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The Malabar Pit Viper

The Malabar Pit Viper

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Herpetologist and wildlife photographer Nirmal U Kulkarni spots a Malabar Pit Viper at the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary.

The location: somewhere north of Sosogad, Goa’s highest peak and the crown of the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary. The scene: sunrays filtering through the broad leaf canopy that’s characteristic of this captivating forest. A heavenly scent, perhaps from a fruiting tree, suffuses the air.

The atmosphere is perfect. Vaibhav, my guide on this trip, and I are trying to locate and document a snake whose colour and size always makes researchers like me feel like we are looking for a needle in a haystack.

The humidity levels are just about perfect. But after a two hour futile search we are restless and fretful. Our subject was still nowhere in sight. And then a sudden exclamation from Vaibhav. A short sprint, a bit of a stumble and I was face to face with our find, the Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus). It lay coiled up in its characteristic style, wedged between a branch and a rock crevice, basking in the sun.

Findings like these are tough, especially when one attempts to do so in a season when these snakes are inactive and somewhat reclusive. The previous night a few people from villages around the forest had suggested that we head to the spot where we ultimately found our viper or chapde as it is locally known.

As I proceeded to attach my tripod to the camera and Vaibhav filled in the data forms, I took a closer look at my find: it had a greenish-brown body speckled with yellowish-white markings. I have documented green, brown, maroon and even completely yellow vipers in the Mahdei region, some of which I share here. These colour variations of a single species are now being attributed to the age of the snake, the temperature and humidity where they are found in the Western Ghats and also their proximity to water and canopy cover. Whatever its surface colour, the underside of a viper is always pale green.

The snake had coiled itself with its prehensile tail and lay almost listless. As I looked through my viewfinder, I observed a few more characteristics: a triangular head that is always broader than the neck, a marvellous vertical pupil and a flickering tongue. I could also see those distinctive heat sensory pits, which revealed that we had been noticed and were merely being tolerated. Endemic to the Western Ghats of India, the Malabar Pit Viper has highly developed heat sensory thermo-receptor pits between its nostrils and eyes, which enable it to locate and strike at a prey even at night. They also enable the viper to sense temperature changes of up to 0.001 degree Celsius and to strike with pinpoint accuracy.

That’s another reason why it is known as the pit viper.

The Malabar Pit Viper, which feeds exclusively on lesser life forms like lizards, geckos and juveniles of birds, occupies an important niche in the forest ecosystem and is rather shy in temperament unless it is threatened. Its venom is mildly toxic to humans and its bite has known to cause swelling and pain for up to 48 hours in some cases.

While this species is nocturnal in nature, there are ample records of day sightings. You will generally encounter a Malabar Pit Viper within dense forest ecosystems, near streams, earth cuttings and in bushes where you can see them at eye level. However, habitat destruction and monoculture are taking a silent toll on the species. Sightings are rare even in remote forest areas of Goa, a huge cause for concern.

I feel the need to research and document this species a little more and hope to return to the forest sometime in the monsoons, a time of year when the Malabar Pit Viper is the most active. I hope that these notes and photographs will help other researchers study and ultimately conserve this beautiful snake species.

This article was first published in Timeline GOA Magazine: Issue 1 Vol. 1 (Page 43).


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