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Instagram image leads to discovery of new snake species

A Churah Valley Kukri (Oligodon churahensis), which shares similarities with the common Kukri snake, a stripy, egg-eating reptile that isn’t venomous.
A Churah Valley Kukri (Oligodon churahensis), which shares similarities with the common Kukri snake, a stripy, egg-eating reptile that isn’t venomous. (Mirza et al.)

Turns out Instagram isn’t just good for vacation photos and beauty tips.

An image posted on the social media platform has yielded a surprising discovery — a previously unknown species of snake.

Last year, while stuck at home because of the coronavirus lockdowns in India, graduate student Virender K. Bhardwaj began to post photos he took while exploring his town, Chamba, to Instagram. When he uploaded a picture of a striped snake in June 2020, it prompted questions from a pair of biologists.

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Now, all three have published a study describing a new species of snake they’re calling the Churah Valley Kukri (Oligodon churahensis).

The animal shares similarities with the common Kukri snake, a stripy, egg-eating reptile that isn’t venomous. The small snakes are common in India, and they aren’t shy of humans.

Bhardwaj captured two specimens for the researchers. When they took a closer look, they found that though the Insta-snakes looked a lot like the common Kukri, they had different scale structures and broader bands. Between DNA analysis, CT scans and other techniques, the team concluded the snake was unique from any previously described species.

They named it after the valley where Bhardwaj snapped that photograph.

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The researchers say it’s proof that exciting discoveries are often much closer than we think.

“Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hot spots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there,” said study co-author Zeeshan A. Mirza, a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, in a news release.

The paper was published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.

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