Written by Priya Ranganathan I Illustrated by Parinitha P

Listen along to an audio version of this story HERE

Far in the east, where the sun rises at nearly four in the morning, a tiny volcanic island brims with life. 

Narcondam Island is a tiny island spanning only 7 km in diameter, but it is also one of two volcanic islands, the other being Barren Island, in the famous Andaman and Nicobar Island chain. Only 16 people call this island home, but it is by no means lifeless. The rare, endangered Narcondam hornbill (there are only 300 left in the wild) can be glimpsed flitting through the dense evergreen jungles here. The island flying fox and the Sikkim rat are two of the mammals found scurrying in the thick undergrowth, but the island is a safe haven for far more serpentine creatures as well. 

The rare and endangered Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami). Photographed by Dhritiman Mukherjee

The gentle waves lap at the rocky shores of Narcondam, frothing and gurgling as they break over pebbles and rough sand. Floating seagrass lends a greenish tinge to the otherwise sky-blue water. The dormant volcano rises sharply into the sky, casting a long shadow over the cool waters. The shrieking call of hornbills echoes, as does the chittering of many curious, brightly coloured frogs.

A piercing blue and black shape glides through the water, its whip-like tail acting like a propeller. Its silvery-blue scales are thickly banded in charcoal black, lending the snake the look of a beautiful bracelet. This is the blue-lipped sea krait, a unique water snake found in the open ocean, coral reefs, and mangrove forests of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Named after its dark brown upper lip, this krait is highly venomous, meaning that its bite can inject venom to kill its prey. In fact, local islanders are known to rush ashore at the sight of this snake swimming lazily through the shallow offshore waters. However, despite its fearsome reputation, the blue lipped sea krait is a shy snake, sometimes avoiding biting humans even when picked up. 

Blue-lipped sea krait illustrated by Parinitha P

Adult sea kraits grow to nearly 3.5 feet, with females sometimes reaching 4 feet. They hunt among coral reefs in the night and rest, digest prey, and lay their eggs on land during the daytime to hide from potential predators. They feed mostly on eels and other sea life, and they never hunt on land. One cool fact about sea snakes is that they, unlike fish, do not have gills, so they must surface to breathe, just like we do when we swim underwater! You see, out of all the sea-dwelling Elapids (a family of venomous snakes including cobras, black mambas, and death adders), the sea krait is least adapted to life in the water and must come ashore frequently, unlike the yellow-bellied sea snake, a close relative. 

Fun Fact
Sea kraits are different from sea snakes because of their intermediate traits between land snakes and sea snakes! 

Narcondam may be home to this snake of the ocean, but it is also home to a snake of the sky – the Paradise flying snake! Now, flying snakes don’t exactly fly, but they do glide across the sky like flying squirrels do. When these snakes launch themselves from a tree, they wind their bodies into a triangular shape, flattening their body using their ribs. They keep their heads still and focused on the landing point while the rest of the body undulates through the air. If you are wandering through the forests of Narcondam, keep your eyes peeled for a green and black snake with orange diamond-shaped markings gliding through the air between the evergreen trees. 

Paradise flying snake illustrated by Parinitha P

This flying snake primarily eats lizards and bats and uses a combination of mild venom and constriction (squeezing) to kill its prey. It lives in wet forests, like those found on Narcondam and the Andamans more generally. Here, the trees tower above the forest ground, effectively shutting out any sunlight and teeming with small wildlife. Frogs croak and sing, and the leafy undergrowth rustles as reptiles slither through the litter. Epiphytic vines twine around the massive tree trunks, slowly strangling their parent trees and using them to climb up towards the sunlight. It is this landscape that the flying snake calls home. 

Fun Fact
The flying snake is the only known limbless vertebrate that glides through the air!

The Andamans archipelago (group of islands) is full of many hidden mysteries, but none perhaps as surprising as the diversity of reptiles and amphibians found here. Scientists are still learning about the many animals and plants that live on these lonely islands, and new species are being discovered each year. Very few people are allowed to wander through the dense tropical jungles of India’s easternmost, isolated frontier, but those who have explored it return with starry eyes and tales of fantastic untouched forests and thousands of otherwise unknown creatures. And the lucky few who have set foot on Narcondam’s volcanic shores return to the mainland with stories of snakes that swim through the sky and sea. 

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’

About the Artist:

Even though Parinitha P. works in development and has a background in climate change, art has always been something she could fall back on. She wants to expand her horizons with her art and looking forward to working with people. She does both traditional (watercolours and gouache) and digital art.