The family Uropeltidae derives its name from two Greek words – Ura (meaning tail) and Pelte (meaning shield). Which neatly translates as Shieldtail in English, a reference to the large, kerationous shield (made up of scales) at the tip of their tails. The Shiledtails belong to the superfamily Henophidia (the older snakes), along with the Boas (family Boidae), Mauritius Snakes (family Bolyeriidae), Asian Pipe Snakes (Cylindrophiidae), Pythons (family Pythonidae), Dwarf Boas (Tropidophiidae) and Sunbeam Snakes (Xenopeltidae).

The Henophidia are an ancient group of snakes as compared to the superfamily Xenophidia (which contains the likes of the Cobra family Elapidae and the Viper family Viperidae). The Uropeltidae are characterized by a primitive and inflexible skull, small, non-functional eyes and burrowing lifestyle (associated with soft humus-rich soil). They feed on the earthworms and other invertebrates found in the topsoil and rarely dig deep into the earth. Females lay eggs but retain them inside their bodies, giving birth to fully-formed young (ovovivipary).

The Shieldtails are a harmless, non-venomous group. When attacked, they do not bite but coil up, with their heads tucked inside the coils in order to protect themselves. Some species use the bright colourings on their undersides (which are in sharp contrast to their drab bodies) to startle predators. The family is found only in South India and Sri Lanka and has a total of 8 genera – BrachyophidiumMelanophidiumPlatyplectrurusPlectrurusRhinophisTeretrurus and Uropeltis and around 54 species. Evolutionary biologists see the family as presenting an example of evolutionary radiation in Peninsular India.

Evolutionary radiation is the term used to explain the emergence of a large number of new species from a small ancestral group. This takes place when the ancestral group is established in an environment with new resources to exploit or empty niches to occupy. New species emerge as the ancestral group evolves to exploit these opportunities. The most famous example of adaptive radiation are Darwin’s Finches (of the genus Geospiza, found on the island chain of Galapagos). The Uropeltidae present a similar case. It seems that they have flourished in the region’s diverse ecosystems (such as those associated with the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats of South India, and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka), giving rise to a large number of species.

The Shiledtails are not well known or well studied but they have been in the news of late. This was because of the discovery of a new species in the genus Uropeltis. Uropeltis bhupathyi became the latest addition to the family. At 40 cm long and iridescent brown in colour, it was observed in the forests of the Anaikatty Hills, in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore District. VJ Jins, who happened to notice it, found that the specimen had more than 200 ventral scales, an indication of it belonging to a hitherto unidentified species. A couple of years back, in 2016, an international team of scientists led by Dr. David Gower of the Natural History Museum of London had discovered a new species in another genus of the family – the Khaire’s Black Shieldtail (Melanophidium khairei) of southern Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, demonstrating the richness of the Western Ghats.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of another newly discovered Shieldtail species, the Khaire’s Black Shieldtail. It was taken in Maharashtra’s Amboli District, near Sindhudurg, and uploaded by Dr. Raju Kasambe.

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