Archive for the ‘snakes’ Category

Snake Identification Service to Save People, Snakes

August 5, 2018

Expert sets up website to prevent human and snake deaths. Published on SundayTimes on 15.07.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180715/news/how-to-keep-our-serpents-in-paradise-302412.html

Hump nosed viper (කුණකටුවා) venomous

To prevent the needless slaughter of up to 10,000 snakes a day by people panicking over snakebite death, toxinology expert Dr. Kalana Maduwage is urging the public to use a snake identification website he has masterminded to find out if a snake is venomous.

The Snake Identification Service (www.snakesidentification.org) will assist doctors and others to accurately identify creepy-crawlers and save both human and snake lives – news to celebrate tomorrow (July 16) on World Snake Day, which highlights the diversity of snakes and the important role they play.

“I developed this Snake Identification Service because of the many phone calls I am having every day from doctors,” said Dr. Maduwage, highly respected as an authority on snake venom toxins and antivenoms. “Many doctors at hospitals are not able to identify snakes.”

Sri Lanka has rich snake diversity with approximately 105 species, more than half of them endemic to this country. Most of the snakes are non-venomous and not a threat to humans.

About 15 species of sea snakes and only a few of the 90 land-inhabiting species, such as the Indian krait, cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper, hump-nosed viper and Ceylon krait, have lethal bites.

Wolf snake – a common creature often misidentified as venomous

Snakebite is a major medical public health issue in this country with about 80,000 people being bitten annually, resulting in about 400 deaths. Most of the victims are farmers in poor agricultural communities, with most being admitted to hospital for anti-venom treatment.

There are two kinds of venom, so early and accurate identification of the snake responsible for a bite is critical in treating the patient.

Anybody in difficulties can log on to the computerised Snake Identification Service to obtain help.

Users are asked to upload information about the snake of concern or interest to them. “The expert team behind the Snake Identification Service will be immediately notified and we will respond quickly,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Dr. Maduwage, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Peradeniya who has carried out important research on snake bites and treatments, has also developed a series of video lectures that explain snakes and treatments for snakebite.

This nine-part series titled “Snakebites: The Whole Story”, covers all important aspects of Sri Lankan snakebites and can be accessed freely on YouTube through links on http://www.snakesidentification.org.

Dr.Kalana Maduwage

Dr. Maduwage believes these lectures will fill the knowledge gaps on issues related to Sri Lankan snakebites.

It is often difficult to find accurate information on snake identification, bites, clinical features, hospital investigations, treatment, first aid, preventive strategies and other issues, Dr. Maduwage said. Even in standard medical and other textbooks, updated information on these areas is missing, leaving medical professionals groping for answers to snakebite complications they face.

The first part of the lecture series gives an overview of Sri Lankan snakes and their high diversity. The second covers the identification of venomous snakes and easy ways to distinguish them from non-venomous snakes.

There are four lectures on clinical features of snakebite, investigation, treatment and snake antivenom that are specifically for medical professionals in Sri Lanka confronted with snakebite victims.

The lecture series also covers first aid in treating snakebite, useful for people who either live or work in snake-prone situations. A lecture on the prevention of snakebite describes where snakes are commonly found and their activities. The final presentation is on the conservation of Sri Lankan fauna, including threats to snakes.

Dr. Maduwage, who has discovered a number of snake species, emphasises that snakes, as top predators, play a vital role in eco-systems as they control the breeding of pests such as rats in paddy fields, helping to save crops.

Snake venom is used to produce antivenom and many other medications. Several common antihypertensive drugs such as Captopril were developed from snake venom.
“So the presence of venom is not a reason to kill snakes,” Dr. Maduwage pointed out.

“As far as I know, about 10,000 snakes are killed every day only in Sri Lanka due to lack of identification and the wrong impression that ‘all snakes are dangerous’,” he said.

Dr. Maduwage said he was grateful for the help of medical student Parakrama Karunatilleke in setting up the Snake Identification Service website, and for the assistance of three young doctors, Dr. Bhagya Nikapitiya, Dr. Sajith Tillekeratne and Dr. Asiri Seneviratne, in developing the YouTube lecture series.

No excuse for snake shows in ayurveda
Wildlife officers raiding a house in Rajagiriya two weeks ago found 21 snakes including a green pit viper, python, green whip snakes, ornate flying snake and cat snakes being kept without a permit by an ayurvedic practitioner. The man, who was later released on bail, said he had kept the snakes for educational and identification purposes – which the law allows ayurvedic doctors to do if they obtain a permit.

