India’s relic forests reveal a new species of leopard gecko

The Painted Leopard Gecko is already under a threat of extinction, as it is being collected for the pet trade and may even be smuggled illegally.

Deep in the forests of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in India lives a colourful gecko species that only now revealed its true identity. Meet Eublepharis pictus, also known as the Painted Leopard Gecko.

In 2017, researchers Zeeshan A. Mirza of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and C. Gnaneswar of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai found a gecko in a water tank near a temple in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, during a field survey. Back then, they identified it as belonging to the East Indian Leopard Gecko species (Eublepharis hardwickii).

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Image by Sanjay Kumar & Avinash Ch.

“The species appears to be common in the hill forests, but its distinctness was only confirmed by other researchers,” Zeeshan Mirza explains.

In a phylogenetic study, where they looked for the evolutionary history and relationships within and between the leopard gecko species in the genus Eublepharis, the researchers found that what had until then been considered a southern population of East Indian Leopard Geckomight be distinct enough to represent a new species.

Once they had molecular data they could work with, the team made morphological comparisons between the species, looking at specimens across natural history museums.

Map of east India showing the distribution of E. hardwickii (black circles) and E. pictus (blue rhombus). Image of E. pictus by Gnaneshwar C. H.

“These lizards have conserved morphologies and most species are quite similar in general appearance,” Zeeshan Mirza elaborates. “With a few characters based on the number of specimens examined, we described the species and named it the Painted Leopard Gecko – in Latin, Eublepharis pictus, for its colouration.” They published their discovery in the open-access scientific journal Evolutionary Systematics.

With this new addition, the gecko genus Eublepharis now contains 7 species. Two of them – E. pictus and E. satpuraensis – were described by Zeeshan Mirza.

The Painted Leopard Gecko measures 11.7 cm in length, which is somewhat large for a leopard gecko. The Brahmani River, which runs through the Eastern Ghats, separates it geographically from the East Indian Leopard Gecko, with which it shares a lot of similar traits.

The new species lives in dry evergreen forests mixed with scrub and meadows. It is strictly nocturnal, actively foraging along trails in the forest after dusk. While looking for food, it has been observed licking surfaces as it moves, which suggests it might use its tongue as a sensory organ.

Even though the Painted Leopard Gecko seems to be widespread across the state of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh, the researchers worry about its conservation. “The species is collected for the pet trade and even now may be smuggled illegally,” they write in their paper, which is why they refrain from giving out the exact locations where it may be found.

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Photo by Zeeshan Mirza

The authors believe the species would stand more of a chance against humans if more people knew it was actually harmless. To protect it, they suggest listing it as Near Threatened based on IUCN conservation prioritisation criteria, until more is known about the size of its populations.

Further research may also encourage better protection of biodiversity in the area. “The Eastern Ghats are severely under-surveyed, and dedicated efforts will help recognize it as a biodiversity hotspot,” the authors conclude.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Gnaneswar C (2022) Description of a new species of leopard geckos, Eublepharis Gray, 1827 from Eastern Ghats, India with notes on Eublepharis hardwickii Gray, 1827. Evolutionary Systematics 6(1): 77-88. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.83290

Major highway in India threatens reptiles and amphibians

“Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists at Gauhati University (Assam, India) before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of those effects may take longer than others to identify and confirm.

This is how the research team of doctoral research fellow Somoyita Sur, Dr Prasanta Kumar Saikia and Dr Malabika Kakati Saikia decided to study roadkill along a 64-kilometre-long stretch of one of the major highways in India: the National Highway 715. 

What makes the location a particularly intriguing choice is that it is where the highway passess between the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Assam and the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary, thus tempting animals to move to and from the floodplains of Kaziranga and the hilly terrain of the Sanctuary to escape the annual floods or – on a daily basis – in search for food and mating partners.

In the beginning, they looked into various groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, before realising that the death toll amongst frogs, toads, snakes and lizards was indeed tremendous, yet overlooked. Their findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation.

“To our surprise, the death toll within that 64-kilometre stretch of the highway was indeed dramatic. We estimated that it has been over 6000 animals that have fallen under the wheels of motor vehicles within a single year. Prior to our study, similar research had focused on big charismatic species like the tiger, elephant and rhino, so when we took into account also the smaller animals: frogs, toads, snakes and lizards, the count went through the roof. Thus, we decided to make smaller species the focus of our work,”

comments Sur.

