Welcome to the newest Indians: Meet some of the species christened in 2020
It’s a measure of how little we know of the world that, of an estimated 8.7 million species of living things, over 80% remain unknown to Man. That also makes zoology an endlessly exciting field.
“Our mandate is exploration and documentation of species across the country,” says Dhriti Banerjee, director of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI). “So when we are going about our business, our routine surveys of various sectors of the natural world, we come across animals that could possibly be new species. It is a chance.”
In some cases, a surveyor (or research student, entomologist or lecturer) will literally lift a rock and find something under it that looks unusual. From there to identifying it as a new species, even if it is one, is a long journey.
It can take two to ten years to declare and name a new species. The process involves comparing the physical features of a potentially new species with every known species of the same order, family and genus from around the world. Experts are brought in. Museums and repositories are contacted. Records and descriptions are exchanged. And when that is not sufficient, preserved specimens are sent, via snail mail, so the discoverers can have a closer look.
It’s hard enough to do this with a snake, a crab, a fly or a frog. But to make matters more complicated, some species, like the fishy parasitic worm featured in this spread, are so tiny that it takes special kinds of microscopes to observe them at all.
The good news is that looking at a creature is not the only way of determining whether it is a new species. CT scans are now used to reveal differences in skeletal features. Molecular studies and DNA analysis can help confirm that similar-looking species aren’t actually the same.
Once they’re sure they have a new species, the scientists must publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. All this — the studying, naming and describing — is still just the start.
Finding out their numbers and distribution; eating, mating and socialising behaviours; their role in the food web -- all this takes even longer. Raghavendra Gadagkar, an entomologist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, has spent his entire career studying the behaviour of just one type of wasp, the Ropalidia marginata. Four decades later, one question still haunts him and his fellow marginata scholars: Among bees and other such species, a queen is born a queen. Among these wasps, anyone can become queen. But who chooses, and how?
While most new species discoveries tend to come from the insect world, the largest category by number, new reptiles and amphibians are discovered regularly too. The rarest to find is a new species of bird or mammal. In 2016, the Himalayan forest thrush (Zoothera salimalii, named after the legendary Indian ornithologist Salim Ali) was only the fourth new bird species to be described in India since Independence. In May 2021, ZSI scientists described the first new mammal in 43 years: a white-toothed shrew found in Narcondam, one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Meanwhile, researchers are constantly aware that they are fighting the clock. As habitats change, amid the spread of human settlements and infrastructure as well as the changing patterns of rainfall and the impact of this and other fallouts of the climate crisis, a species once found by a stream or in a forest may not be there on the next visit; for that matter, neither might the stream or the forest.
Still, in 2020 alone, 407 new species were discovered in India, creatures that had never been documented or named in the world before, according to the Animal Discoveries list compiled by the ZSI each year.
So meet the newest Indians. They’re a diverse lot, and come from all over. Some you’ll be happy to know; others you might wish you’d never met. Here’s a selection of the strange, beautiful, wonderful creatures christened last year.
A Slitherin viper in Arunachal Pradesh
It is indeed a Hogwarts reference. Among the 28 new reptiles named across India in 2020, one was named after Salazar Slytherin, the Parselmouth founder of Slytherin house. The Trimeresurus salazar is a green pit viper (a type of snake named for the heat-sensing pits between the eye and nostril), with a thin orange seam running from the side of its snout all the way along its slender body.
It was discovered in 2019 on the edges of the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. “We spotted an individual curled up on one of the low bushes along the road,” says Zeeshan Mirza, 33, a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru (a research body that operates as part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, under the Government of India’s Department of Atomic Energy), who was on the team that discovered the snake.
On further research, it turned out the snake had been documented in the 1800s, but was erroneously tagged as a white-lipped pit viper. DNA analysis confirmed that this was indeed a new species of green pit viper.
The snake is typically about a foot long, but fierce-looking. Sadly, it is already under threat from habitat destruction such as the building and widening of roads, expansion of agriculture, hydroelectric projects and a proposed dam in the Dibang valley.
