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One point for Slytherin: New Indian pit viper named after Harry Potter character

  • Researchers have described a new species of venomous pit viper found in the Himalayas and named it after Salazar Slytherin, a character in the Harry Potter series who is able to talk to snakes.
  • Lead researcher Zeeshan A. Mirza said they named the new species Salazar’s pit viper “to thank J.K. Rowling for introducing the world to the Harry Potter universe.”
  • The area where the Salazar’s pit viper was found is home to many new discoveries of plants and animals in recent decades, highlighting the need for greater documentation of its biodiversity.
  • The new species is one of 48 known members of the genus Trimeresurus, but scientists believe the true diversity of the genus may be underestimated.
Salazar’s pit viper (Trimeresurus Salazar). Photo courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza

A new green pit viper species discovered in a Himalayan biodiversity hotspot has been named Trimeresurus Salazar, or the Salazar’s pit viper, after Salazar Slytherin, a character from J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series.

The snake, which is nocturnal and has a unique reddish-to-orange stripe present on the head and body of males, was discovered during a herpetological expedition in India during the summer of 2019. The discovery is published in the open-access journal Zoosystematics and Evolution.

A male Salazar’s pit viper with its unique reddish-to-orange stripe. Photo courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza.

“I am a Potterhead, and so are two other authors on the paper,” lead researcher Zeeshan A. Mirza from National Centre for Biological Science in Bengaluru, India, told Mongabay in an email. “This was a tribute to the most fascinating story I have ever read or even heard that colored my childhood. By naming it after Salazar Slytherin, we wanted to thank J.K. Rowling for introducing the world to the Harry Potter universe.”

In the Harry Potter novels, Salazar Slytherin is described as a Parselmouth, or one who can speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  He is a co-founder of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and founder of the House of Slytherin, which is associated with the color green.

Dr. Zeeshan A. Mirza and the herpetological expedition team in the field. Photo courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza.

“The first individual was spotted by Pushkar Phansalkar which was resting on a cluster of creepers along a road,” Mirza said. “A glimpse of the species was enough to let us all conclude that it was something interesting or something that we had not seen before. The snake bore a distinct rusty red stripe along the face and the entire body unlike any species from northeast India to our knowledge.”

DNA sequencing revealed that the new species was related to the Himalayan white-lipped pit viper (Trimeresurus septentrionalis). Comparisons of the snake specimens collected on the expedition with those in the collection of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai, London’s Natural History Museum, Paris’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and the zoological collection of the University of Copenhagen confirmed that this was indeed a new species of snake.

The Salazar’s pit viper was found in the northeasternmost state of India, Arunachal Pradesh, which has been home to many new discoveries of plants and animals in recent decades. “This is already the second species discovered within the course of the expedition to Arunachal Pradesh, which reflects the poor nature of biodiversity documentation across north-eastern India,” Mirza said.

Pit vipers have a pit organ between the nostril and eye that allows them to essentially “see” prey night. Photo of Salazar’s pit viper courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza.

Pit vipers are named for their heat-sensing pit organ, located between the nostril and the eye on both sides of the head. The pit organ is what allows them to sense the infrared thermal radiation (heat) emitted by their prey in the dark.

The genus Trimeresurus are venomous, charismatic, and have a wide distribution across east and southeast Asia with at least 48 known species. However, they are hard to tell apart in the field, so scientists believe their real diversity could be underestimated.

“Future dedicated surveys conducted across northeastern India will help document biodiversity, which is under threat from numerous development activities that include road widening, agriculture, and hydro-electric projects,” Mirza said in a statement.

Salazar’s pit viper (Trimeresurus Salazar). Photo courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza.

Banner image of Trimeresurus Salazar courtesy of Zeeshan A. Mirza

Citation: Mirza, Z. A., Bhosale, H. S., Phansalkar, P. U., Sawant, M., Gowande, G. G., & Patel, H. (2020). A new species of green pit vipers of the genus Trimeresurus Lacépède, 1804 (Reptilia, Serpentes, Viperidae) from western Arunachal Pradesh, India. Zoosystematics and Evolution, 96(1), 123-138. doi:10.3897/zse.96.48431

Liz Kimbrough (Ravenclaw) is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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