In conclusion, the scientists agree that roads and highways cannot be abandoned or prevented from construction and expansion, as they are crucial in connecting people and transporting goods and necessities. 

“Yet, we can definitely put some effort into designing and constructing them in a scientifically sound, eco-friendly and sustainable manner, so that they don’t become the bane for our ecosystems,”

the team concludes.

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Research article:

Sur S, Saikia PK, Saikia MK (2022) Speed thrills but kills: A case study on seasonal variation in roadkill mortality on National highway 715 (new) in Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape, Assam, India. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 87-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.73036

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Follow Nature Conservation on Twitter and Facebook.

Snake photo posted on Instagram leads to the discovery of a new species from the Himalayas

An image on Instagram prompted the discovery of a new species of Kukri snake from Himachal Pradesh, India. Intrigued by a post shared by a master student, the research team found and examined more specimens to discover they belonged to a yet undescribed species. Their study, published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics, highlights how little we still know about the biodiversity in the Western Himalayas.

Virender Kumar Kharadwaj

Intrigued by a photo shared on Instagram, a research team from India discovered a previously unknown species of kukri snake.

Staying at home in Chamba because of the COVID-19 lockdown, Virendar K. Bhardwaj, a master student in Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, started exploring his backyard, photographing everything he found there and posting the pictures online. His Instagram account started buzzing with the life of the snakes, lizards, frogs, and insects he encountered.

One of those photos – a picture of a kukri snake – popped up in the feed of Zeeshan A. Mirza (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore) and immediately caught his attention. After a chat with Harshil Patel (Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat), he decided to get in touch with Virendar and find out more about the sighting.

The snake, which Virendar encountered along a mud road on a summer evening, belongs to a group commonly known as Kukri snakes, named so because of their curved teeth that resemble the Nepali dagger “Kukri”. 

At first sight, the individual that Virendar photographed looked a lot like the Common Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis). However, a herpetologist could spot some unique features that raised questions about its identity. 

Kukri snake

Virendar uploaded the photo on 5 June 2020, and by the end of the month, after extensively surveying the area, he found two individuals – enough to proceed with their identification. However, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the research work as labs and natural history museums remained closed. 

Upon the reopening of labs, the team studied the DNA of the specimens and found out they belonged to a species different from the Common Kukri snake. Then, they compared the snakes’ morphological features with data from literature and museums and used micro computed tomography scans to further investigate their morphology. In the end, the research team were able to confirm the snakes belonged to a species previously unknown to science.

The discovery was published in a research paper in the international peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Systematics. There, the new species is described as Oligodon churahensis, its name a reference to the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where it was discovered. 

What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species… if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.

Zeeshan A. Mirza

“It is quite interesting to see how an image on Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that, until very recently, remained hidden to the world,” comments Zeeshan A. Mirza.

“What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species. Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.”

“Compared to other biodiversity hotspots, the Western Himalayas are still poorly explored, especially in terms of herpetological diversity, but they harbor unique reptile species that we have only started to unravel in the last couple of years,” Mirza adds.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Bhardwaj VK, Patel H (2021) A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary Systematics 5(2): 335-345. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564

Two new pit vipers discovered from Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Two new species of venomous snakes were just added to Asia’s fauna – the Nujiang pit viper (Gloydius lipipengi) from Zayu, Tibet, and the Glacier pit viper (G. swild) found west of the Nujiang River and Heishui, Sichuan, east of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Our team of researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Bangor University published the discovery in the open-access journal ZooKeys. In this study, we performed a new molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Asian pit vipers.

Guest blog post by Jingsong Shi

Two new species of venomous snakes were just added to Asia’s fauna – the Nujiang pit viper (Gloydius lipipengi) from Zayu, Tibet, and the Glacier pit viper (G. swild) found west of the Nujiang River and Heishui, Sichuan, east of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Our team of researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Bangor University published the discovery in the open-access journal ZooKeys. In this study, we performed a new molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Asian pit vipers.

Glacier pit viper (Gloydius swild)

The Nujiang pit viper has a greyish brown back with irregular black ring-shaped crossbands, wide, greyish-brown stripes behind the eyes, and relativity short fangs, while the Glacier pit viper is blueish-grey, with zigzag stripes on its back, and has relatively narrow stripes behind its eyes.