“We are far from knowing all our reptiles and the news of new species will continue,” says Mirza. “We must hurry up to discover these new species or some might go extinct, as their habitats deteriorate, before we even reach them.”
A burrowing Bengaluru frog
There are over 440 species of amphibians in India, over 50% of them discovered in just the last two decades; six in the last year alone. Among these is the Sphaerotheca bengaluru. This species, which was discovered in a village 25 km from the Bengaluru airport, possibly went unnoticed all these years because it spends most of its life out of view.
As the name suggests, the Bengaluru burrowing frog (S. bengaluru), discovered in 2020, is found in burrows along water bodies. It surfaces in the monsoon, to croak the night away in search of a mate.
On a monsoon night in the fields of Budumanahalli, the then unnamed burrowing amphibian croaked and a team of amphibian surveyors was around to hear it. They were exploring and documenting amphibian life in Karanataka’s non-forested dry zones, away from the Western Ghats and closer to the less-studied Deccan Plateau regions of the state. They followed the croaking to find a frog 5 cm in size, stumpy, and with patterns of dark brown and black splotches on its back.
It was an unexpected and exciting find, so close to a rapidly expanding city that is fast losing its water bodies.
“The presence of permanent water bodies is essential to the lifecycle of amphibians,” says Deepak P, a PhD student and assistant professor of zoology who was among the discovery group. “Bengaluru is rapidly urbanising and frogs are sensitive to the changes. The process of conservation begins with the identification and naming of species. Naming the frog after the city was our way of encouraging interest in it, and conservation of it and its habitats.”
A tiny new Pisces in Telangana
At its largest, the Indoreonectes telanganaensis is less than two inches long. Establishing that it was a new, previously undescribed species took about five years.
The tiny fish with irregular brown vertical bars across its body was first spotted in 2015 in the Kawal Tiger Reserve, in a small seasonal tributary of the Godavari River. “When I saw it in a small pool, it looked different from others of the same genus,” says Kante Krishna Prasad, a senior research fellow at the wildlife biology and taxonomy lab at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.
He was on an expedition to survey aquatic life across the state’s sanctuaries and reserves that year. Krishna Prasad and his team spent a few hours observing the fish, which was feeding on detritus in the pool and on algae growing on the submerged logs, pebbles and sand. It has since been established that the I. telanganaensis — named in honour of the state and all those who fought to have it created — lives in shallow pools fed by the rain in the monsoon and by natural springs after the monsoon retreats. “They move upstream as the monsoon ends,” Krishna Prasad says.
A total of 28 species of fish and eel were described from across India in 2020.
Freshwater species, particularly in the tropics, are as unique and diverse as they are understudied, Krishna Prasad says. What is found in these habitats isn’t found anywhere else, which makes them worth discovering and looking into further.
“Fish species in streams like this have evolved specialised adaptations, which in turn confine them to these streams,” Krishna Prasad says. “That degree of specialisation also makes them extremely sensitive to alterations in their environments.”
A good fellow from Lakshadweep
Roundworms are generally bad news. But roundworms that aren’t parasitic aren’t harmful at all, and can actually be quite helpful. Some, for instance, feed on pollutants and control the growth of dangerous fungi, algae and bacteria in water bodies.
This roundworm, the Polkepsilonema arabicensis, is among six identified in India in 2020. It is the only non-parasitic one of the six. It was found in the coralline sand of Agatti, the westernmost island of Lakshadweep. The presence of small denticles (tiny teeth equivalents in microscopic roundworms) suggest that the arabicensis feeds on bacteria and microalgae.
Three other Polkepsilonema species came before P. arabicensis, all shaped like the Greek alphabet epsilon. “Therefore minute details of the samples had to be compared with the descriptions of the other species,” says Tridipkumar Datta, a ZSI researcher and lead author of the paper describing the P. arabicensis. From collection to publication took about three years.
In a shining moment for the misunderstood order of the roundworm, the P. arabicensis was chosen to star on the cover of the ZSI’s 2020 list of animal discoveries.
