While scientists discovered a new snake species in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu, little did they know that this discovery would unearth a 185-year old problem of name mix-ups done in the past. In 2016, Deepak Veerappan, working with the Natural History Museum in London, received a new snake species from Tamilnadu. It was considered similar to banded racer (a widespread species). For this, they had to describe the snake, look at finer details, and also compare it to a banded racer. When they looked at the morphology and DNA of the new species, they found it to be different from banded racer. When they probed further into banded racer for comparisons, they found that banded racer was wrongly classified in the category of wolf snake. And all this mix-up happened due to Albert Gunther, a scientist, working with the Natural History Museum between 1875 and 1895.
The specimens, snakeskin collection and paintings in the Natural History Museum, London and Bodleian Library, Oxford University among other repositories were analysed to deconstruct this. Though discovering a new species is not uncommon among researchers, this research traces back to historical archives and modern science to break a taxonomic confusion.
The story is based on a research paper published in the journal of ‘Vertebrate Zoology. Sharada Balasubramanian, an environmental journalist, spoke to authors Deepak Veerappan and Surya Narayanan, and renowned herpetologist Varad Giri, for this story.