Updated: Feb 28
Earlier in July, I joined a group of researchers from the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER) led by skink expert Avrajjal Ghosh on a 2-da trip to the forests of one of the Northernmost parts of the Eastern Ghats of Odisha. Our aim was to document the rare Barkudia insularis, a limbless skink. In 1916, Fredrick Gravely of the Indian Museum in Calcutta dug up the first specimen, followed by another in 1917 from the same island in lake Chilika (Annandale, N. 1917). Dubious records from the 1970s probably referred to another rare skink, Sepsophis. The last positively identified specimen was found in 2003, until 2021 when a couple more were found.
Around noon, we reached the guest house located some 30km from the spot we intended to survey. The cottage was surrounded by low forested hills, and a quick walk yielded some cool invertebrates. After a lunch consisting of five different but equally tasteless dishes, we headed towards the mountains. We stopped whenever we spotted any road kill, although a few members were themselves on the verge of being hit by the oncoming traffic while trying for some award-winning shots of a crow feeding upon a dead chameleon. Anyhow, we carried on and after negotiating several hairpin bends, reached the hilltop. We took a narrow trail, and a short walk later found ourselves surrounded by a dense primary forest. The most noticeable thing was the sudden rise in humidity. A myriad of fungi of all colours, shapes, and sizes adorned every niche in the forest. Avrajjal was quite serious at work with his best friend in the field, an orange spade. Digging around can be quite frustrating over here, with nothing but earthworms turning up in an hour of toiling. Adding to the challenge is the fact that how sensitive fossorial species are to any vibrations and their excellent burrowing capability at the slightest threat. One strike of the shovel should cause any Barkudia around to retreat into deep underground tunnels. Nevertheless, we found some cool herps. Clouded Geckos (Cyrtodactylus nebulosus) are highly variable in dorsal patterning and we got some interesting ones. We also stumbled upon an unidentified blind snake. Close to Indotyphlops porrectus, it was quite pale and translucent, and the head somewhat resembled I. albiceps from South East Asia. Too bad we couldn’t collect it for any comparisons.
But the rarest find of all was something not any less exciting than finding a Barkudia. Known from only a few specimens and seen alive by a handful of researchers; when it was rediscovered in 2007 after a gap of 137 years since its original description, it made it to international headlines. It is the limbless skink, Sepsophis punctatus. (Well, almost limbless. It does have tiny, barely visible spur-like limbs which are vestigial and hardly aid in locomotion.) A monotypic genus, it is restricted to the Eastern Ghats. Hardly anything is known of its ecology due to its rarity and secretive fossorial lifestyle on undisturbed forest floors. I could hardly believe it when Avrajjal said he had found a juvenile. Still hyped, we continued looking around. Soon enough, Avrajjal turned a huge boulder with a display of superhuman strength and shrieked. There was something under it that instantly disappeared into the loose earth. And it was big this time. Frantically digging around with his bare hands, he was soon joined by the rest of the folks. After it seemed we have lost it, Avrajjal triumphed again by pulling out the large writhing thing. It was an adult Sepsophis! Everyone was ecstatic at having found two specimens of one of India’s rarest lizards within an hour of searching.
With all the hard work in the humid forest, we were drenched in sweat and dehydrated. We decided to return to a nearby town for some quick refreshments. Soon it was sunset, and we were ready for some night-time herping. We decided to cruise the same road leading up the hills. Suddenly, while just turning around a bend, Hemant pointed out at something crossing the road. Still confused, I walked up to him and saw a huge Painted Leopard Gecko, Eublepharis pictus. This was a nice start to the evening and everyone was quite excited to see this recently described species. But in all the confusion and excitement, we hardly got any decent shots. We continued up the hill and on the way, we encountered a common cat snake (Boiga trigonata). We proceeded towards the hilltop, only encountering a common cat snake. At the top, we started walking around the dark, desolate hill road. And Hemant spotted yet another leopard gecko! This time it was a much vibrantly coloured adult. As the team got busy photographing it, Hemant was not done with his leopard gecko spotting yet. So he just walked a few yards up the road and came back with a juvenile with the most beautiful neon yellow bands and legs glowing with a delicate peach tone. After spending a considerable time sitting on the road photographing and admiring the geckos, we decided to return. We stopped at the spot where we had found the first one. While releasing it in a bush, we spotted another huge adult leisurely foraging in the undergrowth and this was one of the biggest highlights of the trip. I was quite exhausted by this point, but sleeping through the thirty minutes trip back was enough to make me feel like herping again. So upon reaching the camp, I joined Hemant to explore the surroundings. We found a large Chersonesometrus scorpion, an Indian Burrowing Frog (Sphaerotheca breviceps), and a Clouded Gecko.
The next morning, we had a couple of hours to try our luck again in the hills before returning to Bhubaneswar. It was a hot day, and despite a lot of looking and digging around, nothing much was observed except a couple of rock agamas (Psammophilus dorsalis) high up in the canopy. We vowed to return to the hills again in the not-so-distant future and accomplish the unfinished business of finding a Barkudia.
The Eastern Ghats of Odisha remain a virtually unexplored realm, hidden from much of the outside world with so much still waiting to be discovered and documented. But the question is, can we do it before it all disappears? Mining, wildlife trafficking, and deforestation are some of the major threats the biome is facing. Unlike the Western Ghats, there are no research centres and few researchers in the region. It is only recently that young and motivated researchers have started taking an active interest in documenting its lesser-known fauna. One can only hope that this enthusiasm reaches colleges in remote districts of the state, leading to local capacity building. Harnessing the power of citizen science and instilling a passion for biodiversity in these young talents will go a long way in unravelling the secrets of the far-flung hills of Odisha.
Annandale, N. 1917. A new genus of limbless skinks from an island in the Chilka Lake. Records of the Indian Museum 13: 17-21
Mirza Shahzad Alam Baig is a software professional with a deep passion for biodiversity documentation, herping, and collecting natural history books. He spends much of his free time looking around for herps and spiders in different parts of Odisha. He is always willing to accompany passionate naturalists on field trips around the state.