Virendar Bhardwaj, a master’s student at Guru Nanak Dev University in India, spent the early months of the pandemic home in Chamba, a town nestled at the base of the Himalayas. To bide his time, he explored his backyard and uploaded photographs of critters like insects, birds and reptiles to Instagram, reports Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.
In June 2020, he uploaded one photo—a close-up shot of a small, black and white snake flicking its forked tongue out—that caught the attention of Zeeshan Mirza, a scientist studying reptiles and amphibians at India's National Centre for Biological Sciences. Curious, Mirza reached out to Bhardwaj because he didn't recognize that particular snake, reports Paige Bennett for EcoWatch.
Together, they realized that the snake had not yet been described in scientific literature, though it's known by locals. They published a description of the snake earlier this month in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.
Bhardwaj's Instagram caption identified the snake as a kukri, a type of snake with teeth curved like a Nepali dagger, which is called a kukri. The snake looked similar to the common kukri, Oligodon arnensis, but it differed in a few aspects, Zeeshan tells Aishwarya Dharni for the India Times.
The team captured two snakes—one male and one female—to closely examine. Very precisely, they dissected the specimens and collected morphological data, such as the number of scales and skull shape. They also ran a DNA analysis and compared the snakes' genomes with other species, confirming that the snake Bhardwaj photographed was undescribed, according to the paper.
The World Wildlife Fund says that the western Himalayas are drier and less species-rich than the eastern regions, but Mirza tells Mongabay that there should be more research on the western region's biodiversity. He says it harbors a unique array of reptiles that scientists are just starting to document.
"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 tells 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."