Nujiang pit viper (Gloydius lipipengi)

Interestingly, the Glacier pit viper was found under the Dagu Holy-glacier National Park: the glacier lake lies 2000 meters higher than the habitat of the snakes, at more than 4,880 m above sea level. This discovery suggests that the glaciers might be a key factor to the isolation and speciation of alpine pit vipers in southwest China.

The stories behind the snakes’ scientific names are interesting too: with the new species from Tibet, Gloydius lipipengi, the name is dedicated to my Master’s supervisor, Professor Pi-Peng Li from the Institute of Herpetology at Shenyang Normal University, just in time for Li’s sixtieth birthday. Prof. Li has devoted himself to the study of the herpetological diversity of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and it was under his guidance that I became an Asian pit viper enthusiast and professional herpetological researcher. 

Gloydius swild, the new species from Heishui, Sichuan, is in turn named after the SWILD Group, which studies the fauna and biodiversity of southewst China. They discovered and collected the snake during an expedition to the Dagu Holy-glacier.

A misty morning near the habitat of Glacier pit viper.

We are equally impressed by the sceneries we encountered during our field work: throughout our journey, we got to look at sacred, crystal-like glacier lakes embraced by the mountains, morning mist falling over the village, and colorful broadleaf-conifer forests. During our expedition, we met a lot of hospitable Tibetan inhabitants and enjoyed their kindness and treats, which made the expedition all the more unforgettable.

Research article:

Shi J-S, Liu J-C, Giri R, Owens JB, Santra V, Kuttalam S, Selvan M, Guo K-J, Malhotra A (2021) Molecular phylogenetic analysis of the genus Gloydius (Squamata, Viperidae, Crotalinae), with description of two new alpine species from Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, China. ZooKeys 1061: 87-108. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1061.70420

Guest blog post: Unique feeding behaviour of Asian kukri snakes gutting frogs and toads

Guest blog post by Henrik Bringsøe

In September 2020, we reported the first evidence for a newly discovered behaviour in snakes, as we provided extensive photographic documentation, demonstrating a macabre feeding strategy of Asian kukri snakes of the species Oligodon fasciolatus, the Small-banded Kukri Snake: a snake cutting open the abdomen of a toad, inserting its head and pulling out the toad’s organs which are then swallowed.

A Small-banded Kukri Snake attacking a Painted Burrowing Frog, which is inflating its lungs. The snake makes rotations about its own longitudinal body axis (“death rolls”), as it is biting and holding the belly of the frog. Video by Navapol Komanasin.

This is done while the toad is alive and it may take several hours before it dies! We have now provided new evidence that two other species of kukri snakes also exhibit this highly unusual behaviour: Oligodon formosanus, the Taiwanese Kukri Snake, and Oligodon ocellatus, the Ocellated Kukri Snake. These three species are closely-related and belong to the same species group in the genus Oligodon.

On two occasions in Hong Kong, a Taiwanese Kukri Snake was observed eviscerating frogs of the species Kaloula pulchra, the Painted Burrowing Frog or Banded Bullfrog. In one case, the snake had cut open the belly of the frog and inserted its head deep into the frog’s abdomen. In this position, the snake performed repeated rotations about its own longitudinal body axis, also called “death rolls”! We believe that the purpose of these death rolls was to tear out organs to be subsequently swallowed. In the other case, the organs of the frog had been forced out of its abdomen.

A Taiwanese Kukri Snake with its head buried deep into the abdomen of a Painted Burrowing Frog. Initially, the frog moves its long fourth toe of the left hind foot up and down 21 times. During the subsequent active struggle, the snake makes three “death rolls”. Video by Jonathan Rotbart.

A Small-banded Kukri Snake was also observed eating a Painted Burrowing Frog in Northeast Thailand, but it swallowed the frog whole. That snake also performed death rolls, although we have never before seen that behaviour in this species of kukri snake (this species was treated in our 2020 paper). This frog is not considered toxic and is also eaten by other snakes. We believe that prey size is crucial in determining whether the gape width allows large prey to be swallowed whole by kukri snakes. If the prey is too large, the snake may eviscerate a frog or toad, in order to swallow the organs. Afterwards, the snake will perhaps be able to swallow the rest of the frog or toad.

