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Anslem de Silva
Herpetologist, Amphibia and Reptile
Research Organization of Sri Lanka
15/1 Dolosbage road, Gampola, Sri Lanka
Articles by Anslem de Silva focus on the present (2005) status of reptiles of Sri Lanka on five headings taxonomy, ecological status, threats, distribution and conservation and management.
Sri Lanka ranks as a great herpetological paradise in the world. It is blessed with not only high amphibian and reptile diversity and endemism, but also relatively high densities of individuals interested in herpetology and publications, especially when compared with other countries in South Asia (refer bibliographies by de Silva 1998a, 1998b & 1998c for publications on herpetology up to December 1997). Within the last decade, however, herpetology in Sri Lanka has undergone a renaissance.
Carl Linnaeus [1707-1778] described the first reptile (Cylindrophis maculata) from Sri Lanka in 1754. Since then, a host of subsequent workers included descriptions of reptiles from Sri Lanka in their publications during the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
The reptile fauna of Sri Lanka is highly diverse and shows affinities to that of the Western Ghats of peninsular India. Though the wet zone of Sri Lanka is remarkably similar to the Western Ghats region in India, it is considered the ‘least influenced by recent invasion from southern India’ (Crusz & Nugaliyadde, 1977). In fact, recent molecular studies of some amphibians and uropeltid snakes show that Sri Lanka has maintained a fauna distinct from that of the Indian Mainland (Bossuyt et. al., 2004).
Knowledge of the Sri Lankan reptiles, however, is largely limited to species
descriptions and basic information. The general and systematic treatments
on the reptiles of Sri Lanka consist of outdated classics, such as those
of Malcolm A. Smith (1933, 1935, 1943), Edward H. Taylor (1950a, 1950b,
1953), Paulus E. P. Deraniyagala (1953, 1955), P. H. D. H. de Silva (1980,
1969), and Frank Wall (1921). Three genera have been revised recently with
descriptions of new species: Aspidura (Reptilia: Ophidia: Colubridae)
by Gans & Fetcho, 1982; Lankascincus (Reptilia: Scincidae)
by Greer, 1991 and Ceratophora (Reptilia: Agamidae) by Pethiyagoda
& Manamendra-Arachchi, 1998. In addition five new species of geckos
of the genus Cyrtodactylus was described by Batuwita and Bahir
Of the reptiles, six endemic genera comprising of 22 species of saurian
reptiles (Chalcidoseps – 1 species, Lankascincus – 6 species;
Nessia – 8 species) and three of agamid lizards (Ceratophora –
5 species; Lyriocephalus – 1 species; Cophotis – 1 species),
are considered geographical relicts (Crusz, 1986; Greer, 1991, de Silva
2001). Likewise, five endemic genera of serpentoid reptiles — one
uropeltid genus (Pseudotyphlops – 1 species) and four colubrid genera
(Aspidura – 6 species; Cercaspis – 1 species; Haplocercus –
1 species; Balanophis – 1 species) are considered geographical relicts
(Crusz, 1986; de Silva, 1990a & 1990b). Several new species of geckos,
lacertids, skinks, and snakes that have been discovered recently await description.
No of Genera
|Endemic genera||No of Species||Endemic species||unique at the sub-species||Endemicity %|
The natural forest cover that was around 84% of the land area in 1880 is now reduced to 23% (Gunatilleke et al., 1995). Although there are laws and enactments pertaining to the protection of flora and fauna, these are routinely violated. Typical examples are the marine turtle hatcheries and the large scale robbing of turtle eggs and killing turtles for their flesh. The International Institute for Environment and Development (1992) and the Central Environmental Authority (1988) of Sri Lanka state that the enforcement of these laws has been very ineffective. They are outdated and have glaring inadequacies.
Reptiles are adaptable and less extinct-prone than most other vertebrates
(Wilcox, 1980) that adapt poorly to environmental changes. This could be
a reason we witness appreciable populations of many reptile species. However,
our studies indicate that many endemic and relict reptiles face numerous
threats. In 1998 during a five-day CAMP workshop on amphibians and reptiles
of Sri Lanka held at the University of Peradeniya, 119 reptile species were
assessed using IUCN Red List (1994) criteria and 43 species were classified
as Vulnerable, 27 Endangered and 18 as Critically Endangered (de Silva et.
al., 2000). The IUCN Sri Lanka, using different criteria reflecting the
data available in the country, has determined that 86 species are threatened
(IUCN Sri Lanka, 2000). The leaf nose lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) was
listed as an endangered reptile in the IUCN Red List for many years. These
lizards inhabit only the montane forests in the Knuckles Mountain range.
Senanayake (1980) considers that this species may become extinct if its
habitat is lost due to clearing of the primary forests for cardamom (Elettaria
cardamomum) plantations. A recent study at Knuckles (de Silva et. al., 2005a)
indicates the presence of healthy and appreciable populations of Ceratophora
tennentii widely distributed in the Knuckles Mountain range. However, it
was observed that there is a marked decline of Cophotis ceylanica in the
Knuckles Mountain range though appreciable numbers were observed in the
late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
In contrast, recent studies indicate that some species of reptiles which
were earlier considered rare (e.g. Lyriocephalus scutatus, Calodactylodes
illingworthorum, Calotes liolepis, Balanophis ceylonensis, etc) in the country
show the existence of healthy populations (de Silva et al., 2004 a, . 2004
b, de Silva et. al., 2005a, de Silva et. al., 2005b). They even occupy ranges
larger than those hitherto reported by Deraniyagala (1953, 1955), P. H.
D. H. de Silva (1980) and de Silva (1990a). In addition, the lack of data
regarding the golden gecko (Calodactylodes illingworthorum) has led to the
assumption that they were uncommon (e.g., Manamendra-Arachchi, 1997, Wickramsinghe
and Somaweera, 2003). However, after investigating nearly 50 specific sites
inhabited by the golden gecko, and counting the number of individuals sighted
or heard in each of the study sites as well as the number of healthy egg
clusters, it is our conclusion that Calodactylodes illingworthorum is the
dominant gecko species in its range (de Silva et al., 2004a).
Most of the endemic fossorial reptiles (e.g. the species Chalcidoseps thwaitesii
and the genus Nessia etc) when kept out from their niche for 10 to 15 minutes
the skin commences to dry and would then proceed to shrivel up. Thus, the
coolness and moisture content in its microhabitat is a critical factor for
the survival of these fossorial relict reptiles. Chalcidoseps thwaitesii
is mainly confined to the Knuckles ecosystem. Studies on the annual rainfall
of the Knuckles Range have shown a decrease in the rainfall (Giragama &
Madduma Bandara, 1993; Madduma Bandara 1991). In addition, the negative
impacts of the cultivation of cardamom at the Knuckles have been extensively
reported (Abeygunawardena & Vincent 1993; Gunawardane et al., 2003).
Studies have shown that in natural forested areas without cardamom cultivation
the ‘A’ horizon is well preserved and covered with mulch to
a depth of 30-35 cm whilst in cardamom fields the mulch level has reduced
to 15-25 cm (Madduma Bandara, 1991). This data is from a study conducted
in mid 1980’s, thus, it is possible that at present this mulch level
could be further reduced. When we measured the mulch level in some cardamom
plantations at Kobonila in 2004, we found that it was less that 10 cm (de
Silva et al., 2005). In addition, the soil erosion was high. Thus, we see
possible long-term irreversible habitat degradation at the Knuckles that
could affect the microhabitat of these and other fossorial animals that
inhabit the cool moist humus and leaf litter of the forest floor and lay
More Artiles on Sri Lankan reptiles...>
Distribution and conservation and management.