In the first four months of 2021, the Western Ghats featured new butterflies, frogs, fruit flies and even a freshwater crab. Joining the list is a tiny snake only 8 inches in length with iridescent scales – Xylophis deepaki, first stumbled upon a coconut plantation in Kanyakumari, is now reported as endemic to Tamil Nadu and has been sighted in a few places in the southern part of the Western Ghats. The species is named in honor of Indian herpetologist Deepak Veerappan for his contribution to the erection of a new subfamily Xylophiinae to accommodate woodland snakes. The team suggests the common name of Deepak’s wood snake.
Wood snakes are harmless, sub-fossorial, and often found digging soil on farms and under logs in the forests of the Western Ghat. They feed on earthworms and possibly other invertebrates. Interestingly, their close relatives are found in northeast India and Southeast Asia and are known to be arboreal.
“This new species is found in the drier, lower elevation areas around the Agasthyamalai Hills. The other Xylophis have been reported at cooler elevations of 1,700 m and above in the Nilgiris and Anaimalai. Its close relative, the Captain’s Wood Snake, is known from the western slopes of the Western Ghats in Kerala, ”says Surya Narayanan, from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, and first author of the article recently. published in Zoology of vertebrates.
The serpent was previously confused with X. captaini, but detailed morphological studies have shown it to have a wider off-white collar and more ventral scales. Additionally, DNA studies indicated that it was indeed a new species and was a close relative of X. captaini.
The new finding increases the total number of currently recognized wood snakes to five species. The paper adds that very little information is available on the precise distributions of each species, their natural history, population status, feeding and breeding ecology, and conservation status.
“These are burrowing snakes and we have plans to conduct further studies to understand its geographic distribution,” adds Pratyush P. Mohapatra, a scientist with the Zoological Survey of India, based in Jabalpur. He adds that because the snake has been found on rubber, banana and coconut farms, it appears to be well adapted to moderate habitat changes, but more studies are needed to determine its status.