In another new paper, we describe and illustrate the Ocellated Kukri Snake eating the toxic toad Asian Black-spotted Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) in Vietnam. Initially, the large snake’s head was buried past its eyes into the abdomen of the toad, but eventually the snake swallowed the toad whole despite its toxicity. We interpret this behaviour that kukri snakes are in fact resistant to the toads’ cardiac glycoside toxins. Furthermore, toads are only eviscerated if they prove too large to be swallowed whole.

An Ocellated Kukri Snake first pierced this poisonous Asian common toad and buried its head deeply into the abdomen of the amphibian, as it was probably eating the organs. However, as seen in the photo, the kukri snake proceeded to swallow the toad whole. 
Photo by James Holden.

We suggest that the unique behaviour of eviscerating frogs and toads and eating their organs may have evolved specifically in a group of kukri snakes named the Oligodon cyclurus group or clade because it has now been recorded in three of its species, namely Oligodon fasciolatus, Oligodon formosanus and Oligodon ocellatus. We hope that future observations may uncover additional aspects of the fascinating feeding habits of kukri snakes though we may indeed call them gruesome.

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See more video recordings of the snakes’ unique, even if quite gruesome, behaviours provided as supplementary files to one of the discussed research papers.

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Follow Herpetozoa on Twitter and Facebook.

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Research papers: 

Bringsøe H, Suthanthangjai M, Suthanthangjai W, Lodder J, Komanasin N (2021) Gruesome twosome kukri rippers: Oligodon formosanus (Günther, 1872) and O. fasciolatus (Günther, 1864) eat Kaloula pulchra Gray, 1831 either by eviscerating or swallowing whole. Herpetozoa 34: 49-55. https://doi.org/10.3897/herpetozoa.34.e62688

Bringsøe H, Holden J (2021) Yet another kukri snake piercing an anuran abdomen: Oligodon ocellatus (Morice, 1875) eats Duttaphrynus melanostictus (Schneider, 1799) in Vietnam. Herpetozoa 34: 57-59. https://doi.org/10.3897/herpetozoa.34.e62689

Guest blog post: Snakes disembowel and feed on the organs of living toads in a first for science

A Small-banded kukri snake with its head inserted through the right side of the abdomen of an Asian black-spotted toad, in order to extract and eat the organs. The upper part of the front leg is covered by foaming blood, likewise, mixed with air bubbles from the collapsed lung.
Photo by Winai Suthanthangjai

Guest blog post by Henrik Bringsøe


Our observations on the quite small-bodied Asian kukri snakes in Thailand have documented a feeding behaviour which differs from anything ever described in snakes. 

Normally, snakes would swallow their prey whole. However, this particular species: the Small-banded Kukri Snake (Oligodon fasciolatus), would instead use its enlarged posterior maxillary teeth to cut open the abdomen of large poisonous toads, then inserts its entire head into the cavity to pull out and eat the organs one by one, while the prey is still alive! 

During those macabre attacks, we managed to capture on camera three times, the toads struggled vigorously to escape and avoid being eviscerated alive, but, on all occasions, this was in vain. The fights we saw lasted for up to a few hours, depending on the organs the snake would pull out first.

The toads observed belong to the quite common species called Asian Black-spotted Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus), which is known to secrete a potent toxin from their prominent parotid glands, located on the neck and all over the back. Could it be that the snakes have adopted this sophisticated and gory approach to avoid being poisoned?

In a fourth, and equally important, case, an adult kukri snake attacked a somewhat smaller individual of the same toad species. However, this time, the snake swallowed the entire toad. Why did the snake swallow the juvenile toad, we still don’t know. Perhaps smaller toads are less toxic than adults? Or, could it be that kukri snakes are indeed resistant to the Asian Black-spotted toad’s poison, yet the large size of the adult toads prevented the snakes from swallowing them in the three afore-mentioned cases?

Adult Small-banded kukri snake swallowing a large Asian black-spotted toad juvenile
(Phitsanulok, Thailand, 5 June 2020).
Photo by Kanjana Nimnuam

At present, we cannot answer any of these questions, but we will continue to observe and report on these fascinating snakes in the hope that we will uncover further interesting aspects of their biology.

Perhaps you’d be pleased to know that kukri snakes are, thankfully, harmless to humans. However, I wouldn’t recommend being bitten by one of those. The thing is that they can inflict large wounds that bleed for hours, because of the anticoagulant agent these snakes inject into the victim’s bloodstream. Their teeth are designed to inflict lacerations rather than punctures, so your finger would feel as if cut apart! This secretion, produced by two glands, called Duvernoy’s glands and located behind the eyes of the snakes, are likely beneficial while the snakes spend hours extracting toad organs.

