Some estimates suggest that, despite our seemingly vast knowledge of the planet’s wild fauna and flora, humans still have a long way to go when it comes to cataloging all of Earth’s species. Thanks to one keen naturalist stuck at home during a COVID lockdown with heaps of time to ‘gram the snakes, lizards, frogs and insects in his backyard, we’re one step closer to that mammoth task.

In June 2020, Virendar Bhardwaj, a master’s student at Guru Nanak Dev University, uploaded a photo to Instagram of a snake he found in his backyard in Chamba, India. Bhardwaj correctly identified the striped animal as belonging to a group commonly called kukri snakes, named for their curved teeth which are likened to a Nepali dagger or kukri. However, this was no ordinary kukri snake.

The photo caught the attention of Zeeshan A. Mirza, a herpetologist at India's National Centre for Biological Sciences, who noticed that Bhardwaj’s find did not match any kukri snakes known to live in the region.

Thankfully, the Instagram-famous snake was not the only one in Bhardwaj’s backyard and he was able to locate two snakes for Mirza and Harshil Patel of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University to examine more closely. After some delays as a result of COVID-19, the team were eventually able to gather molecular data that revealed the snake was an as-yet undescribed species that differed from the common kukri snake known to live in the area. CT scans of the snake’s skeletal structure further confirmed that it was a distinct species.

The newly discovered species was found in the Churah Valley, a mountainous region in the western Himalayas. Photo by Virender Bhardwaj (Mirza et al 2021).

"Lack of pterygoid and palatine teeth of the new species suggests that the diet may largely comprise of eggs," the researchers noted in an article published in Evolutionary Systematics. "Discovery of the new species is not surprising, as the Western Himalayas has been poorly explored in terms of its herpetofaunal diversity."

The species was named Oligodon churahensis, after the Churah Valley, a mountainous region in the western Himalayas where the species was found. “It is quite interesting to note that how an image from Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that was unknown to the world,” Mirza told Mongabay. “Exploration of your own backyard may yield species that are perhaps undocumented. Lately, people want to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks at their own backyard, one may end up finding a new species right there.”

The scientists who described the new snake are hopeful that the discovery may lead to further exploration in the western Himalayas, an area that is clearly in need of some detailed surveying.

Header image: Dr. Raju Kasambe