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Assam keelback spotted for the first time in 129 years

Assam Keelback snake

The Assam keelback has been rediscovered by a team from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) near a reserve forest on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

Herpetoreas pealii was discovered 129 years ago by Samuel Edward Peal, a British tea planter based in upper Assam. Peal collected two specimens of the non-venomous snake from the evergreen forests that made up what is now Assam’s Sivasagar district. The specimens were kept in the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata, and the Natural History Museum, London. “The species has never been reported since then — nobody knew where it lived, how it looked, and everyone considered it a lost species,” said Abhijit Das, a scientist with WII.

In September 2018, Das was among the five scientists who retraced the Abor expedition — an iconic expedition that took place from 1911-1912 that yielded a rich list of flora and fauna of the Assam region. In this expedition, researchers recorded 400 plants, 270 butterflies, 25 amphibians and 44 reptiles, 239 birds and at least 20 mammals. “We just happened to find this harmless snake while we were surveying the Poba Reserve Forest (RF),” said Das who collaborated with the Natural History Museum, London, to identify it. The species is about 60 cm long, brownish, with a patterned belly.

The snake’s ‘lost’ status has a lot to do with the habitat it occupies — a lowland evergreen forest. “These forests have been selectively degraded during the last 100 years: tea plantations have been made, selective logging has taken place, and other activities such as oil exploration and coal mining,” says Das.