Small-banded kukri snake having managed to slit through the left side of the abdomen of the toad underneath the left front leg. Two liver lobes next to the already dead toad are visible.
(Loei, Thailand, 9 August 2016).
Photo by Winai Suthanthangjai

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Publication:

Bringsøe H, Suthanthangjai M, Suthanthangjai W, Nimnuam K (2020) Eviscerated alive: Novel and macabre feeding strategy in Oligodon fasciolatus (Günther, 1864) eating organs of Duttaphrynus melanostictus (Schneider, 1799) in Thailand. Herpetozoa 33: 157-163. https://doi.org/10.3897/herpetozoa.33.e57096

Reptile poaching in Balochistan (Pakistan) is on a decreasing trend but still troublesome

Since 2013, following a strict enforcement of provincial wildlife legislation in the less studied regions of Asia, the overall trend of illegal reptile poaching is steadily decreasing. Despite that, the issue is not yet resolved and poached reptiles are largely destined not only for the international pet trade, but also utilised in folk medicines and snake charmer shows, according to a recent study, published in the open-access journal Herpetozoa.

Since 2013, following a strict enforcement of provincial wildlife legislation in the less studied regions of Asia, the overall trend of illegal reptile poaching is steadily decreasing. But it’s too early to claim that the issue is solved. Poached reptiles are largely destined not only for the pet trade, but also folk medicines and snake charmer shows, according to the recent study led by the scientists from the Pakistan Museum of Natural History and the University of Peshawar published in the open-access journal Herpetozoa.

For the first time, the exploitation of reptiles for the pet trade has come to the attention of the public in the late 1960s. In general, illegal poaching is one of the problems we still face a lot all over the world, despite strict restrictions which are coming in force massively over the last decades. The wildlife trade leads not only to biodiversity loss (through capture of protected species), but also threatens with a possible spread of animal-borne diseases, due to interspecies contact at pet and folk medicine markets. The case of the recent COVID-19 pandemic gives a lesson to learn, and in order to stop further occurrences, a focus on law-enforcement activities should be brought to wildlife trade hotspots.

In the particular case of Pakistan, a country with high species diversity of reptiles, still very little is known about the links between illegal wildlife trade and wildlife decline. The illegal poaching and trade in Pakistan are largely undocumented and it’s difficult to bring accurate data since the trade involves many channels and follows informal networks. There is marginal information available about the medicinal use of wild flora and fauna for some parts of Pakistan, but there is no report on the commercialisation, harvest, market dynamics and conservation impact of these activities.

Since 2013, a number of confiscations of different reptile species and their parts from Pakistani nationals have been reported widely from across the country, which resulted in the enforcement of legislations regarding the wildlife trade in Pakistan.

An international team of researchers, led by Dr. Rafaqat Masroor from Pakistan Museum of Natural History investigated the extent of illegal reptile collection in southwestern Balochistan. Scientists tried to determine what impact these activities might have on the wild populations.


A topographic map of southwestern Balochistan showing visit sites in Chagai, Nushki, Panjgur, Kharan and Washuk districts.
Credit: Rafaqat Masroor
License: CC-BY 4.0

The field trips, conducted in 2013-2017, targeted Chagai, Nushki, Panjgur, Kharan and Washuk districts in Balochistan province. Over those years, scientists interviewed 73 illegal collectors. Most of the collectors worked in groups, consisting of males, aged between 14 to 50 years.

“They were all illiterate and their sole livelihood was based on reptile poaching, trade, and street shows. These collectors were well-organized and had trapping equipment for the collection of reptiles. […] These groups were locally known as “jogeez”, who mainly originated from Sindh Province and included snake charmers, having their roots deep with the local hakeems (herbal medicine practitioners) and wildlife traders, businessmen and exporters based at Karachi city. […] We often observed local people killing lizards and snakes, mostly for fear of venom and part for fun and centuries-old myths”,

share Dr. Masroor.

A total number of illegally poached reptiles, recorded during the investigation, results in 5,369 specimens representing 19 species. All of them had already been declared Protected under Schedule-III of the Balochistan Provincial Wildlife Act.

