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Earth Day: From the Western Ghats, Meet the Malabar Pit Viper

The warm and humid Western Ghats during monsoons create a magical world for the Malabar Pit Viper.

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Environment
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What rules your imagination when the word ‘Western Ghats’ comes to mind? Mountains? Streams? Rainforest! A dense forest where tall trees and large canopies darken the understory. The smell of wet moss and leaf litter, sounds of birds, critters and gurgling streams capture the senses. As one can dream, to move through these mystic forests filled with rich life is to be in the Western Ghats. But what rules the Western Ghats is the life of the country, the Monsoons. Here the heavy clouds from the Arabian Sea burst heavily upon crashing on the hills. The warm and humid forests in monsoons create a magical world and one of the most iconic creatures of this magical world is the Malabar Pit Viper.

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One of the most beautiful snakes in India, the Malabar Pit Viper is a symbol and endemic resident of the Western Ghats. This venomous snake belongs to the family of pit vipers due to the presence of thermo-receptive pits in the loreal region of its face. These pits allow the snake to gather infrared heat signatures of its prey with brilliant accuracy within a range of one meter, making it an exceptional hunter in the dark.

To support this evolutionary arsenal, the snakes are also granted with Jacobson’s organ, which detects prey’s chemical signatures which are collected by the bifurcated tongue to tell the directionality of the prey. The Malabar Pit Vipers tick all boxes for a formidable stealth predator in the Western Ghats.

The Changing Colours of the Viper

What strikes the most about this species is the number of colours it has. Scientifically called the phenomenon of polymorphism, the snake exists in morphs of green, brown, yellow, orange and even blue. What puzzles us is why so many morphs? While scientists believe it may be due to sexual selection, such that certain coloured morphs are selected more over the others. Another idea is that different colours allow them to beautifully camouflage in the different surroundings of the rainforest. This is supported by the observations that the green and brown morphs are more common, that blend in with the habitat more easily. This blending in the environment brings the species in close proximity to humans too, creating concern.

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The Snake-Human Conflict

Being one of the most abundant snakes in the Western Ghats, they also inhabit the cash crop plantations adjacent to the forests. In these plantations, the workers get uncomfortably close to these snakes and often get bitten. Although venomous, Malabar Pit Viper’s bite is not fatal. Non-fatality though doesn’t take away the pain and discomfort the victim faces for two-three days impacting health and livelihood as most victims are daily wage workers. In retaliation, unfortunately, many snakes are killed on spot.

As the Malabar Pit Viper is not recognized as a species of concern, no anti-venom is developed for its bite. This unrecognition has pushed the species into being misunderstood as dangerous, making it face the same plight as snakes across the country. Not just the retaliation from the locals, but the expansion of linear infrastructures across the Western Ghats has also increased the species’ mortality via road kills. With fragmentation, forest clearing and encroachment, the conflicts may continue to increase with time. Only education, awareness and precautions can aid in the coexistence of both people and the Malabar Pit Viper. Hopefully, coexistence will happen as it will be sad to imagine the Western Ghats devoid of this beautiful species.

The Habitats Trust in collaboration with Tripintoe productions presents the story of this beautiful species, Malabar Pit Viper via an episode in the docuseries “Wild You Were Sleeping”. With the hope to elicit empathy and create awareness about six lesser-known species, the series tries to bring us closer to the wildlife around us. Catch the episode on the Malabar Pit Viper here.

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Topics:  Earth Day   World Earth Day 

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