In the final years of the 19th Century the team building the Uganda Railway moved inland from the Kenyan coast into the hard, arid landscape that the inhabitants called the Nyika.
They were heading not only for memorable encounters with the man-eating lions of Tsavo, but the foundation of a vibrant capital city. Among the engineers labouring on this so-called ‘Lunatic Line’ was an Englishman called Charles Steuart Betton. History records little of Betton,but he was obviously interested in the unknown fauna of the hostile land, because he collected a number of small animals and preserved them for posterity.
Nowadays we’d expect natural history specimens to go to the national museum of the country they were found in, but in those days there was no Nairobi, let alone a Nairobi Museum. So Betton gave his specimens in 1896 to George Boulenger, the patient omniscient zoologist who was curator of lower vertebrates at the Natural History Museum in London.
Boulenger himself is an interesting man. Originally from Belgium, during his work at the museum in London he became an Anglophile, and he was so enraged at the activities of the Germans during the First World War that he removed and burnt all scientific papers by German authors in the library.
Among Betton’s animals were two specimens of a small, stout blind snake, a burrowing reptile from Samburu, the village inland from Mombasa (and not to be confused with the people and the land of the same name northwest of Mt Kenya). Boulenger believed the little snakes to be examples of a known species; the Angola blind snake; the label on the jar (in the great zoologist’s original handwriting) says ‘Typhlops angolensis, Samburu, Uganda’; the name ‘Uganda’ standing for the Uganda Railway, not the modern country of that name. And there the preserved snakes remained, standing in their jar of alcohol on the shelves in the darkened corridors of the spirit building in the London museum for over 100 years, unremarked upon, until the eminent Zimbabwean herpetologist Dr Donald G Broadley, along with his American colleague Van Wallach, embarked on a 2009 review of these burrowing snakes.
Broadley spotted that these two tiny snakes were not Angola blind snakes, they were distinctively different. And he described them formally, with – as is expected – a new name, he called them Afrotyphlops nanus, the Kenya dwarf blind snake.
Blind snakes themselves are interesting animals; members of the reptilian Superfamily Typhlopoidea, a group of strange burrowing snakes. Blind snakes are not typical snakes.
Mostly small, aesthetically unpleasing, they don’t taper, they resemble flexible rods. None are venomous and they occur throughout the tropics world-wide.
The East African forms come in a range of colours, mostly grey or brown, with fine spots and stripes, but some are colourless, others a rather lurid pink, and in eastern Kenya the vivid yellow-striped blind snake occurs. All their body scales are the same size (typical snakes have enlarged belly scales). Blind snakes have no neck and the blunt head resembles the equally blunt tail. They are often called ‘two-headed snakes’, this illusion is heightened by the fact that they can slide backwards as fast as they slide forwards, a useful adaptation for life in a hole. Most have degenerate tiny eyes, visible beneath an ocular the difference between dark and light.
Their lives are spent underground, often in termitaria, where they hunt, using chemical cues for their insect prey; most eat termites. They are sometimes seen in the rainy season, flooded out of their holes, and occasionally on a damp night males living in a termitarium may emerge and move to another, dispersing the genetic material. There are many legends about blind snakes in Africa. Some people believe that small blind snakes spring into your nostrils and strangle you. Tropical African blind snakes often occur in association with safari ants, siafu, which don’t appear to harm them, and some people believe that in order to destroy a column of siafu, all you have to do is kill their tame blind snake.
The Zealand herpetologist Joan Robb thought they were actually legless lizards, rather than snakes. Their taxonomy is confused, Broadley and Van Wallach’s paper (A review of the eastern and southern African blind-snakes (Serpentes: Typhlopidae), Zootaxa 2255; pp 1-100) lists about 25 species of blind snake from East Africa, but even this review has been widely criticised.
The problem is that blind snakes, living underground and rarely emerging, are very hard to find, and thus there are relatively few specimens in museums. So we don’t have the full picture. We don’t even know what colour the new Kenyan species was; the original specimens have faded to a dull yellowbrown with orange stripes. But this new species emphasises the importance of museum specimens. So if you find one, take it to the National Museum or the Nairobi Snake Park. Without preserved material (particularly of such obscure and small species) taxonomic research cannot be done.
The Kenya dwarf blind snake has waited 110 years for its moment of glory. Now we know it exists. Unusually, it appears to be an endemic, in an area where there are few endemic species; most of Kenya’s endemic animals live in isolated regions in the high country. And no-one alive today has knowingly seen a living specimen. Who will be the first to find a living one and photograph it?