Dilmah Conservation’s ‘Novel Species Paving the way for Biodiversity Conservation’ programme has recently brought to light a new species of gecko, Cnemaspis rajakarunai and a new species of snake, Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. The recharacterization Rhinophis dorsimaculatus, a little known snake in South Asia, was also made possible through the programme.

The last few years have been more than a little exciting for enthusiasts of extraterrestrial life as NASA’s search for life outside our little blue planet hit more than a few major breakthroughs. As we move closer towards potentially discovering alien life, it’s easy to form the impression that the search for life on earth has come to completion. Far from it; out of the estimated 8.7 million species thought to call earth home, only 1.2 million are known to science – that’s less than 15%! The problem is that scientists aren’t entirely certain if these statistics are even correct; there is no universally approved formula to estimate the number of species that occur on earth. In fact, a new study released this year suggested the existence of more than one trillion microbial species on earth! So not only are we nowhere close to describing every species alive today, we barely know how many species there are to discover.

So why does it matter? Is it really necessary for us to know every species that occur on earth?

To understand how a machine works, we must first know all of its components; the information we gain when discovering new species is crucial to understanding how ecosystems function. Consequently, the more species we discover, the better equipped we are to protect and conserve both the species and nature itself. It is with this in mind that Dilmah Conservation initiated the ‘Novel Species Paving the way for Biodiversity Conservation’ programme.

This initiative aims to address the dearth of knowledge in the field of herpetofaunal conservation further enriching the existing knowledge base on Sri Lanka’s wealth of biodiversity, and in doing so help put together the puzzle pieces of the natural world.

Recently, the programme facilitated the discovery of a new species of gecko, Cnemaspis rajakarunai and a new species of snake, Dendrelaphis sinharajensisRhinophis dorsimaculatus, one of Asia’s most poorly known snakes, was re-described through this programme as well, adding clarity to its taxonomic status.

Cnemaspis rajakarunai was discovered by L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe and his team in the Salgala Forest – an unprotected lowland rainforest region, in Sri Lanka. This rock-dwelling species of gecko is brown in color and is peppered with small off-white spots and dark blotches which provides the perfect camouflage on rocks.

Dendrelaphis sinharajensis, discovered by L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe, is a canopy dwelling species of snake discovered within the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, Sri Lanka. This species is the 6th species of the genus Dendrelaphis known from Sri Lanka, and is readily distinguishable from its 5 congeners. Colorfully patterned, D. sinharajensis has a brown head and a red tinted body interspaced with paired black bars that contain a white bar in between.

Rhinophis dorsimaculatus was a species of snake that was subject to at least one instance of misidentification due to a lack of data and photographs. With DC’s support, David J. Gower and L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe were able to collect more data and reanalyze the species and better describe it. R. dorsimaculatus has a beautiful black dotted pattern along its orangish/tan body.

Snakes have an unfortunate reputation and are among the least popular animals in the world (along with spiders, most insects and leeches). But these fascinating species are incredibly important to our existence and to that of many other plants and animals – without snakes the number of species they prey on, such as insects, rats and other ‘pests’, would increase exponentially. Much of the fear and apprehension towards snakes comes from their venomous characteristics. It is important therefore to remember that not all snake species are venomous and Dilmah Conservation’s book ‘Recognizing Deadly Venomous Snakes from Harmless Snakes of Sri Lanka’, written by L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe himself, provides a simple and comprehensive guide on how to tell venomous and non-venomous snakes apart. Geckos aren’t the most highly regarded species either, though they are typically more overlooked than snakes. They too play a critical role in controlling the populations of small insects, worms and other pests. Both geckos and snakes, like all other species of animals and plants, are essential in maintaining biodiversity and a balanced ecosystem.

Dilmah Conservation’s Novel Species Programme has been proud facilitators of many species discoveries since its conception. To date, 11 species of frog have been discovered through the programme including a species of shrub frog named, Pseudophilautus dilmah by the authors, who stated in the report that the species was ‘named after Dilmah Conservation, for its dedicated efforts to biodiversity conservation on the Island.’ Another species of gecko, Cnemaspis rammalensis was also discovered through this programme, as well as 8 novel species of lichen, one of which was discovered within Dilmah Tea’s Queensberry Estate and so named Heterodermia queensberryi, and 88 new lichen species records from Sri Lanka.

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