Decades ago, ayurvedic treatments using medicinal oil and medicinal stones claimed to have antivenom properties were more popular than western medicine for treating snakebite victims. Ayurvedic doctors, sometimes commonly known as “beheth thel karayas” (people who sell medicinal oil) used to exhibit snakes in public areas as a tactic to grab people’s attention to sell their products. 

“Keeping snakes for education/identification is a fake excuse. We can educate people without live snakes,” Dr. Kalana Maduwage said. 

 

The slithery unwelcome stranger and a pipe snake that escaped death

January 3, 2017
The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

Holidaymakers in Nuwara Eliya this season were in for a rude shock when a strange slithery visitor was spotted at the iconic Lake Gregory e. Many who flocked there suggested it could be a Cobra and a confirmation later by snake experts that it was infact a juvenile cobra caused shivers that had nothing to do with the weather, to many.

“But if you leave a Cobra alone you don’t need to worry,” said one expert. Although the Cobra (Naja naja) is a lethally venomous snake, it attacks only as a last resort when being cornered or accidentally stepped on. The Cobra when threatened will first display its hood and make a hissing sound in an attempt to scare away intruders. The one found in Nuwara Eliya was a juvenile cobra according to experts.

However, it is not common to find a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya and its environs as many snake species cannot withstand cold weather. “I have never encountered a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya,” said Herpetologist Dr.Anslem de Silva who has conducted many reptile surveys islandwide. Only rough-sided snakes belonging to the genus Aspidura and rat snakes are usually found in cold environments such as Nuwara Eliya.

Our Nuwara Eliya correspondent, Shelton Hettiarachchi said residents believe the Cobra may have ended up there in a goods vehicle from some other part in the country.

Meanwhile, the sighting of a pipe snake has also been reported. Minuwan Shri Premasinghe had sighted this unusual reptile on his way to the Sinharaja rainforest. The Pipe snake in Sinhala is known as the ‘Depath Naya’ with ‘Naya’ meaning ‘Cobra’ and ‘depath’ meaning ‘heads on both ends’ of the body. The Sinhala name was given by locals on observing the Pipe snake’s behaviour when it was agitated– it flattens the lower part of its body and points the tail forward. In this position, the ventral pattern appears like two large eyes with the cloacae appearing like an open mouth.

While making its tail erect the Pipe Snake also tugs its head under the body when facing a predator. This is a defence mechanism where the snake warns potential predators not to come closer. If the predator undeterred by the warning decides to attack, it first targets the ‘fake head’ which is in fact the ‘erect tail’. This gives the pipe snake a vital fraction of time to escape. Even if the tail is injured, it is not as severe than an injury to the head, which is vital for the snake’s survival.

The Pipe Snake is a nocturnal creature and Mr. Premasinghe had seen the snake at around 10 p.m. at Deniyaya. The pipe snake was nearly killed by mortified villagers who tried to attack it with wooden poles and iron rods.

The cobra spotted in Nuwara Eliya. Pic by Shelton Hettiarachchie

“The Pipe snake is a harmless non-venomous reptile and this one was nearly killed by terrified villagers. Only a handful of Sri Lankan snakes are lethally venomous, so innocent snakes too get killed as people do not knowto identify snakes,” said Mr.Premasinghe who pointed out the importance of educating villagers, particularly those living close to biodiversity rich areas such as the Sinharaha forest. Mr. Premasinghe released the Pipe Snake to the rainforest the next day.

The Pipe Snake scientifically categorised as Cylindrophis maculatus is in fact the first reptile described from Sri Lanka in 1754. It is also special as the snake was introduced to the scientific world by Carl Linnaeus who is known as the “Father of Taxonomy”– for formalising the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature in 1754.

Dr.De Silva states that the average length of a Pipe Snake is 500 mm. The longest Ceylon pipe snake spotted so far has been a 715 mm long female recorded from Deraniyagala in 1955, according to a book written by Dr.De Silva.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/the-slithery-unwelcome-stranger-and-a-pipe-snake-that-escaped-death-222494.html

Trials to start for home-grown anti-venom

October 10, 2016

Drug will for the first time counter kunakatuwa bites : Published on SundayTimes on 09.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161009/news/trials-to-start-for-home-grown-anti-venom-211742.html

Researchers at the University of Peradeniya will next week begin clinical trials for new snake anti-venom that experts

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

hope preclude the high rate of allergic reactions from imported medication.

