Taxonomic changes for two shieldtailed snakes in the genus Uropeltis

Uropeltis madurensis. Photo credit SR Ganesh.

Burrowing snakes remain the most difficult serpents to study and undoubtedly represent a disproportionately large percentage of undescribed taxa.  Burrowing species are found in many different clades, and a few clades contain only burrowing species. The shieldtail snakes of the family Uropeltidae are dedicated burrowers inhabiting southern India and Sri Lanka. The family contains about 60 species in eight genera, all are small to medium-sized, use wet hill forest and are viviparous. Most seem to feed on earthworms.

The genus Uropeltis has 26 valid species and is thought to have a confused  taxonomy in need of revision. In a new paper Ganesh and colleagues (2014) elevate Uropeltis arcticeps madurensis to species level, and revive Silybura shortti (in the combination Uropeltis shorttii) from the synonymy of Uropeltis ceylanicus.

Uropeltis shorttii is restricted to the Shevaroy Hills,  part of southern Eastern Ghats located in Tamil Nadu.  Today the area is heavily cultivated with coffee and silver oak but has  remnant patches of tropical evergreen cloud forests that harbor wet-forest taxa such as  the endemic Yercaud Day Gecko Cnemaspis yercaudensis.  A live specimen was encountered in an area of silver oak, coffee plantations and small patches of evergreen forests in Yercaud (1550m) at the summit of Shevaroys.  The only other Uropeltis occurring with U. shorttii is U. ellioti, an apparently widespread species belonging to a different species group.

Uropeltis madurensis is endemic to HighWavys-Varushanad-Periyar hill complex and it was studied in a cloud forest-plantation matrix in High Wavys between December 2007 and January 2008, in the post-monsoon season.  Four adults were observed on a plateau at about 1300–1600 m.  The snakes were observed under a rock streamside in a rainforest tract; actively moving about on forest floor on a rainy day;  road-killed in coffee plantation; and under a small cement slab near a building.

The authors imply that cryptic diversity within the Uropeltis ceylanic Group is greater than current systematics would suggest.

Ganesh SR, Aengals R, and Ramanujam E. 2014. Taxonomic reassessment of two Indian shield snakes in the Uropeltis ceylanicus Group (Reptilia Uropeltidae), Journal of Threatened Taxa 6(1):5305-5314.

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