Cardamom Hills Earth Snake

Photo: Dr Sandeep Das

The Cardamom Hills Earth-Snake, also known as the Cardamom Shieldtail and scientifically named Rhinophis fergusonianus, was rediscovered by a research team in various parts of the Western Ghats after 130 years. Initially discovered in 1896 by Belgian-British zoologist George Albert Boulenger in the then Travancore cardamom forests, it was named in honour of HS Fergusson, a renowned zoologist who significantly contributed to the study of Kerala’s fauna. This rediscovery marks the end of the species’ absence from the scientific community since its initial discovery.

Key figures in this study include British zoologist Dr David Gore, Dr V. Deepak, Sri Surya Narayanan from Tamil Nadu, Mr Muhammad Anwar, and Dr Sandeep Das from Kerala. The earth-snake remained elusive for 127 years, likely because its original description only referenced the vast cardamom plantations of the Travancore region, a broad and nondescript area, making its precise location challenging to pinpoint. Additionally, the snake’s underground lifestyle contributed to its elusiveness, as it rarely surfaces from its subterranean habitat.

The research involved both morphological and genetic studies. An exciting aspect of the research was the collaboration between the Indian team and Dr David, who unknowingly worked on the same species. Dr. David started his research with a specimen collected in 2000 and deposited in the Bombay Natural History Museum. Meanwhile, in Malappuram district, volunteers Mr Sameer C, Mr Taufeek A, Mr Naseeb PA, and Mr Ahmed Javad alerted Dr Sandeep Das to a snake that had been killed. This incident led to the realisation that both teams were studying the same species, prompting them to collaborate.

Further discoveries of the species near Thattekad, Mannarkad Pass, and Pothundi were made by Shri Jiji PV, Shri Jishnu N, Shri Muhammad Anwar, Dr. Sandeep Das, and Shri Siddharth Sasidharan. Initially, the researchers hypothesised that the snake might be a distinct species, considering its underground habitat and significant gap in the Western Ghats. This assumption was based on the geographical separation and the potential for varied evolutionary paths. However, upon conducting detailed morphological and genetic studies, it was revealed that there was no significant difference between these populations. This conclusion was further reinforced by comparing their findings with the type specimen housed at the London Natural History Museum, confirming that these were indeed instances of the same rare species of earth-snake.

The London Natural History Museum, Calicut University Department of Zoology, Kerala Forest Department, Atree Bengaluru, Senckenberg Museum Germany, and Aranyakam Nature Foundation contributed to this significant study.