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New species of first land animals discovered

Three new species of the rare Caecilians - the first land animals, which look like snakes or earthworms but are neither - have been discovered from forests of Manipur and Nagaland including two species having a unique "moustache-like stripe on its upper lip". Satyen Mohapatra reports.

delhi Updated: Oct 20, 2009 18:05 IST
Satyen Mohapatra

Three new species of the rare Caecilians - the first land animals, which look like snakes or earthworms but are neither - have been discovered from forests of Manipur and Nagaland including two species having a unique "moustache-like
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stripe on its upper lip".

Amphibian researcher SD Biju, Associate Professor, University of Delhi, who led the team of researchers talking to Hindustan times said, "The caecilians are the first land animals and extremely important from the evolutionary point of view being the oldest of the amphibians. They are the link between animals of the land and the water. There is no evolutionary data available as there are no fossil record of these animals".

In northeast rare species faces threat due to environmental degradation.

"Apart from habitat destruction, local myth also contributes to caecilian depletion; local communities believe that caecilians are extremely poisonous 'snakes'. Actually caecilians are neither poisnous nor are they snakes! They never bite. They open their mouth only to eat food," he added.

Caecilians are carnivorous and eat insect larvae, termites, and earthworms and live for five to 20 years.

The discovery was the result of a collaborative effort between University of Delhi, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and The Natural History Museum, London, Royal Society London.

The team of Dr Biju included Dr David Gower and Mark Wilkinson from London and Ms Rachunliu, G Kamei, Biju's PhD student and lecturer in St Stephens College, University of Delhi.

The new find was published in the latest issue of 'Zootaxa' (International Journal of Zoological Taxonomy).

Biju said "This peculiar characteristic of a moustache like stripe is being reported for the first time for caecilians. Worldwide, there are more than 170 species of caecilians. We have named one of the species as 'Ichthyophis moustakius' meaning an 'Ichthyophis' with moustache as they have projection of muscles marked with prominent yellow streak on their upper lip. The other species with a slight moustache is Ichthyophis sendenyu and the third species without a moustache is Ichthyophis khumhzi".

Ichthyophiidae are the family of Asiatic tailed caecilians or fish caecilians found in southeast Asia with numerous scales on their body. They lay their eggs in cavities in moist soil, some also give live birth, and the size when mature is around 30-35 centimetres.
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"We are still studying the function of the bright yellow colour in the wild under the soil. As their visibility is very low one probable reason could be kind of fluorescence in the dark," he added.

"Locating this group of animals is extremely difficult simply because they burrow and live under the soil. Caecilians can be found only by digging up soil. There is no indicator that predicts where caecilians can be found. Therefore, caecilian researchers have to dig and continue to dig till they find what they are looking for. For this species we had to dig for nearly three months on a continuous basis".

Dr Biju said that it is after a decade that such a major find was of caecilians was made in the northeast, the last discovery was that of two species ichthyophis garonesis and ichthyophis husaini in 1999.

Expressing concern at the vanishing biodiversity due to habitat destruction by humans in this region by rapid conversion of forestland into agricultural land, he stressed the need to conserve these species and their habitats in northeast.

"They are very sensitive to environmental changes and small disturbances in their habitat could wipe out several species. Habitats are rapidly disappearing and immediate steps are required to protect the remaining forests from human activities like Jhum cultivation".

Bio-chemical research is being undertaken in China, Kenya, and Tanzania on the potential economic value in the chemical alkaloids to be found in caecilians for production of anti viral and anti bacterial products, he added.