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Learning to Love Snakes (and Other Lovable Herps)

By Cheri Amarna
Learning to Love Snakes (and Other Lovable Herps)

Every fall, the American International School-Chennai (AISC) sends its entire high-school student body on planes, trains, and buses to “Discover India.” This year, a group of 11 students visited Amboli, in Marharashtra’s Western Ghats—a biodiversity hotspot, where we studied some of the world’s truly rare animals.
On our first night, our expedition took us to a local tourist park. Within a few minutes of searching, the cry of “Snake!” brought students and adults alike rushing to see what had been spotted. Our guide shined his light on a Malabar Pit Viper, or Trimeresurus malabaricus, a pale-green venomous snake only found in southwestern India. She was wound around a branch about 3 feet off the ground hanging tight with her prehensile tail. Cameras snapped as the reptile calmly ignored us and waited for her dinner to happen by. So this is what it is like to be a herpetologist.
Encouraged by the sleepy pit viper, students began to scan the trees and ground with their flashlights hoping to be the one who made the next sighting. We were not disappointed. Our the list for the night included a neon-green vine snake, several species of tadpoles and lizards, the white belly of a Malabar gliding frog 15 feet up in a tree, and the critically endangered Amboli Toad (Xanthrophryne tigerina). This tiny toad is found only on the plateaus of Amboli with a geographic range of less than 10 square kilometers. It was only the beginning and the list would grow to over 30 species.
Herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, is a neglected science when compared with the rest of the vertebrates of the animal kingdom. When people think of the wildlife of India, invariably the tiger and monkey come to mind. The herps were the first of the vertebrates to crawl out of the sea and onto the land. Lots of herps in a habitat are a key indicator of a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Living in the water, trees, and burrowing in the ground, these sensitive cold-blooded creatures have a narrow range of ideal living conditions and can not tolerate pollution or the disturbances brought about by human development.
Mainland India has two main biodiversity hotspots: the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas. To qualify as a hotspot, a region must contain at least 0.5 percent or 1,500 species of endemic (found nowhere else) vascular plants; additionally, it must have lost 70 percent of its primary vegetation. There are only 35 such sites in the world and they contain 60 percent of the world’s plants and animals.
We were joined the next morning by Dr. Varad B. Giri, a post-doctoral research fellow and curator of Herpetofauna at the Indian National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Dr. Giri has been visiting the Western Ghats in search of snakes, lizards, and caecilians for over 15 years. After an informative orientation session, the students headed down the road and up into one of the promising plateau areas, where they began to overturn rocks in the shadow of a massive decaying palace of a local noble, long since abandoned. A particularly large moss-covered rock yielded a rare prize: a caecilian!
Caecilians fool most people into thinking they are either a worm or a snake. In fact, they are neither. Talk about a neglected species; very little is known about them in the whole of science. I had no idea that caecilians even existed, and I have been a biologist since 1985. This secretive creature is a limbless amphibian and spends most of its life under a rock or burrowing in the wet soil. Up to this year, 22 species are known to be endemic to the Western Ghats. Like most amphibians, caecilians are slimy with mucous secretions and, once touched, can’t be confused with their dryer look-alike, the snake. Unlike worms, caecilians have a mouth, eyes and tentacles, one of only two vertebrates to sport this handy facial appendage. Our specimen, a grey yellow-striped segmented wonder of the species Ichthyophis beddomei, was carefully passed from hand to hand and photographed to within an inch of its life. We were some of the luckiest people in the world, as members of a very exclusive caecilian-sighting club. Of the dozens of rare animals we would catch and photograph over the next four days, none was quite as special.
Dr. Giri and his team of graduate students and assistants have discovered several new herps in the area, including a new snake species just described in September 2017. AISC students caught and photographed several species currently unknown to science. Amboli is a place where students of biology, even those without a degree, can make their mark. It is also a place that can attest to our success as environmentalists.
Amphibians are fighting for their lives. Frogs are the most threatened vertebrates on earth (with 32 percent listed IUCN Red List, compared with 23 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds). As the planet warms, these rare and extraordinary creatures will be the first to feel the effects. How many will disappear forever before they are even known to have existed?
Cheri Amarna is IB Biology Teacher at the American International School-Chennai.

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12/20/2017 - Clayton
What a wonderful experience for AISC students! I learned something new today: Caecilians!
12/17/2017 - Karen
Wonderful article--what a great experience for those budding biologists and herpetologists!



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