In Mizoram, a new snake species gets named after local warrior Vanhnuailiana

It was a bright summer morning in March and researchers from Mizoram University were surveying for herpetofaunal (reptiles and amphibians) species in villages not far from the capital city Aizawl. Though night fell, they continued their survey and spotted a snake on a boulder in a dried-up area of Tuinghaleng river bed. Further detailed studies revealed that it was a new species of the Stoliczkia genus and only the third species of Stoliczkia from India.

The team named it Stoliczkia vanhnuailianai, in honour of Vanhnuailiana, a famous Mizo warrior. He was one of the most powerful chiefs of the Lushai Hills (now Mizoram) during the mid-1800s and led many successful campaigns against rival chiefs in the area.

The snake is about 50 cm in length, non-venomous, and has a dark brown shade above with a few dorsal scale rows bright yellow in colour. Though the head scales are uniformly dark brown it has bright pinkish sutures.

“Since some members of the family Xenodermidae exhibit fluorescence under ultraviolet light, we tested this species under a UV light, but it did not exhibit any significant sign of fluorescence. We do not know if the pink colour played an important role as of now,” explains lead author Samuel Lalronunga, from the Systematics and Toxicology Laboratory, Department of Zoology, Mizoram University. The findings were published today in Zootaxa.

The team gave a common name, ‘Lushai hills dragon snake’ and in the local Mizo language they suggest it be called rulphusin, meaning ‘snake with small scales’.

The team says this is one of the most important discoveries of this century because the last time its sister species Stoliczkia khasiensis was found was more than a century ago in 1904.

S. khasiensis is arguably one of the rarest snakes of India. Our knowledge of this lost species was based only on two historical museum specimens. Whereabouts of S. khasiensis still remain one of the greatest mysteries from Northeast India. The discovery of this new sister species from Mizoram tells us a lot about their uniqueness, beauty and the microhabitat they may occupy,” says Abhijit Das, one of the authors from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

The new species is known only from a single specimen at a point locality and further studies are needed to know its distributional range, ecological preferences and tolerances. “At the site where the individual was encountered, there is small-scale agricultural and pisciculture practice by the local communities. Numerous patches of forests are cleared for shifting cultivation which could be a threat if this species is a narrowly distributed habitat specialist,” adds Dr Lalronunga.

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