Scientists describe new Himalayan snake species discovered via Instagram

  • Locked in his home during the pandemic last year, a postgraduate student in the Himalayan region of India photographed a snake in his garden that experts had never seen before.
  • Uploaded to Instagram, the photo caught the attention of a herpetologist from another part of the country, who set out to find out more about the snake.
  • In a recently published article, they describe it as a new scientific species of kukri snake (Oligodon spp.).
  • The authors say the find highlights the hidden wealth of biodiversity in the Western Himalayas and call for more studies in this region.

Researchers have found a snake species new to science in the Himalayas – on Instagram!

During lockdown related to COVID-19, Virender Bhardwaj, a master’s student at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, explored the backyard of his home in Chamba, at the foot of the Himalayas. He started photographing snakes, lizards, frogs and insects around the house and uploading these photos to the social media platform, Instagram.

In one of these messages, uploaded on June 5, 2020, Zeeshan A. Mirza, a herpetologist at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru noticed an unknown snake. The snake belonged to a group commonly known as kukri snakes, named after their teeth curved like a kukri, or Nepalese dagger. But this specimen did not match the common kukri snake in the region.

Virendar Bhardwaj uploaded this photo of a snake in his garden in Himachal Pradesh. It later turned out to be an undescribed species. Photo by Virender Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj was able to locate two of the snakes, enough for the team, which included Mirza and Harshil Patel from Veer Narmad South Gujarat University in Surat, western India, to begin the identification process.

Work has been suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions, making it difficult to visit natural history laboratories and museums. But once the labs reopened in early 2021, molecular data for the species confirmed that it was significantly different from the common kukri snake. Morphological data from the literature, as well as computed tomography (CT) scans of the skeletal structure of the species further revealed that the species was not described.

The species new to science has been named Oligodon churahensis, after the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where the species was found. A description of the species is published in the journal Evolutionary systematics.

A newly discovered snake in the Himalayas, Oligodon churahensis. Photo by Virender Bhardwaj (Mirza et al 2021).
A general view of the habitat where the new snakes are found in Chamba, near the Himalayas. Photo by Virender Bhardwaj (Mirza et al 2021).

The Western Himalayas are comparatively less explored than many other regions, and dedicated work in this region is needed to reveal the region’s biodiversity, Mirza says. The region is home to unique species of reptiles that scientists have only begun to unravel in the past two years.

“It’s quite interesting how an image from Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that was unknown to the world,” Mirza told Mongabay. “Exploring your own backyard can reveal species that may not be documented. Lately, people want to go to distant biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if you look at their own backyard, you may end up finding a new species there. “

Read more: Radio telemetry signals new ways to study snakes


Mirza, ZA, Bhardwaj, VK and Patel, H. (2021). A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary systematics, 5(2), 335-345. do I:10.3897 / evolsyst.5.72564

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Banner image: An Oligodon churahensis. Photo by Virendar Bhardwaj.


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