“When we enjoy a breezy day at the beach, we hardly stop to notice the tiny animals that are silently cleansing the sand and making it more enjoyable for us,” says K Rajmohana, a scientist at the ZSI involved in describing the worm. “From a square inch of intertidal sand one may get around 10,000 tiny creatures like this one. So often we forget these tiny animals, their remarkable features and their contributions to our ecosystem.”
A bi-coloured moth in Andhra Pradesh
The Barsine kirata moth is small, with pretty red and black patterns, and it feeds on nectar, as many moths do. What sets it apart is that it also comes in two colours, a commonly occurring red variety discovered in the Himalayan regions, and a rarer yellow variety discovered by a team of scientists surveying the Eastern Ghats, both in 2018.
“During one of our night-trapping sessions in Vishakapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh, we found what looked like a different population of the genus Barsine,” says Navneet Singh, a scientist with the Zoological Survey of India.
On closer identification, they realised it was a new species. It was named for the Kirata people, an indigenous ethnic group of the Himalayas, where the more common red form of the species occurs.
Butterflies and moths are widely explored. Lepidoptera is the second biggest order in the world (after that of the beetles), with their stunning colours and fascinating lifecycle. They’ve long held sway among biologists trying to understand the natural world. But even so, a total of 18 new species were described in 2020, in India alone. There are an estimated 500,0000 species of butterflies and moths in the world, and we have only named about a third so far.
Beetles named after Gandhi and Satyarthi
(Cyphochilus gandhii & C. satyarthii)
The order Coleoptera belongs to the beetles. With over 400,000 species identified, it is the largest order of insects in the world, comprising 25% of all known animal life forms. Talk about a tall order!
As with all other orders of the animal kingdom, there are many more species to be discovered within it. In 2020, 28 new species from India were described. Two of these look very similar — about 2.3 cm in length, nocturnal, characterised by white scales that shine in moonlight. They’ve been named after two pacifists: Mahatma Gandhi and Kailash Satyarthi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts against child labour.
On the surface, they look alike; the beetles, not the men. “Differentiating between them requires at least a good microscope,” says Guido Sabatinelli, an entomologist with the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, who described the two species.
The specimens were collected during entomological surveys carried out in the Himalayan region between 1980 and 2000. Sabatinelli was part of these, in the early ’80s.
“The main problem was that the most of the pre-existing 35 species of this genus were poorly described between 1890 and 1930, so it was necessary to find the original material,” says Sabatinelli. “These specimens were scattered in not less than 10 museums around the world.”
Sabatinelli specialises in studying beetles of the family Scarabaeidae (which range from dung beetles to rhino beetles) and the genus Cyphochilus. “Some Scarabaeidae can be harmful to agriculture both in larval or adult forms,” he says. “Luckily the Cyphochilus species don’t feed as adults and their impact on agricultural activity in their larval form is minimal.”
A reclusive bug from Pune
Members of the vast order of bugs, or Hemiptera, can range from plant-pestilence-spreaders to crop raiders to beneficial critters that eat other pesky insects. Over 30 Hemiptera species were described in India in 2020, including the Pycanum occidentale. Friend or foe, only further studies will indicate. But here’s what we know so far.
The P. occidentale was found in 2016 by Sadashiv More, an assistant professor of zoology, in the scrublands of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. He was conducting a routine survey of insects in the area and found it on a small plant there.
The thing about bugs, like many other small insects, is that it’s hard for even trained entomologists to distinguish between them by sight. A detailed examination under the microscope and comparison with other species is essential. In this instance, only two individuals of the species have been found, both male.
Was it a new species? It was hard to say, so it was compared with numerous species from around the world. Preserved specimens from the Paris Museum of Natural History were even sent over. It was then identified and described as a new species, but very little is still known about it.
“It is a moderately large bug about 30 mm in length, yellow brown and dark emerald green,” says Hemant Ghate, an entomologist and lead author of the paper describing it. “Its colour combination is rarely seen.”