A view of live reptiles. Lytorhynchus maynardi and Eryx tataricus speciosus, the two rarely encountered snakes inside the locally-made boxes.
Credit: Rafaqat Masroor
License: CC-BY 4.0

Amongst the reasons for the province of Balochistan to remain unexplored might have been the lack of government environmental and wildlife protection agencies, lack of resources and specialists of high qualification in the provincial wildlife, forest and environment departments, as well as geopolitical position and remoteness of vast tracts of areas.

 Number of specimens collected against the number of
individuals (illegal collectors).
Credit: Rafaqat Masroor
License: CC-BY 4.0

Scientists call for the provincial and federal government to take action and elaborate a specific strategy for the conservation of endemic and threatened species as a part of the country’s natural heritage both in southwestern Balochistan and whole Pakistan. The conservation plan needs to be consulted with specialists in the respective fields, in order to avoid incompetence.

Also, the research group suggests to strictly ban illegal poaching of venomous snakes for the purpose of venom extraction.

What is important to remember is that Balochistan represents one of the most important areas of Asia with a high number of endemic reptile species. The illegal capture of these species presents a threat to the poorly documented animals. Even though the current trend for captured reptiles is decreasing, more actions are needed, in order to ensure the safety of the biodiversity of the region.

Contact:

Dr. Rafaqat Masroor
Email: rafaqat.masroor78@gmail.com

Original source:

Masroor R, Khisroon M, Jablonski D (2020) A case study on illegal reptile poaching from Balochistan, Pakistan. Herpetozoa 33: 67-75. https://doi.org/10.3897/herpetozoa.33.e51690

Scientists discover bent-toed gecko species in Cambodia

Originally published by North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

A new species of bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis) has been described from Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary by Wild Earth Allies Biologist Thy Neang in collaboration with North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences‘ Herpetologist Bryan Stuart. This new species is described in ZooKeys.

The species was discovered by Thy Neang during Wild Earth Allies field surveys in June-July 2019 on an isolated mountain named Phnom Chi in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary when he encountered an unusual species of bent-toed gecko. “It was an extremely unexpected discovery. No one thought there were undescribed species in Prey Lang,” said Neang.

The geckos were found to belong to the C. irregularis species complex that includes at least 19 species distributed in south¬ern and central Vietnam, eastern Cambodia, and southern Laos. This is the first member of the complex to be found west of the Mekong River, demonstrating how biogeographic barriers can lead to speciation. Additionally, the geckos were unique in morphological characters and mitochondrial DNA, and distinct from C. ziegleri to which they are most closely related. Researchers have named the species Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis after Phnom Chi mountain where it was found.

A new species of bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis) has been discovered in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary by Wild Earth Allies Biologist Thy Neang in collaboration with Bryan Stuart of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Photo by Thy Neang

Bent-toed geckos of the genus Cyrtodactylus are one of the most species-diverse genera of gekkonid lizards, with 292 recognized species. Much of the diversity within Cyrtodactylus has been described only during the past decade and from mainland Southeast Asia, and many of these newly recognized species are thought to have extremely narrow geographic ranges. As such, Cyrtodactylus phnomchiensis is likely endemic to Phnom Chi, which consists of an isolated small mountain of rocky outcrops (peak of 652 m elevation) and a few associated smaller hills, altogether encompassing an area of approximately 4,464 hectares in Kampong Thom and Kratie Provinces within the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, Cambodia.

The forest habitat in Phnom Chi remains in relatively good condition, but small-scale illegal gold extraction around its base threatens the newly discovered species. A second species of lizard, the scincid Sphenomorphus preylangensis, was also recently described from Phnom Chi by a team of researchers including Neang. These new discoveries underscore the importance of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary for biodiversity conservation and the critical need to strengthen its management.

Habitat at Phnom Chi, the type locality of the newly described bent-toed gecko.
Photo by Thy Neang

Further, an assessment of C. phnomchiensis is urgently warranted by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN 2020) because of its small area of occupancy, status as relatively uncommon, and ongoing threats to its habitat.

“This exciting discovery adds another reptile species to science for Cambodia and the world. It also highlights the global importance of Cambodia’s biodiversity and illustrates the need for future exploration and biological research in Prey Lang,”

said Neang.