Indian-manufactured anti-venom serum is the main weapon used against the 50,000-plus snake bites recorded annually in Sri Lanka but as venom varies in snakes of different countries the Indian anti-venom has limitations here.

As this paper reported recently, Indian anti-venom could cause adverse allergic reactions in 50-80 per cent of patients, with nearly half of these reactions life-threatening. Most Sri Lankan doctors see the solution (anti-venom) as a bigger challenge than snakebite itself.

“All laboratory tests have now been completed and the results show that the new anti-venom is far superior in terms of neutralising venom compared to the Indian anti-venom,” the team’s chief scientist, Professor Indika Gawarammana, said.

“After the safety and effectiveness of the new anti-venom is established following clinical trials, commercial manufacturing can be started.”

The research team received the first batch of the anti-venom processed by its collaborator, the Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) of the University of Costa Rica a few weeks ago and are now ready to begin clinical trials, said Prof.Gawarammana, who is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya.

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

The anti-venom is active against number of venomous snakes. The first test batch will be effective against venom from the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and the hump-nosed viper (kunakatuwa). Anti-venom properties for the krait will, in time, be included in this serum.

The hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) is responsible for the highest number of snake bites in Sri Lanka and these can sometimes be fatal. Currently, there is no venom to treat kunakatuwa bites and victims are only treated with symptomatic treatment such as painkillers. Records show an unfortunate proportion of patients develop chronic kidney failure due to lack of an anti-venom.

The process of anti-venom development is complex. First, tiny amounts of venom are injected periodically into horses. Horses subsequently develop antibodies – a process similar to immunisation of children for various infections (polio, measles etc.) – in their blood.

These antibodies, the anti-venom, are then extracted, purified and freeze-dried for human use. If the purification is faulty the resulting substance could contain other serum proteins that could cause the problematic reactions coming from Indian anti-venom, Prof. Gawarammana explained.

The researcher recalls how the project began: “In October 2013, Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka invited Sri Lankan scientists, including myself, to produce safe and specific anti-venom for Sri Lanka.

“At our request, one of the best anti-venom producers in the world, Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) in Costa Rica, agreed to produce a test batch of Sri Lankan species-specific anti-venom at almost no cost,” Prof. Gawarammana  said.

The ICP produces anti-venom for many South America and African countries and Papua New Guinea and these countries do not experience the problems seen in Sri Lanka from anti-venom. Recognising the value of the Peradeniya team’s work, the National Research Council of Sri Lanka provided part of the funding for the project. The rest of the funding came from Animal Venom Research International, a non-profit organisation based in USA.

The necessary permission to collect snakes and house them in a serpentarium, milk venom and export venom to Costa Rica was given by the Department of Wildlife of Sri Lanka.

The project was not without challenges. The team faced unnecessary delays due to adverse media publicity at the inception of the project. As well, researchers only received permission to collect snakes from home gardens to extract venom.

Prof. Gawarammana said ICP was ready to transfer the technology for making the anti-venom to Sri Lanka. He said the researchers do not mind who manufactures it as long as they realise their dream of seeing it save lives.

Milking a Russsell's Viper to extract venom to be used for research

Milking a Russsell’s Viper to extract venom to be used for research

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

 

Study shows problems with snake antivenom

October 1, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 14.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160814/news/study-shows-problems-with-snake-antivenom-204880.html

Russell’s Viper’s fangs

Research shows one of two kinds of antivenom imported from India might not be very effective against some venomous snakes in Sri Lanka, where 40,000 people are hospitalised due to snakebite each year.

The research team checked several batches of Indian antivenom from the VINS and Bharat brands, the only antivenom (antivenene) available in Sri Lankan hospitals for many decades. They are made to counter bites by four major venomous snakes in India, the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty, who recently returned to the university after completing his PhD in Australia, led the research.

The study showed only the VINS antivenom neutralised the neurotoxicity of krait venom. Both antivenoms partially neutralised cobra venom and did not neutralise Russell’s viper venom.

VINS antivenom neutralised the toxic effects of Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper venom more effectively than Bharat antivenom.

