A five-person team is traipsing through a forest in the northeast of India and they suddenly spot something moving in a thick brush of evergreens. They manage to capture the brightly colored flash and quickly realize that they haven’t seen this type of creature before. But they do know what name to give it, and the inspiration comes from the pages of the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling.
Ultimately, the experts captured two of these strange animals and began testing in order to confirm that they had, indeed, found a new species. This meant snapping photos, taking measurements and examining the covering on the creatures’ bodies. With their analysis done, the experts knew they had found something previously unknown to biologists the world over.
But the researchers’ work didn’t end there. Instead, they had to give their new species a name. The five of them later admitted to being big fans of Harry Potter, and this gave them an idea. One of the book’s characters had something in common with this one-of-a-kind animal, so they gave it the same name as the fictional wizard.
We’ll learn more about that name and the particular species a little later, but first let’s learn more about the team. It was made up of researcher Zeeshan A. Mirza, Pushkar Phansalkar from the Wildlife Institute of India, Mandar Sawant of Mumbai’s Bombay Natural History Society, Fergusson College’s Gaurang Gowande and Harshil Patel of the Veer Narmad South Gujarat University. The experts trekked to the northeast of India in 2019 as part of a project titled, “Accessing the herpetological biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh.”
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, and the state had a lot to offer them in that department. Arunachal Pradesh sits in the Eastern Himalayas of India – part of the larger Himalayan mountain chain that juts through Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Bhutan and Nepal. The stunning peaks and valleys encompass a slew of different temperatures, terrains and environments. As such, the mountain range boasts an incredible level of biodiversity, and the same can be said for the Arunachal Pradesh portion of the territory.
In fact, according to the Indian government’s official website, Arunachal Pradesh “is among the 200 globally important ecoregions. It is also considered as one of the 18 ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in the world.” Experts estimate, for example, that at least 5,000 different types of flowering plants sprout within this northeastern Indian region.
One of the most popular flowers to bloom naturally in Arunachal Pradesh is the orchid. But it’s not just one variety of the beloved blossom that grows here. The Indian government claims that more than 500 varieties of orchid can be found in this one-of-a-kind region. To the locals, they’re simply the “Jewels of Arunachal Pradesh.”
And then, there are the animals. Arunachal Pradesh proves just as diverse in its fauna as it is in its flora. More than 500 unique species call this portion of the Himalayas their home. Some of the most spectacular are the four types of big cats that reside here: tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards.
Visitors to Arunachal Pradesh can also look to the sky for a diverse variety of species, too. The area provides a habitat for more than 650 species of birds. As such, the state foresees a future in ecotourism – especially for those who like to birdwatch and catalog the different feathered species that they see.
As for the five researchers who headed to Arunachal Pradesh in July 2019, their focus was neither on mammals or avian species. Instead, they wanted to scope out reptiles and amphibians. And the team knew that there is plenty of diversity in that area, too. More than 50 species of snake live in the state, while the wider region of northeast India has at least 110 unique varieties of the reptile.
Harshal S. Bhosale – who also works with the Bombay Natural History Society – had brought his expertise to Arunachal Pradesh seven years earlier in 2012. As such, the expert knew what the team was in for, he told The Indian Express in April 2020.
Bhosale seemed to know a fruitful mission was ahead, telling the newspaper, “What can I say? That place is like heaven for herpetologists.” Interestingly, though, the biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh wasn’t enough to draw in many experts in the past. He pointed out that there was a “lack of research” in the field, as “not many people have studied reptiles and amphibians in India.”
What had been chronicled about Arunachal Pradesh’s reptile and amphibian population was outdated, too. Bhosale told The Indian Express, “The reference books we have are mostly written by British people [and were] published in the 1930s.” So, the 2019 expedition was long overdue.
They wouldn’t be the first experts to head to Arunachal Pradesh in more modern times with the hope of uncovering new species, either. For instance, in August 2019 a team from Rajiv Gandhi University’s zoology department published in multiple journals that they had discovered a whopping five new species of fish across the state.
Between 2015 and 2016 another group from the Zoological Survey of India spotted a trio of new frog species. Although all three of the amphibious creatures were small in size, one was particularly miniscule. Incredibly, those who discovered it said that the animal was so tiny it could sit on a coin.
Such finds were common, but each one took an excruciating amount of work. The same went for snakes found in the area. As previously mentioned, Arunachal Pradesh has over 50 of the 110 species that live in northeast India. But researchers find them to be “morphologically cryptic – making it difficult to distinguish them in the field.”
Nevertheless, the five-person expedition set off into Arunachal Pradesh in July 2019. And here, they hoped to add to that long list of unique species discovered in this haven of biodiversity. Their journey brought them to the Pakke Tiger Reserve – where they heard something rustling in a thick of evergreens.
The explorers had the wherewithal to catch not one, but two of the dangerous creatures they saw moving through the brush. They took photos of the specimens and eventually took them out of Arunachal Pradesh for further analysis. This would reveal if the team had, indeed, discovered a new species.
The five-person team then published their results in the journal Zoosystematics and Evolution several months after the discovery. They could say with certainty that they had found a new species in Arunachal Pradesh. But that wasn’t what caught people’s attention – it was the fact that they gave the animal a magically inspired name.
As we mentioned earlier, the expedition team named their discovery after a character from the Harry Potter series. Of the name choice, Mirza told The Indian Express, “All of us are obviously very big fans.” But they didn’t just choose their new species’ name because they liked the books; the character actually had a direct link to their new animal.
