Scientific discovery

In pictures: Seven new species of night frogs discovered in the Western Ghats

Four miniature species are less than 14 mm long.

The latest discoveries in the amphibian world are tinier than the average fingernail.

After six years of trudging through the rainforests of the Western Ghats in southern India, scientists have discovered seven new endemic species of Nyctibatrachus, or night frogs. Four of these species are hardly 14 mm in length. The study outlining this discovery was published on Tuesday.

The insect-like calls of the newly-discovered night frogs species deceived scientists on several occasions.

“For a long time, we heard these calls while we were walking through certain forest patches and thought they were insects till we spotted them under leaf litter,” said Sonali Garg, who undertook the study as part of her doctoral research at the University of Delhi. These miniature species were locally abundant, she said, but they had probably been overlooked by previous researchers because of their extremely small size and secretive habitats, apart from their deceptive insect-like calls.

According to the study, night frogs represent an ancient group of frogs that spread across the Indian landmass approximately 70 million to 80 million years ago. The first species belonging to this group was documented in 1882, and since then the group has been relatively well-studied.

These seven species add to existing knowledge about 28 species that have been identified so far as belonging to the ancient lineage of night frogs. This frog genus is endemic to the Western Ghats and is found near the marshy forests and mountain streams of five states – extending from the southern tip of Tamil Nadu across the tropical landscape of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa till northern Maharashtra.

“These frogs are very important links to understand how evolution took place over time,” said Garg. “In terms of evolutionary studies, these are the remaining relics of ancient frogs that lived on this landscape.”

Seven new discoveries: A. Radcliffe’s Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus radcliffei), B. Athirappilly Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus athirappillyensis), C. Kadalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus webilla), D. Sabarimala Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sabarimalai ), E. Vijayan’s Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus pulivijayani), F. Manalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari), G. Robin Moore’s Night Frog.  (Photo credit SD Biju).
Seven new discoveries: A. Radcliffe’s Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus radcliffei), B. Athirappilly Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus athirappillyensis), C. Kadalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus webilla), D. Sabarimala Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sabarimalai ), E. Vijayan’s Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus pulivijayani), F. Manalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari), G. Robin Moore’s Night Frog. (Photo credit SD Biju).

Enormous diversity

Of the 28 species of night frogs, 13 species were identified and documented over the last five years. With every discovery, scientists have realised just how diverse the group was. In 2007, Garg’s mentor SD Biju, who has discovered over 80 species of frogs so far, found India’s smallest frog species Nyctibatrachus minimus, that is just 10 mm in length. Popularly known as the frogman, Biju and his team went on to find 12 other species belong to the night frogs group in 2011. The largest species of night frog found, Nyctibatrachus grandis, is 77 mm in length and lets out a deep croaky call.

Manalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari). (Photo credit: SD Biju).
Manalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari). (Photo credit: SD Biju).

Not only do night frogs show immense diversity in terms of size and calls, but also in reproductive behaviour. Across the 7,500 species of frogs found across the world, researchers have observed six mating positions. But in 2016, a study also found a species of night frog, known as the Bombay night frog, which practices a seventh mating position – the dorsal straddle – a technique which is not found in any other frog species till date.

“This is a very interesting group of organisms to study since it is so diverse in every way,” said Garg. “Its DNA gives us information of a much longer time frame. It is evolutionarily significant information if we want to understand why certain frogs are found in small regions, or distributed widely, or to explain their diversity.”

The 12.2 mm long Robinmoore’s night frog (Nyctibatrachus robinmoorei) sitting on an Indian five-rupee coin (24 mm diameter) is one of the new species discovered from the Western Ghats mountain ranges in peninsular India. (Photo credit SD Biju).
The 12.2 mm long Robinmoore’s night frog (Nyctibatrachus robinmoorei) sitting on an Indian five-rupee coin (24 mm diameter) is one of the new species discovered from the Western Ghats mountain ranges in peninsular India. (Photo credit SD Biju).

Significance of miniatures

Of the 35 night frogs found in the Western Ghats so far, seven are miniature, less than 18 mm in length.

“In group after group of amphibians, miniatures have evolved,” said David B Wake, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied miniaturisation in amphibians over many years. “We have been slow to understand this because the miniatures often look like juveniles of common larger forms and have been overlooked.”

Wake explained that miniaturised species often occur in environments that are not usually the favoured habitat of larger frogs. For instance, in the case of the new species found by Garg, the miniature frogs are more terrestrial and occur in leaf litter unlike the larger ones that are found largely near streams.

“Also, in salamanders and in groups of frogs in many parts of the world, the miniatures have abandoned the tadpole stage,” said Wake. “Eggs develop directly into miniatures of the adults and the eggs are laid on land. This frees them from reliance on water and expands ecological and evolutionary opportunities.”

The miniature frogs found by the team, however, are known to go through the tadpole stage. But the team has observed certain other adaptive changes across the new species. While the larger frogs by the streams had webbed feet used for swimming and sticking onto slippery surfaces, this was not found in miniature frogs.

“There was little webbing of the feet in the miniature frogs, probably because they did not need life in water,” said Garg. “This indicates that they are adapting to a terrestrial habitat.”

Manalar night frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari), a 13.1 mm miniature-sized frog discovered from a fragmented forest patch adjacent to tea plantations in the southern Western Ghats. (Photo credit SD Biju).
Manalar night frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari), a 13.1 mm miniature-sized frog discovered from a fragmented forest patch adjacent to tea plantations in the southern Western Ghats. (Photo credit SD Biju).

Conservation and names

Although night frogs are quite common across the Western Ghats, they face considerable threats from human activity.

“While new species are being identified, the known ones are moving towards extinction,” said Biju. He said that frogs are already threatened with extinction in one-third of the Western Ghats. He said of the seven new species found, five required immediate priority for conservation since they were all found outside the protected forest zone.

One of the new species – the Athirappilly night frog – was discovered close to Kerala’s Athirappilly falls, where a mega hydroelectric project is proposed to be set up.

Athirappilly night frog (Nyctibatrachus athirappillyensis), new species discovered from areas adjoining the Athirappilly waterfall, site for a proposed hydroelectric project. (Photo credit: SD Biju).
Athirappilly night frog (Nyctibatrachus athirappillyensis), new species discovered from areas adjoining the Athirappilly waterfall, site for a proposed hydroelectric project. (Photo credit: SD Biju).

Another species, which Biju and Garg have named the Sabarimala night frog was found in the vicinity of the Sabarimala temple, a pilgrim site located inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. “These species were purposely named after their collection localities in order to highlight the threats they might be facing due to anthropogenic disturbance,” said Biju.

Sabarimala Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sabarimalai), a 12.3 mm miniature-sized frog found in close vicinity of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. (Photo credit SD Biju).
Sabarimala Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sabarimalai), a 12.3 mm miniature-sized frog found in close vicinity of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. (Photo credit SD Biju).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.