The researchers conclude VINS is a better product that could help save more lives compared to Bharat but stressed the need to have locally manufactured anti-venom.

Both antivenoms lead to high rate of allergic reactions. Past studies have shown a 35-85 per cent chance of allergic reactions to Indian snake antivenom, a high figure compared to the allergic reactions reported in antivenoms used in the United States and Australia which are under 5 per cent.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage

The study also found a wide variation in the protein content and effectiveness of the different antivenom batches manufactured from 2008 to 2012, an inconsistency of quality that is a worry for medical practitioners fighting to save the lives of snakebite victims.

Snake venom is a complex mixture of toxic proteins that act against different vital organs, leading to life-threatening complications and death. Snake venoms harm the blood-clotting system, nervous system and kidney functions.

Snake antivenom is produced by injecting horses with small and repeated doses of snake venom to produce antibodies that are extracted from horse blood and made into antivenom.

There can, however, be other horse proteins in this extraction that need to be filtered out.

Contamination through unwanted horse proteins and impurities in snake antivenoms lead to allergic reactions to antivenom.

“The best option is for us to develop our own antivenom to cover all medically important venomous snakes in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Maduwage said. A group of scientists at the Peradeniya Medical Faculty is working on developing antivenom.

There is currently no antivenom available against the hump-nosed viper, the commonest type of highly venomous snakebite in Sri Lanka.

Listed along with Dr Maduwage as authors of the antivenom research paper published in the international journal Nature Scientific Reports last month are Anjana Silva, Margaret A. O’Leary, Wayne C. Hodgson and Geoffrey K. Isbister.

While researchers normally use mice in order to test the effectiveness of antivenom on snake venoms the team’s study reveals this method can be faulty.

“How snake venom attacks mice and human are different. The results of the mice study in our research are inconsistent with what happens to humans,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Saw scaled viper

Famed snake rescuer killed by rescued cobra

September 28, 2016

Note: ‘Window2Nature’ was not updated for several months. During this period, I have done several articles and these will be uploaded to the blog in coming days. Apologize from those who subscribed to the blog for filling your inboxes with number of posts in shorter period. The blog will be active and get updated regularly hereafter. 

This article was published on 16.08.2016 on SundayTimes. May it be a tribute to Amal Wijesekara’s silent service of rescuing countless number of snakeshttp://www.sundaytimes.lk/160807/news/famed-snake-rescuer-killed-by-rescued-cobra-203978.html 

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Amal Wijesekara – saviour of countless snakes, died last week of a snake bite, aged 47 and unmarried. He was found dead on August 3 morning, near his residence in Galle, with bite marks on his left hand. Apparently the tragedy had occurred late at night or in the early hours of the day. The large cobra believed to have bitten him was also found dead in a cage.amal-wijesekera-milking-a-venomous-thith-polanga-russells-viper

Popularly known as ‘Amal Ayya’, Mr Wijesekara was famous in Galle and its suburbs for ridding gardens and houses of intruding snakes. If a suitable place to release the snake is not available in the vicinity, he takes the snake home and keeps it in a cage, until he can find transport to release them in the wild. Many of the snakes Amal rescued had been beaten, so there were times he had to treat their wounds for months, before releasing them to the wild.

If not for Amal, many snakes would have been killed, as the public doesn’t know how to get rid of venomous snakes. Amal did not belong to any organisation and conducted his rescue mission voluntarily. Amal’s technical assistance was used by the National Geographic team for their field work on snakes. Amal also trained elite soldiers on handling and surviving snakes in the field.   “Amal was very competent at handling snakes” recalls Prof. Ariaranee Gnanathasan of Colombo University’s Faculty of Medicine. “Amal is a good man and it is sad to hear of his untimely loss,” grieved Prof Ariaranee.   Amal Wijesekara was very good at identifying snakes. About 9 years back, he picked an unusual looking Hump-nosed Viper and referred it to his colleagues Dr Kalana Maduwage and Anjana Silva. “Amal gave this strange looking specimen of a Hump-nosed Viper from Galle, to Kalana and me, saying, “Malli meka new wage” (Brother, this snake looks like a new species). Indeed, it was a new snake species. We named the snake after him to honour him, by proposing the name Hypnale sp. “amal” – according to the proper nomenclature – Hypnale amali. This is the only thing we could do for him,” writes Anjana Silva.

