The Malabar Pit Viper is unique for a couple of reasons: one, it is endemic to the eco-sensitive coastal region of Western India, and is found nowhere else in the world. Two, this shy creature is absolutely stunning and a treat to spot.

Herpetologist, wildlife photographer and Malabar pit viper-fan Nirmal Kulkarni founded Herpactive, a conservation-driven organisation run by a team of qualified herpetologists, in 2010. Kulkarni and his team aim to create awareness about and instil appreciation for Herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of Goa in particular, and the country in general.

Herpactive held a photo exhibition dedicated to the Malabar Pit Viper from July 14 to July 16 at the Art and Culture Department in Panjim, Goa. The organisation has also been working to build the impetus of research projects directed at studying the Malabar Pit Viper.

A female Malabar Pit Viper with a praying mantis in Goa's Mhadei wildlife Sanctuary. Photo credit: Nirmal Kulkarni
A female Malabar Pit Viper with a praying mantis in Goa's Mhadei wildlife Sanctuary. Photo credit: Nirmal Kulkarni

Known to exhibit seven colour morphs or forms, a rare evolutionary trait among snake species, the Malabar Pit Viper is found in shades of yellow, green and brown, as well as several combinations and patterns of these colours.

Morphology is an organism’s response to its surroundings. In Malabar Pit Viper’s case, the kind of colour morph it belongs to is indicative of whether it is found in areas with deciduous vegetation and bare, rocky surfaces, or in regions of dense undergrowth and evergreen vegetation. Like all snakes, it is colour blind and yet, fascinatingly, has the evolved into these seven distinct colour morphs in order to camouflage itself.

There is little research to help understand the behaviour of the Pit Viper. Its inherent shyness coupled with the fact that its range is restricted to a relatively small habitat, makes it difficult to study without sufficient funding and manpower.

Photo credit: Uthaiah Cheppudira/Creative Commons
Photo credit: Uthaiah Cheppudira/Creative Commons

“At the moment our organisation doesn’t have any staff or researchers dedicated solely to observing and recording the habits of this snake,” said Kulkarni. Instead, the people at Herpactive organise guided walks, surveys, training workshops and field technique sessions for budding herpetology enthusiasts. “It is crucial for the community that studies herpetofauna in India to know more about this species, in order to gain deeper perspective on the delicate ecology of the Western Ghat region,” said Kulkarni.

The Malabar Pit Viper is not a very large snake – adult males average 105 centimetres from snout to tail, with females being significantly larger. Their prey includes small vertebrates like rats and frogs and the monsoon is an ideal time to track these vipers, as their prey base expands with the coinciding frog spawning period.

Photo credit: Devadatta Naik
Photo credit: Devadatta Naik

An interesting aspect of the Pit Viper’s behaviour, according to Kulkarni, is that if it finds a suitable place to find prey or a mate, it can stay in the same spot for days, often weeks. “An intern assigned to studying the herpetofauna of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary has been recording an individual that has been in the same spot for 38 days,” said Kulkarni.

Maintaining a high level of biodiversity is important to all life on Earth, including humans, and snakes are an important part of that biodiversity. Snakes and other reptiles make up a substantial proportion of the middle-order predators that keep our natural ecosystems working. Without them the number of prey species would increase to unnatural levels.

In an effort to bridge the gap between enthusiasts and experts, herpetologists all over India have made efforts to integrate lay people into snake conservation programmes. In an additional push at connecting budding naturalists, dispelling myths about snakes and promoting the cause of conservation, Kulkarni will be conducting a talk at the Museum of Goa on July 23. The talk will be centred on the Malabar Pit Viper and some of the photographs from the exhibition (taken by 32 well-known nature photographers and conservationists) will be on sale at the venue.

 Photo credit: Varadbansod/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]
Photo credit: Varadbansod/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]