“When [Neang] first returned from fieldwork and told me that he had found a species in the C. irregularis group so far west of the Mekong River in Cambodia, I did not believe it. His discovery underscores how much unknown biodiversity remains out there in unexpected places. Clearly, Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary is important for biodiversity and deserves attention,”

said Neang’s co-author Stuart of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

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Original source:

Neang T, Henson A, Stuart BL (2020) A new species of Cyrtodactylus (Squamata, Gekkonidae) from Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. ZooKeys 926: 133-158. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.926.48671

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For more information on Wild Earth Allies, please visit: http://www.wildearthallies.org.

For more information on the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, please visit:http://www.naturalsciences.org.

Vibes before it bites: 10 types of defensive behaviour for the False Coral Snake

The False Coral Snake (Oxyrhopus rhombifer) may be capable of recognising various threat levels and demonstrates ten different defensive behaviours, seven of which are registered for the first time for the species. Scientists from the Federal University of Viçosa (Brazil) published their laboratory observation results based on a juvenile specimen in the open-access journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation.

In a recent paper in the open-access journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation, a group of Brazilian scientists from the Federal University of Viçosa (Brazil) published ten different defensive behaviours for the False Coral Snake (Oxyrhopus rhombifer), seven of which are registered for the first time for the species. One of these is reported for the first time for Brazilian snakes.

Evolution shaped anti-predator mechanisms in preys, which can be displayed either with avoidance or defensive behaviours. The current knowledge about such mechanisms are still scarce for many snake species, but it is constantly increasing over the last years. These data are helpful for better understanding of the species ecology, biology and evolution.

The False Coral Snake (O. rhombifer) is a terrestrial snake species with a colouration like the true coral snake . The species has a wide geographic distribution, occurring in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and all Brazilian biomes. Among its previously known anti-predator mechanisms, this species has already shown cloacal discharge, body flattening, struggling, erratic movements and hiding the head.

However, these behaviors were only a small part of what this species is capable of doing to defend itself! In November 2017, a juvenile male  captured in the Atlantic Forest of southeastern Brazil was observed under laboratory settings, where the scientists would simulate a predation attempt with an increasing threat level.

We released the snake on to the laboratory bench and let it notice our presence. The animal remained motionless at first, then performed a pronounced dorsoventral flattening of the anterior part of the body, raised its tail, adopted an S-shaped posture, raised the first third of the body and performed brief body vibrations. Then we approached the snake, which remained with the same posture and body vibrations. When we touched the animal (not handling), it remained with the S-shaped posture, keeping the first third of the body elevated and the dorsoventral flattening (however, less accentuated) and started to display erratic movements, false strikes and locomotor escape. When handled, the snake only struggled,

shares the lead scientist Mr. Clodoaldo Lopes de Assis.

Amongst ten recorded behaviour types only three were among those already registered for this species. Since defensive responses in snakes decrease as body size increases, juveniles exhibit a broader set of defensive behaviour than adults. Because of that, some types of behaviour described in this study might be explained either by physical constraints or stage of development of the individual.

Some types of behaviour resemble the ones of true coral snakes of the genus Micrurus, a group of extremely venomous snakes. Thus, this similarity may be linked with the mimicry hypothesis between these two groups, where harmless false coral snakes take advantage of their similar appearance to the true coral snakes to defend themselves.

Another type of anti-predation mechanism shown — body vibrations — is yet an unknown behaviour for Brazilian snakes and has been recorded for the first time. This type of behaviour is difficult to interpret, but could represent a defensive signal against non-visually orientated predators.

Finally, defensive strategies of the specimen differed according to the threat level imposed: starting from discouraging behaviour up to false bites, erratic movements and locomotor escape.


Some defensive types of behaviour displayed by the juvenile Oxyrhopus rhombifer
Credit: Mr. Clodoaldo Lopes de Assis
License: CC-BY 4.0

O. rhombifer may be capable of recognising different threat levels imposed by predators and adjusting its defensive behaviour accordingly,

highlights Mr. Clodoaldo Lopes de Assis.

Through such simple laboratory observations we can get a sense of how Brazilian snakes are yet poorly known regarding their natural history, where even common species like the false coral snake O. rhombifer can surprise us!

Mr. Clodoaldo Lopes de Assis adds in conclusion.

