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India has an impressive diversity of reptiles, with over 600 species recorded to date. But snakes and lizards remain poorly studied there, and new species are continually being described.
Deepak Veerappan, Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Museum, specialises in south Asian reptiles. He has recently been involved in a host of papers describing three new species, a new genus and a new subfamily of snakes from across India.
Deepak has helped to describe the first new species of pit viper from India in 70 years, found in the northeastern province of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Bhutan and Tibet.
Deepak was drafted in thanks to his specialised skillset. 'My colleagues needed help with a couple of things,' he says. 'One of these was inverting the hemipenis from a preserved specimen. This is a difficult task, and I have become quite good at it.'
The beautiful, red-coloured snake has now been named Trimeresurus arunachalensis.
Most male lizards and snakes possess what is known as a hemipenis. This is the organ roughly analogous to the penis in mammals, except it is formed of two branches and works in a slightly different way.
'Relatively speaking, the study of hemipenis morphology is only very recent,' explains Deepak. 'Studies began in the 1960s when people actually started to understand what it was. But later in that decade, it was realised that there are some groups of reptiles in which the characteristics of the hemipenis are important.
'When people started looking in more detail, it turned out that in some cases you can even use the hemipenis to identify individual species.'
For different species of pit vipers, the shape and structure of the hemipenis is highly distinctive. To get a good look at it, the organ has to be inverted from the snake. While this is fairly straightforward in recently dead snakes, in preserved specimens it gets a bit trickier. This is where Deepak's skills came in.
When compared to its closest relative - the new species' hemipenis was distinctive in that it was unforked and remarkably smooth.
T. arunachalensis lives on the ground and not in trees, and looks unlike any other pit viper in the region. These factors combined suggested that this animal was new to science.
The species is only known from a single specimen, so DNA sequencing was needed to confirm the finding.
Deepak and his colleagues have also named a new species of slender snake from the Eastern Ghats.
'We have also described a new species of vine snake from eastern and central India,' says Deepak. 'My colleague in India found the first specimen around nine years ago, but since then he has surveyed a lot in the same area and has found only three more individuals.'
The species belongs to a group that is fairly well known, making the discovery even more surprising.
Despite only having a few specimens to go on, to the researchers saw it was clear that it is a new species, now named Ahaetulla laudankia. It has distinctive colouration, pattern of scalesand DNA analysis. The snake is a rich chestnut brown on its belly, and it has black speckles running all over its body.
It is also unlikely to be the only new species of vine snake. 'There are definitely more new species hidden within this group of snakes,' Deepak says. 'But it is difficult for many people to come to collections such as the Museum and check.
'So in the study we've published all the raw data, hoping that people from different parts of Asia can then look at it all and help uncover these other species.'
A group of burrowing snakes from south western India have long been an oddity. Belonging to the genus Xylophis, the three species of snake burrow through the soil and leaf litter in search of worms and other small creatures.
Limited to the Western Ghats, a region renowned for its biodiversity, the burrowing snakes are unlike others in the area.
Deepak says, 'They looked similar to some of the natricine snakes, a group that includes many more common species like the European grass snake. But some people had speculated it to be something else.'
By sampling the DNA of two of the Xylophis species, the team were able to finally place these unusual reptiles on the evolutionary tree, though the results were not what they expected.
'Nobody in their wildest dreams thought that this burrowing species found only in the Western Ghats would be related to tree-climbing specialist feeders in southeast Asia,' says Deepak.
It turned out that their closest living relatives were another group of strange snakes known as the snail-eaters. As their name suggests, these animals climb trees to feed primarily on snails, and their skulls having become astonishingly specialised in the process.
'This particular group has become so specialised to scoop out snail flesh that their head shape is unlike anything else, their heads are modified in a really dramatic way,' says Deepak.
This makes it all the more surprising that the ground-dwelling burrowing snakes are their closest relatives of Xylophis.
'We estimated that the split between the groups occurred around 40-50 million years ago, which makes sense as this is about the time that most of the animal and plant exchange happened between southeast Asia and peninsula India,' Deepak continued.
This divergence was great enough to warrant Xylophis becoming its own new subfamily.
The Western Ghats is also home to a group of natricine snakes known as Rhabdops. These semi-aquatic snakes are found in small forest streams, feeding on frogs and other reptiles. But included in this group is another species, Rhabdops bicolor, living far away in northeastern India.
'This is quite interesting, because biogeographically they are found in two different areas, and yet are species of the same genus,' explains Deepak. 'So the obvious question is how are the Western Ghats snakes related to the one found in the northeast?'
Museum collections combined with new samples revealed that the two separate populations are actually two separate genera, with those in the northeast now belonging to the new genus Smithophis, named in honour of Malcolm Arthur Smith, who published three influential volumes on reptiles and amphibians of the Indian subcontinent.
Additionally, this new genus is not made up of a single species but two. The new snake species has been named Smithophis atemporalis.
The work being carried out by Deepak and his colleagues in India goes some way to highlighting just how much there is still to discover in the forests of Asia, and the importance of historic Museum collections that can be used as vital references.