Indian researchers have discovered a new family of legless amphibians — commonly known as caecilians that superficially resemble earthworms or snakes — in India’s northeast and parts of Myanmar and Thailand.
The discovery of the family, called Chikilidae, was part of a study conducted by SD Biju of the University of Delhi along with co-researchers from the Natural History Museum, London, and Vrije University, Brussels. Interestingly, in 2003, Biju was responsible for the discovery of another family of amphibians — the purple frog. That was a discovery in the class of amphibians that had come after a gap of 100 years.
“This new family has ancient links to Africa,” read the study reported in Proceedings of Royal Society of London on Tuesday. It is believed that the family separated from other species of caecilians more than 140 million years ago at the break-up of the southern continents (Gondwana). Their DNA was tested to reach this conclusion.
The new species is threatened by the rapidly disappearing green cover in the northeast. Immediate steps are required to protect the remaining forests from human activities like Jhum cultivation, the study said. Globally, amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group with one out of three surviving amphibian species on the verge of extinction.
“Apart from habitat destruction, local myth also contributes to caecilian depletion. Local communities believe that caecilians are venomous ‘snakes’. Actually, caecilians are neither venomous nor are they snakes. They never bite. They open their mouths only to eat,” Biju said. The researcher said the discovery was the result of unprecedented fieldwork comprising soil-digging surveys in about 250 localities spread over all states of the northeast. The work was carried out over five years from 2006 to 2010. “The work is the most extensive systematic programme of dedicated caecilian surveys ever attempted,” Biju said.
The Chikilidae lead a secretive life under soil, making it challenging to find them. They can normally be seen on rainy days.