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Original source:
Lopes de Assis C, José Magalhães Guedes J, Miriam Gomes de Jesus L, Neves Feio R (2020) New defensive behaviour of the false coral snake Oxyrhopus rhombifer Duméril, Bibron & Duméril, 1854 (Serpentes, Dipsadidae) in south-eastern Brazil. Neotropical Biology and Conservation 15(1): 71-76. https://doi.org/10.3897/neotropical.15.e48564

Tiger geckos in Vietnam could be the next species sold into extinction, shows a new survey

The endemic reptiles are already proposed to be listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

While proper information about the conservation status of tiger gecko species is largely missing, these Asian lizards are already particularly vulnerable to extinction, as most of them have extremely restricted distribution. Furthermore, they have been facing severe declines over the last two decades, mostly due to overcollection for the international exotic pet market. Such is the case of the Cat Ba Tiger Gecko, whose tiny populations can only be found on Cat Ba Island and a few islands in the Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

In their study, a Vietnamese-German research team, led by PhD candidate Hai Ngoc Ngo of the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi, provide an overview of the evidence for domestic and international trade in tiger gecko species and update the information about the abundance and threats impacting the subpopulations of the Vietnamese Cat Ba Tiger Gecko in Ha Long Bay.

By presenting both direct and online observations, interviews and existing knowledge, the scientists point out that strict conservation measures and regulations are urgently needed for the protection and monitoring of all tiger geckos. The research article is published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

Cat Ba tiger gecko (Goniurosaurus catbaensis) in its natural habitat. Photo by Hai Ngoc Ngo.

Tiger geckos are a genus (Goniurosaurus) of 19 species native to Vietnam, China and Japan. Many of them can only be found within a single locality, mountain range or archipelago. They live in small, disjunct populations, where the population from Ha Long Bay is estimated at about 120 individuals. Due to demands in the international pet trade in the last two decades, as well as habitat destruction, some species are already considered extinct at the localities where they had originally been discovered.

However, it was not until very recently that some species of these geckos received attention from the regulatory institutions in their home countries, leading to the prohibition of their collection without a permit. Only eight tiger geckos have so far had their species conservation status assessed for the IUCN Red List. Not surprisingly, all of them were classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Nevertheless, none is currently listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which could be the only efficient and reliable method to monitor, regulate and police the trade of the species on a global scale.

“Tiger geckos are neither sufficiently protected by law nor part of conservation programmes, due to the lack of substantial knowledge on the species conservation status and probably due to the general lack of public as well as political interest in biodiversity conservation,” they explain. “To date, exact impacts of trade on the species cannot be identified, as data of legal trade are only recorded for species listed in the CITES Appendices”.

During their survey, the researchers tracked local traders in possession of wild-caught tiger geckos representing all five Vietnamese species en route to foreign exotic pet markets, mainly in the United States, the European Union and Japan. The species were also frequently found to be sold in local pet shops in Vietnam, as well as being offered via various online platforms and social media networks like Facebook.

Having spoken to local dealers in Vietnam, the team found the animals were traded via long and complex chains, beginning from local villagers living within the species’ distribution range, who catch the geckos and sell them to dealers for as little as US$4 – 5 per individual. Then, a lizard either ends up at a local shop with a US$7 – 25 price tag or is either transported by boat or by train to Thailand or Indonesia, from where it is flown to the major overseas markets and sold for anywhere between US$100 and 2,000, depending on its rarity. However, many of these delicate wild animals do not arrive alive at their final destination, as their travels include lengthy trips in overfilled boxes under poor conditions with no food and water.

Indeed, although the researchers reported a large quantity of tiger geckos labelled as captive-bred in Europe, it turns out that their availability is far from enough to meet the current demands.

In conclusion, the team provides a list of several recommendations intended to improve the conservation of the Asian geckos: (1) inclusion of all tiger geckos in the Appendices of CITES; (2) assessment of each species for the IUCN Red List; (3) concealment of any currently unknown localities; and (4) improvement/establishment of coordinated ex-situ breeding programmes for all species.

Signboard handed over to the Ha Long Bay Management Department to point to the threats and conservation need of the Cat Ba tiger gecko in English and Vietnamese languages.

The inclusion of all tiger gecko species from China and Vietnam in CITES Appendix II was recently proposed jointly by the European Union, China and Vietnam and is to be decided upon at the Conference of the parties (CoP18) in May-June 2019, held in Sri Lanka.

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Original source:

Ngo HN, Nguyen TQ, Phan TQ, van Schingen M, Ziegler T (2019) A case study on trade in threatened Tiger Geckos (Goniurosaurus) in Vietnam including updated information on the abundance of the Endangered G. catbaensisNature Conservation 33: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.32.33590