Plectrurus guntheri & Silybura nilgherriensis
Plectrurus guntheri & Silybura nilgherriensis

Mapping the ‘Two-headed’ Snake: Shielding our Shieldtails

Of the 270-odd known snake species of India, some ‘charismatic’ species tend to have captured public mindpace far more than others―like the Cobras, or the Vipers. To be fair, this is partly because of their venomous reputation and hence awareness about these tend to be higher. However there are some, like the Shieldtail snakes, that are so innocuous, that they tend to be thought of as worms. To the common eye, they tend to behave like worms as they are almost always underground, keep the soil aerated, and are found while farming and any kind of digging work. Very little is known about these snakes, and the farmers in Kodaikanal are quite familiar with them as they are common in the Palani Hills.

Academics studying the elusive Shieldtail, which is threatened with extinction, have recently equipped themselves with digital crowd-sourcing technology tools. This group of  academics and volunteers have  launched a new nation-wide mapping program on the India Biodiversity Portal, in October 2021. It is interesting to note that five species of this peculiar group of snakes are to be found in Kodaikanal. The snake, while commonly found while digging around the Palanis, is elusive; because of its fossorial nature (it lives underground). ‘These are burrowing snakes and hence it takes a lot to see them in surveys,’ said Dr SR Ganesh, a herpetologist who works with the Chennai Snake Park. 

The goal of the project is to map the distribution and behaviour of this family of snakes and learn more about them. The project allows absolutely anyone with a smartphone or a laptop to contribute towards the larger understanding of this little-known species. Mapping an observation takes less than 5 minutes. (Watch the accompanying video tutorial to see how you can do so as well.)

Praveen HN, one of the four members on the project, and handles the technology and social media front of the project, said, “People don’t get to see these snakes often. They are also not very social media friendly compared to the “charismatic species” like the cobras and vipers. To see a Shieldtail, the observer needs to be present in the right season, or if people are digging. Even if people see them they think of them as earthworms. I think of them as glamorous but they need the spotlight shown on them. They are really colourful when you see their ventral sides. Some of them have yellow or orange colouring.”

As of the first month they have had about 180 observations of 34 species of Shieldtails and have already begun seeing wider distributions of some snakes than previously thought. Despite this, very little is known about these snakes, many of which are now on the endangered list on the Vulnerable and Endangered lists of the IUCN Red List.

This genus of snakes, Uropeltidae, was discussed in SR Ganesh’s ‘Snakes of the Palanis’ in Issue 2 of The Kodai Chronicle

These fossorial snakes are extremely common in the Palani Hills. Locals now recognise them as a harmless and even useful species that benefits the soil that they live in. The farmers are most familiar with this species as these snakes are burrowers and are found almost every time their land is ploughed. The snakes, like earthworms, keep the soil aerated by burrowing. Their known diet consists almost exclusively of earthworms. However they also serve as prey for a lot of reptiles and birds. Beyond this, they are known to give live birth to their young, as opposed to laying eggs, like most other reptiles. From roadkill—snakes crushed under vehicles—it is known that the snakes produce 4 to 6 embryos.

A video on the Shieldtail by environmentalist Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy provides information on the snakes for Kodai residents

‘However this is broadly the limit of what herpetologists know about these snakes,’ says Vivek Philip Cyriac, an evolutionary ecologist, herpetologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Vivek has worked on the diversification of shieldtail snakes in the Western Ghats for over ten years. 

Vivek says the snakes are named Shieldtails due to their hard tails which are like a shield. The genus name ‘Uropeltidae’ comes from two different words—Ura, meaning Tail, and Pelte, meaning Shield. Herpetologists have shown  that the evolutionary advantage of this particular physical trait, which often makes the tail look like the snake’s head, is that it distracts predators. When attacked, Shieldtails tend to hide their head in their coils and raise their tails in an act of cephalic mimicry. The predators confuse the tail to be the head, thereby attacking the hard tail with their beaks or claws. This gives the snake an opportunity to escape. 

Shieldtail snakes have tapered heads and elongated bodies, which makes it ideal for tunneling through soil. These snakes spend most of their time underground and are highly specialized to living in their underground environment. Their fossorial nature makes it very hard for these snakes to adapt to changing environments making them highly vulnerable to climate change and habitat modification like deforesting, fragmentation of forests, construction, farming. 

‘Shieldtails are “indicator species” and their presence tells us that the soil they live in is likely free from harmful pesticides (or mercury!) and retains adequate humidity for good plant growth,’ says Rom Whitaker, founder of the Madras Snake Park, the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust (ANET), and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. Adding on to the topic of climate change Praveen says, ‘Sometimes it rains in one day as much as it may rain in a month at other times.’ This changes the nature of the terrain in which the snakes live.

‘The Shieldtail Mapping Project is a perfect citizen-science project, since shieldtails are non-venomous, common (or used to be), and earth work is constantly being done for gardens, roads, etc. So one can spread the word asking for information about these snakes, especially where people are doing this kind of work,’ comments Zai Whitaker, Managing Trustee of the Madras Crocodile Bank/ Centre for Herpetology.

Apart from mapping a species that is endangered, a unique aspect of the Shieldtail Mapping project is that it is using modern technology to enable community participation in what is, essentially, a scientific project. And given the discoveries that are being made about this species, it also drives home the point that in our very midst, nature has many secrets to reveal. It will be interesting to see how citizens in this part of the Western Ghats use this tool.

The Shieldtail Mapping Project team:

Praveen HN: Praveen is an IT professional by day and a herpetologist by night. His core interests are in amphibian taxonomy and systematics. He handles the social media and outreach aspects of the project.

Anuj Shinde: Anuj is currently pursuing his masters at Tel Aviv University, Israel. He is also the founder of HerpClub, a network of over 2000 herpetologists and herp enthusiasts across India. He is predominantly involved with data curation for the project.

Harikrishnan S: Hari is a herpetologist and a community ecologist who has studied amphibians and reptiles across India. He has been involved with curating the reptile observations on India Biodiversity Portal.

Vivek Philip Cyriac: Vivek is an evolutionary ecologist and herpetologist. He has predominantly worked on the shieldtail snakes in the Western Ghats over the past decade and currently curates observations uploaded to the Shieldtail Mapping Project.

SHIELDTAIL FACTS
 
62 known species in the world
 
India: 44 known species 

Sri Lanka: 18 species

The Eastern Ghats: 5 known species

Tamil Nadu: 57 observations

Kodaikanal: 4 observations, 3 known species so far

SOURCE: INDIA BIODIVERSITY PORTAL

Jacob Cherian

Jacob Cherian, Editor of the Environment & Wildlife section also runs TerreGeneration.com, a content and events company committed to positive environmental impact. He lives between Bengaluru and Prakasapuram.

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