Province.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.05.2011