“He is a wonderful person with a big heart,” say his colleagues who recognise Amal as one who worked for the love of snakes, sans any personal gains. He studied at Richmond College Galle.

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016

A new creature has been found in the Sinharaja rainforest, surprising experts who believed the well-researched forest had few secrets left.

Hidden from sight high in the tree canopy is a new and vividly-coloured snake now revealed by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe in an article published this week in the prestigious science journal, Zootaxa.

“The snake lives in the canopy of the forest and that could be the reason it eludes the eyes of researchers who frequent Sinharaja,” Mr. Wickramasinghe explained. He had first seen the snake as early as 2001 while conducting other research and had continued to search for this snake afterwards, managing to spot just six such specimens.

He has named the new snake the Sinharaja tree snake or Sinharaja bronze-backed snake.

treesnakegraphic-449x1024

The Sinharaja tree snake is a beautiful reptile with a unique colour pattern of prominent cross-bars in black and white and a red neck. It has a dark purple tongue. It has a slender body, rounded pupils, enlarged vertebral scales, and a head distinct from the body.

The live specimen Mr. Wickremasinghe photographed was recorded 15m high up in trees near Kudawa. “I was on top of a small cliff so the tree canopy was at eye level when I spotted the beauty,” he said, recalling his chance encounter.

The snake is active during the day and lives in the trees. Its large pupils give it very good eyesight, and Mr. Wickremasinghe believes sight, more than scent, is used to hunt prey. The snake could be feeding on geckos, lizards, skinks and could be laying its eggs in tree hollows.

The holotype or the single type specimen upon which the scientific description and name of a new species is based was unfortunately a member of the species run over on the road near Mederipitiya. Mr. Wickramasinghe preserved it in formalin and then began the painful scientific process of comparing it with specimens of other snakes to make sure it was not, in fact, already known to science.

Mr. Wickremasinghe assigned the snake to the genus Dendrelaphis and gave it the scientific name Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. In Sinhala, it is called Sinharaja haldanda and in Tamil, Sinharaja komberi.

The Dendrelaphis genus has 44 members around the world. There are six bronze-backed snakes in the country, three of them endemic. Although they share many common features, the colour pattern of Sinharaja tree snake makes it easily distinguishable from its close relatives.

The Sinharaja tree snake is rarely sighted, so it is likely to be rare, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, stressing the need for more research into the species.

Habitat loss and forest fragmentation could affect this species directly as it need trees to survive. But, sadly, the axe of destruction moves at the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest.

With the new discovery, Mendis Wickremasinghe has scientifically described 23 new species – two snakes, 11 amphibians, seven geckos and three skinks. He hinted that another discovery is on the way, so keep checking The Sunday Times for another new species very soon.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/sinharajas-slithering-new-beauty-209050.html

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

Mendis Wickramasinghe is an outstanding wildlife photographer and his maiden coffee-table book,Repertoire, won two awards at the recently-concluded State Literary Awards, commended for presenting scientific information in a simple manner and for Kasun Pradeepa’s excellent layout.

Those interested in buying a copy should contact 0767 987 688 or purchase the book at a special rate from book fair stall no: L-379 of the Wildlife Trust. 

repertoir

Young Lankan scientist makes life-saving snakebite discovery

July 20, 2014

A landmark discovery by a Sri Lankan scientist could save thousands of lives lost through snakebite the world over.

A snakebite victim’s life often hangs in the balance in the minutes during which doctors watch for symptoms of poisoning before injecting the person with anti-venom as the remedy itself could cause severe allergic reactions that can cause immediate death. Not every snakebite sends poison into the bloodstream: sometimes the fang fails to inject the venom; sometimes the snake had engaged in a recent attack that depleted its venom sacs and the new bite fails to carry enough venom to harm the victim.

Unfortunately, the wait of a few minutes to ascertain such information could mean life or death. It could also cause permanent damage to organs or nerves as once signs of paralysis and muscle damage begin to appear they cannot be reversed by antivenin.

The good news is that scientists have found a blood test that could be successful in detecting whether venom entered into the bloodstream even before symptoms appear.

This breakthrough was made by Dr. Kalana Maduwage of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Peradeniya, who is currently doing his PhD at Newcastle University, Australia, in snake venom science.

He and a team of researchers tested a common enzyme in snake venom called Phospholipase A2 (PLA2). They had collected blood samples from those who had symptoms of snakebite and measured these against blood from people who were not bitten. This particular enzyme was found in high levels in snakebite victims who had the venom penetrate their blood stream.

