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Indian scientists discover four new frog species in Western Ghats

Four new species of burrowing frogs were discovered by researchers from the University of Delhi from the Western Ghats in Kerala and Maharashtra.

Updated: Jun 20, 2017 12:53 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
The Kadar burrowing frog described in the new paper.
The Kadar burrowing frog described in the new paper.(Courtesy: SD Biju)

For most urban residents frogs seem to hop right out of the tale of the princess and the frog: dull, ugly and occupying dirty city puddles. Sonali Garg, 29, a native of Uttar Pradesh and now a resident of Delhi, who recently described four new frog species, was no different. Till she started her research work as a graduate student.

“When I started travelling, I was surprised by the beauty of frogs,” said the doctoral student at the University of Delhi who recently identified four new species of burrowing frogs. She co-authored a paper published in Zootaxa on Tuesday, with her supervisor, Biju Das, who is an expert on frogs, describing the species.

The newly-identified CEPFI frog species.
The newly-identified CEPFI frog species. ( Courtesy: SD Biju )

The Western Ghats, which is Garg’s study area, and also the site where all four species were discovered is a global biodiversity hotspot. Of all the new species of amphibians that were described between 2006-15 (1581), the second highest number was from the Western Ghats- Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot (approximately 159), of these 103 were from the Western Ghats region alone. Three of the species described by Garg’s paper were found in Kerala and one was found in Maharashtra.

In their fieldwork scientists they rely heavily on local communities that inhabit the areas, so to recognise their support, the research team decided to name one of the frog species after a local community, so one of the species was named Fejervarya kadar after the Kadar tribe of Kerala.

The newly-identified Neil Coxi species
The newly-identified Neil Coxi species ( Courtesy: SD Biju )

The names are also given recognising the work of individuals associated with the field and so one species is now called Manoharini (Fejervarya manoharani) , after T.M. Manoharan, former principal chief conservator of forests in Kerala, who extended his wholehearted support to Prof Biju during the early years of his amphibian career. There is also a species Fejervarya cepfi now, named after the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and a new Fejervarya neilcoxi species named after Neil Cox, the manager of the biodiversity assessment unit at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

What does it take to discover a new species? A lot of midnight walks in dark, muddy jungles, after the monsoons. This is when the frogs are most active because they are nocturnal and breed during the monsoon season. They do their reconnaissance during the daytime and start their fieldwork just before sunset, walking into the forests with their headlights and gum boots, keeping their ears open for frog calls. The boots allow them to walk in the terrain but also protect them from predators that are dangerous for frogs and humans alike. “Where there are frogs, there are bound to be snakes,” Garg said.

The newly-identified Manoharini species
The newly-identified Manoharini species ( Courtesy: SD Biju )

The Manoharini species was observed by Biju Das many years ago, he noted then that it was an interesting but no specimens were collected. The team went looking for the species in 2012 with no luck. The next year they returned having identified a site where the species was believed to be abundant and collected a specimen. In 2014, they returned to collect another specimen.

“Sometimes when you are out in the field you get this feeling that this would be interesting,” the researcher said, “but you need to collect data, study their morphology and DNA to decide whether they are a distinct species.”

The following year in 2015 they managed the difficult task of recording the Fejervarya manoharani’s call. It was an achievement because recording a frog call allows other researchers to identify the same species elsewhere without having to capture one or do time-consuming analysis.

For this particular species, it was an even bigger challenge. “They are extremely shy,” Garg said. “Sometimes we would find them and hear them calling but when you actually go closer and try to record their calls, they would stop.”

The shy species uncovered by the team will now be the subject of even more research, Garg said.