Species identified as the Malacca Sea Snake

Zoologists are excited at the first sighting of a black-banded sea snake in the State, found washed ashore on the Sanghumukhom beach here on Monday evening.

The species was identified as the Malacca Sea Snake, scientifically named Hydrophis caerulescens. Alerted by evening strollers who found it stranded on the beach, snake-catcher Vava Suresh rushed to the spot and caught the snake. The reptile is now kept in a bowl of sea water at his house at Sreekaryam.

According to R. Dileepkumar, research scholar at the Department of Zoology, University of Kerala, who carried out the identification, the Malacca sea snake is highly venomous and uncommon.

Sea snakes are more poisonous than their terrestrial cousins including kraits and cobras. Their venom contains potent neurotoxins which act on the nerve cells of the victim, paralysing the respiratory system, leading to death. “Generally inoffensive, the sea snake will bite only if provoked. Fatal bites have been reported,” Mr. Dileepkumar said.

Sea snakes have lungs instead of gills and need to come up to the surface to breathe. A flattened tail enables them to propel themselves through water.

The snake gives birth to its young ones around July-August, preferably in estuarine areas where conditions are appropriate and food, including fish and mudskippers, available. It swims well but is helpless on land. “The species is found between Mumbai and Karwar on the West coast of India and from Chennai northwards to the mouth of the Ganges on the East coast. It also inhabits the seas along Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand to Australia. However, there has been no record of a sighting in Kerala so far,” Mr. Dileepkumar said. “The sighting of the snake here could be the result of a habitat shift triggered by climate change,” he added.

The snake is 30 cm long and sports a ‘u' mark on its head, typical of the young one of the species. Mr. Suresh, who has a collection of terrestrial snakes captured from various places, lacks experience in handling marine ones. “I have collected some sea water to keep it in. It is feeding well on small fish. After detailed examination by researchers, I may release it back into the sea,” he says.

Unlike land snakes, sea snakes have not been studied extensively because they spend their entire lives in the ocean. Fishermen who find snakes entangled in their nets often dump them back into the sea.

“Handling sea snakes in captivity is extremely difficult and risky because of their feeding habits and highly toxic venom. In India, no anti venom is available to treat a victim,” Mr. Dileepkumar says.

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