Dr. Maduwage says that both Sri Lankan and Australian victims of snakebites were tested for this new method. Bites of four venomous Sri Lankan snakes – cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and hump-nosed viper – were tested successfully. Sri Lanka records one of the highest levels of snakebite in the world. According to the Health Ministry nearly 39,000 snakebites are reported to government hospitals every year, ending in approximately 100-150 hospital deaths.

Dr. Maduwage paid special tribute to the supervisors of his study, Professor Geoff Isbister and Dr Margaret O’Leary at the University of Newcastle. Dr Isbister is a world expert on snakebite research and has published more than 250 scientific papers on snakebites and spider bites. Dr. Maduwage said he was lucky to have Professor Isbister as his supervisor.

The work, previously published in Nature Scientific Reports, was presented last month at the Australian Society for Medical Research Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney. Dr. Maduwage is working hard with the team to develop this concept into a bedside test kit that can be easily available around the world.

Dr. Maduwage has more than 10 years’ experience in the study of snakes, especially the hump-nosed pit viper. In addition, he has also discovered and scientifically described 10 varieties of fish, three new snake species and one lizard species. Dr. Maduwage, who is still in Australia doing his PhD applauds the research-friendly environment in Australia but says he will return to Sri Lanka to serve his country upon completion of his PhD and will keep on developing techniques that can save more lives.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140720/news/young-lankan-scientist-makes-life-saving-snakebite-discovery-107840.html

How anti-venom is produced  A simplified explanation of how snake antivenin is produced is that extremely small amounts of snake venom are injected into mostly horses on a regular basis over a long period of time. The amounts are so small that the horses are not affected except that their bodies produce antibodies to counteract the foreign substance in their system. After about 10-12 months of this immunological “conditioning” a small proportion of each horse’s blood is removed and the plasma is extracted. This plasma contains the antibodies which, when injected into a snakebite victim, will neutralise snake venom.
Hump-nosed Viper

Hump-nosed Viper

Sri Lanka could be home to more new snake species

February 10, 2013

Today, February 10, marks the dawning of the Chinese New Year, and this year is the Year of the Snake. While billions of Chinese will be thinking about the Snake and its zodiacal impact on their lives over the next 12 months, environmentalists here are thinking of the snake and its survival in Sri Lanka, even as new undescribed species are making an appearance.

Ahaetulla nasuta – Green vine snake (Ahatulla). Pic by Dushantha Kandambi

Balanophis ceylonensis – Sri Lanka keelback- (Nihaluwa). Pic by Dushantha Kandambi

A new study on Sri Lankan snakes has appeared in the international research journal, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Despite its small size relative to larger islands such as New Guinea, Borneo, and Madagascar, Sri Lanka has one of the most evolutionarily diverse island snake faunas in the world. New endemic species are being identified, and there may be more waiting to be discovered.

Dr. Ruchira Somaweera, one of the scientists involved in the project, says the researchers learnt a lot about the origins of local snake fauna, and how they colonised the island and evolved.

Dr. Somaweera, who works for the Biologic Environmental Survey (Australia), said Sri Lanka was lucky to have a team of keen young herpetologists, many of whom had contributed to the research project. Dushantha Kandambi and Vishan Pushpamal conducted field work and looked after the logistics of project. The research was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Alexander Pyron of George Washington University (US) and colleagues from the City University of New York.

Sri Lanka is already famous as an amphibian hotspot. Ninety-five of the known 111 species are endemic.

The new study focused on the evolutionary roots of Sri Lankan snakes and finding their place in the global snake evolutionary tree.

Sri Lanka is home to 89 species of inland snakes (excluding species that permanently live in sea water), of which at least 49 are endemic. This includes five endemic groups: Aspidura (Rough-side snakes), Balanophis (Blossom krait), Cercaspis (Sri Lanka wolf snake), Haplocercus (Black-spined snake), and Pseudotyphlops (Large shield-tail snake) – snakes found only in this country.

The study suggests that the Sri Lankan snake fauna may soon rival its amphibians as a global center of endemism and diversity. Only a handful of snakes are lethally venomous, so learn to identify them and let the others live in peace as snakes are an important part of our biodiversity.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.02.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130210/news/sri-lanka-home-to-new-snake-species-32495.html