Wildlife Watchers

Why are new species of frog being discovered so often? Because there are so many of them

India’s frog seekers and the race to find the amphibians of the Western Ghats.

Ramit Singal was on a field survey for his citizen science initiative to protect the rocky laterite lands near the coastal town of Manipal in Karnataka when he spotted a thumbnail-sized frog with a call that sounded like a cricket's. Singal hadn’t seen a frog like it before and when he consulted other researchers, it turned out that they hadn't either. After studying the frog's genetics, body structure, colouration and vocalisation, Singal and his collaborators concluded that they had discovered a new frog species in the Western Ghats.

The frog, named Microhyla laterite after its habitat and described in a paper published in PLOS ONE on March 9, is just 1.6-cm long, pale brown with black markings, and is the latest in a long line of amphibian discoveries in India. A week earlier, another team of researchers discovered a species of bush frog in the Biligiri Rangaswamy mountain range, the southeastern offshoot of the Western ghats. In January, a team of biologists led by India’s most famous frog expert, Sathyabhama Das Biju, described a species of tree frog in Arunachal Pradesh that was thought to have been extinct for more than a hundred years.

Adult male Microhyla laterite. Photo: Ramit Singhal
Adult male Microhyla laterite. Photo: Ramit Singhal
Tree frog Frankixalus jerdonii. Photo: SD Biju
Tree frog Frankixalus jerdonii. Photo: SD Biju

In May, Biju and his team described 14 species of dancing frogs for the first time. The tiny amphibians measuring between 13-mm and 35-mm stick their legs out in what is called foot-flagging behaviour to attract potential mates, giving the impression that they are dancing. In fact, every year for the last 15 years, researchers have been finding between eight and ten new species of frogs across India.

The turning point

Frog researchers credit Biju and a paper he wrote in 2001 with turning the tide for amphibian research in India. Biju was a plant taxonomist and used to make trips to the Western Ghats to document the flora. But a chance encounter with a Malabar gliding frog and the discovery that frogs make great subjects for photography led him down the path to finding out about amphibian life. He later started his own amphibian studies in Kerala and the Western Ghats.

In his seminal paper that was published in the journal of the Indian Society for Conservation Biology in 2001, Biju said that no serious comprehensive work had been done on amphibians in the last century. Moreover, while 104 frog species were identified from the Western Ghats, his own observations showed that here were more than 200 species in the region.

“I had spent 15 years continuously in the Western Ghats and at each and every site compared the known species with the unknown species," said Biju. "Of all the species being described today, by and other people, at least 80% were photographed in that publication.”

Biju’s claims were met with scepticism from the international community of herpetologists. And yet, his work also attracted young researchers to the issue of undiscovered amphibians of the Western Ghats.

“I was interested in amphibians since I was young,” said Aravind Madhyastha, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru and part of the team that found the bush frog in the Biligiri Rangaswamy range. “But I started pursuing it seriously about a decade ago when Biju said there are so many more frogs to be discovered. We started asking questions of how many more frogs there might be, what their distribution might be.”

Bush frog Raorchestes honnametti.
Bush frog Raorchestes honnametti.

Since Biju’s synopsis in 2001, close to 150 new species in India have been found and described, or rediscovered after having been thought extinct. Many of the discoveries have been made by “frogman” Biju and others by biologists who were excited by his prediction.

Another reason why frog discoveries have been so frequent is the availability of technological tools previously absent from taxonomic research. “We now have molecular biology to compare genes, which was not possible 40 years ago when there were using traditional taxonomic methods based on phenotype,” said Seshadri Kadaba Shamanna, PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore, and collaborator with Singhal in the discovery of the laterite frog.

The importance of amphibians

Although Nobel Prize winner James Watson once famously compared taxonomic biology to stamp collecting, the systematic discovery and documentation of frogs is no frivolous exercise. “Documenting biodiversity is good because biodiversity is good for human society," said Seshadri. "If we lost all the species that there are around us we may not survive. To know how to protect ourselves from extinction, we need to know what species here are around us. That’s the completely utilitarian approach.”

Frog evolutions are also records of our ecological history, having been present before the undivided landmass of Pangea broke up. “Take the common toad found in Bangalore,” said Madhyastha. “The toads of that family came from outside India and diversified during the Neocene. There are other species of frogs that might be about 65 million-70 million years ago in India that diversified in South East Asia.”

Madyastha is now turning to the question of what the bush frog he found in the Biligiri Rangaswamy area indicates about the area’s ecological history. His hypothesis is that the bush frog might have evolved two million years ago when a fault in the plate of the peninsula pushed the Biligiri Rangaswamy range up and isolated the evergreen forests within its arc. The frogs within these forests, like the bush frog, could then have diversified into a different species, having been cut off from a larger population. It is a hypothesis that Madhyastha and his team are now looking to test.

Continuing process

Frogs are critical links in ecosystems that they survive in. The role of a tree-dwelling frog could be quite different from a night frog, which in turn behaves differently from other ground-dwelling species. Frogs may perform important ecosystem services like controlling insect populations. Many species are important indicators of environmental health simply because they are sensitive to changes in quality of water, air and their natural surroundings.

India's purple frog, a species endemic to the Western Ghats and one of Biju's more exciting discoveries, has survived 120 million years only to be threatened with extinction now. In addition to habitat loss, the bulbous frog also has to contend with its tadpoles being consumed as food by tribes in Kerala's Idukki district.

Biju worries that frogs in India are dying out faster than they can be found. In many parts of the Western ghats, a certain kind of frog may only be found within a 10-km radius and they are not seen in any other part of the world. It would only take two people walking continuously in the forest for five days to destroy the habitat, he said.

And so Biju's work and that of other frog seekers in India is far from done. “Approximately 9.5% of the total estimated species have been discovered and described properly. Almost 85%-90% of our flora and fauna is not known to science,” said Biju.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.