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Updated: December 21, 2012 19:54 IST

Whitaker and boas

Janaki Lenin
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Rom and his namesake: Whitaker’s boa Photo: Gerry Martin
Rom and his namesake: Whitaker’s boa Photo: Gerry Martin

Rom often grumbled, "What a snake to have named after me! It looks like dog sh*t."

Rom’s sons aren’t the only ones to share his name. A species of snake does too: Whitaker’s sand boa. For years prior to the snake’s christening, many dismissed it as a hybrid; others thought it was a variant of one of the two other Indian sand boas. Its irregular blotches reminiscent of the common sand boa are faintly visible, and the whole snake is of a reddish hue like the red sand boa. But Rom recognised it as a unique species as it was found only in the Western Ghats. There was no reason why a hybrid of two widespread species should have a restricted range. Hence the snake was named after Rom by colleague Indraneil Das.

Rom often grumbled, “What a snake to have named after me! It looks like dog sh*t.” The snake is so placid when it lies coiled in your hands, not only does it look uncannily like dog poo, it even acts like it. The boa doesn’t bite, nor does it try to escape. I guess Rom wants a snake with more oomph, like a cobra or krait, to bear his name.

We visited a snake park in Kerala. The signboard above the boa enclosure read “Whitaker’s sad boa.” We alerted the keeper to the typo. Months later, we were traveling through the same town and stopped at the park. The name on the signboard had been changed, but read “Whitaker and boa.” The font size of the whole name would have to be re-sized in order to correct the name. We haven’t visited the place since. For all we know, visitors may still be looking for the elusive Whitaker in that exhibit.

Not much is known about the species, but we expected it to behave like its relatives, the other two burrowing sand boas. However, during our frequent visits to the Western Ghats, we found it in unlikely places: in trees and on people’s roofs. Not once or twice, but several times. That’s unusual, for sand boas are earthbound snakes.

I mollified Rom, “Your sand boa climbs trees. How cool is that!”

Months after we moved to our farm, we realised we hadn’t seen a single common sand boa, a related species. The ground is hard clay, and as dense as concrete for most of the year. No snake could burrow through it unless it wielded a jackhammer. Rom said, “Sand boas don’t always burrow. They could also use rat burrows.” Still, there was no sign of the species.

What we discovered then surprised us. The long, curved, locally-made terracotta tiles arranged in interlocking rows kept the verandah cool. But they were also a perfect habitat for the insect that drives Rom nuts: cockroaches. Every evening, droves of them flew into the house, attracted to the lights. Rom and I danced like martial artists swatting them with broom, door mat, magazine, chappals, anything we could lay our hands on. But we were outnumbered. The roof has to go, Rom declared.

As layer after layer of tiles were removed, scorpions, centipedes, and ants came scurrying, slithering and pouring out of their hiding places. Suddenly one of the lads helping us yelled, “Snake.”

It was a common sand boa. It must have climbed up a neem tree that was touching the roof. That was exceptional behaviour for a burrowing species. Rom wondered, “If one sand boa can climb, why not another?” But we haven’t found another common sand boa scaling trees.

When Ashok Captain and Rom were writing the field guide to the snakes of India, they had long discussions about the name, Whitaker’s sand boa. The name suggested it was mainly a terrestrial snake. Since it was a recently discovered species and people weren’t used to the name yet, they voted to abbreviate the name to Whitaker’s boa.

Hopefully that solved the signboard problem in Kerala.

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