The Harry Potter character in question is called Salazar Slytherin, and hardcore fans of the series will know who he is. In the books, the character – along with Helga Hufflepuff, Godric Gryffindor and Rowena Ravenclaw – are considered the four greatest wizards and witches ever to live. Together, they found the titular character’s educational establishment:, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Slytherin’s character didn’t have the best reputation, though. He believed that only pure-blooded wizards and witches should be able to attend the school. This caused strife between him and his co-founders, and their disagreements eventually pushed Slytherin to leave Hogwarts behind. But he didn’t leave without a little mystery in his wake.
In the books, legend stipulated that Slytherin had created a secret chamber right before he left Hogwarts. Within it, he hid a monster that, when unleashed, would rid the school of all of the wizards and witches who didn’t come from fully magical families. This was the type of cunning he looked for in the students that he brought into his eponymous house, too.
But it was one specific skill that Slytherin had that gave the Arunachal Pradesh explorers the idea to name their species after him. It had to do with the wizard’s backstory. For reference, he had a secret skill that allowed him to communicate with one type of animal in particular.
By now, fans of the Harry Potter series have probably guessed what type of animal that the Arunachal Pradesh explorers had discovered. In the books, Slytherin had an ability to talk to snakes. And this gave the five-member team their inspiration for the name of their newly discovered serpent.
The team called their snake Trimeresurus salazar – thus incorporating Slytherin’s first name. In the etymology section of their publication, they explain, “The specific epithet is a noun in apposition for J.K. Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s co-founder: Salazar Slytherin. He was a Parselmouth that links him to serpents.”
Specifically, Trimeresurus salazar is a pit viper – a type of snake that roams in deserts just as comfortably as it does in rainforests. Their distinctive features include a pair of movable fangs and a heat-sensitive organ that sits just between the eyes and nostrils. It also apparently helps the predatory snakes detect and accurately lunge at prey.
Pit vipers vary in their way of life, as they can survive on a multitude of different terrains including water. You may already know some of the snakes that fall under the species’ umbrella, too. Everything from moccasins to rattlesnakes and copperheads count as part of the pit viper family.
However, the Trimeresurus salazar was a completely new species of pit viper. The first word of its name does denote that it’s part of a particular group of Southeast and East Asian pit vipers. According to Lonely Planet, Trimeresurus snakes are both “venomous” and “charismatic” and veer from human contact if given the option.
The Trimeresurus salazar is different from the other venomous snakes in its group for three major reasons. One of them is a visible marking; according to The Indian Express, males have “an orange to reddish stripe running from the lower border of the eye to the posterior part of the head in males…”
The Trimeresurus salazar also has more teeth than other pit vipers, and the males have a uniquely shaped reproductive organ. The snake’s bright green color might have helped earn it the Harry Potter nickname – since Slytherin’s house colors were silver and forest.
Ultimately, though, the differences between the different Trimeresurus species were slight. Harshal S. Bhosale told the newspaper, “This basically means it is morphologically different from other kinds of pit vipers – it has small red lines near its lips, more teeth and a completely different hemipenal structure.”
Finding the new species wasn’t completely celebratory, though – it also highlighted the need for environmental protections in Arunachal Pradesh. As of April 2020 there were plans to construct roads, dams and other developmental projects in the northeast Indian state. And the researchers felt concerned for the future of this incredibly diverse ecosystem.
The very place where the team had found the two Trimeresurus salazar snakes was once in danger of such damage. Plans had existed to build a 30-mile road from Sejosa to Bhalokpong, and this would mean cutting through the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Such a project would have threatened the natural habitat of the pit viper, thousands of plants, 300 bird species, 40 mammals, 30 amphibians and 36 reptiles.
Eventually, Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister Pema Khandu had to squash plans to build the road after facing too much pushback from environmental activists. And this was good news for the team that discovered the Trimeresurus salazar, as they thought their work would help to highlight the special ecosystem that existed in the region.
And, with a spotlight on the Indian state, people would know that the landscape and unique habitat was worth saving. Bhosale told The Indian Express, “We should have a basic structure to understand what species are [in Arunachal Pradesh] so that [we] can aid conservation. This was one of the focuses of the project.”
Should exploration continue, the team who helmed the July 2019 mission have an idea for any future species of snake found in the area. Again, their brainstorm incorporated another Harry Potter character. The next time, though, they’d go for something much more literal – a snake from the magical saga.
Researcher Zeeshan A. Mirza admitted that Salazar Slytherin wasn’t the only potential name they wanted to give their bright-green pit viper. Instead, the team thought about calling their discovery Nagini – named after the pet snake of series character Lord Voldemort. However, even with Nagini being a snake, her name wasn’t quite perfect for the Trimeresurus salazar.
Nagini is a cobra, and so it doesn’t doesn’t fall under the pit viper umbrella. As such, the team shelved the name – for the time being, anyway. Mirza told The Indian Express they would only use it “when, and if, they discover a new cobra species.” Ultimately, though, choosing a Harry Potter-inspired name meant more to the team than just finding the perfect fit.
Mirza said, “Childhood experiences largely stay with you. When I was growing up, J.K. Rowling was a big part of my childhood, and perhaps everyone else who has read the book. Now what better way to honour and thank her than naming the species after one of her characters?” And, if the team’s visions come true, this won’t be the last time they honor her through the names they give to their Arunachal Pradesh finds.