Even our existing species of bugs and other insects are poorly known, Ghate adds.
It is interesting to note that the most comprehensive book on bugs of the Indian subcontinent was written over a century ago. Many have been redescribed and renamed since, but none has come close to the seven-volume The Fauna of British India by WL Distant.
Tiny, deadly vampires
Members of the order Thysanoptera are also called thrips. They’re like the vampires of the insect world. They’re tiny (less than 1 mm long) but deadly insects that have wreaked serious damage to agricultural crops.
They are known to puncture the outer layer of whatever they are feeding on – plants, fruit, flowers – and suck out their juices. But the real damage they do comes from the fact that they are the sole vectors of deadly plant diseases called tospoviruses. As larvae they can acquire the virus and as adults, they transmit it.
Now that we’ve set the stage, meet the Apelaunothrips moundi, one of two members of the Thysanoptera order described in 2020. It was found on dead logs in Bishnupur in Bankura, West Bengal.
“A. moundi are fungus feeders,” says Kaomud Tyagi, a scientist at the Zoological Survey of India who was one of the authors who described the species.
This one has been named after Laurence Mound, an Australian scientist who has contributed immensely to the study of thrips globally. And what does the A. moundi do to agricultural crops? “It’s too soon to tell,” says Tyagi. But possibly, nothing good.
A small addition
Not all termites are pests. In nature, they are invaluable decomposers.
Two new species of termite were named in India in 2020. One, the Dicuspiditermes leghugathrae, was discovered by PhD student Amina Poovoli, a researcher at the Zoological Survey of India’s Western Ghat Regional Centre.
“Amina was studying the diversity of termites of Kerala and found this one under a boulder in a mango plantation in Palakkad district,” says K Rajmohana, a scientist at the ZSI and a co-author of the paper describing it. “Dicuspiditermes are soil inhabitants, thriving in soil. They basically feed on soil inorganic matter, hence are less likely to be listed as major pest.”
Identifying it as a separate species, she says, was relatively easy because termite species are relatively few. There are only about 2,700 species of termite worldwide. Incidentally, though, there are so many of each type that it is estimated that their biomass or total weight would equal that of all the humans on the planet.
Back to the genus Dicuspiditermes, there are only about 20 species globally, of which nine are found in India. Under a powerful stereo microscope, the D. leghugathrae was distinctly different from the others in terms of its serrations. At about 4 mm in length, it is relatively smaller than the rest of its kind too. And so it was named leghugathrae, Sanskrit for small of body.
A pest devourer
The praying mantis, with its triangular head, bulging eyes and holier-than-thou posture, is carnivorous, eats other insects, and has been Nature’s pest control since ancient times.
The one new species described in India in 2020, the E. maculata, was one of three preserved specimens in the collection of the Central Entomological Laboratory of the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata. They’ve been around since British zoologist James Wood-Mason collected them during his field studies here in the 1800s. He suspected these were new species, but never completed his work on them.
Over time, the specimens were damaged and only one could be restored well enough to study. There are over 150 types of mantids listed in India.
“From its size, we can conclude that it lives in bush-like habitats,” says G Srinivasan, of the Zoological Survey of India in Chennai. “And that it fed on minute insects such as aphids, which are considered agricultural pests.”
A blue-in-the-face dragonfly
There are currently 498 species of dragonfly and damselfly (these look like a dragonfly’s skinnier cousin) in India, many of them endemic to the Western Ghats, Himalayan region and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Protosticta cyanofemora was found at Pandimotta, the highest point in the tropical evergreen forests of the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, in 2014. It was found, specifically, at an elevation of 1,200 m, along small streams running down the hill.
Members of the Protisticta genus were considered difficult to distinguish and identify back then. In fact, one of the damselflies it was observed with, the P. davenporti, looks quite similar. “The similar-looking species created the main challenge in describing this one,” says Shantanu Joshi, an odonate researcher currently working with the Zoological Survey of India, who was on the team that collected the specimens. “As more photographs and records of the Protisticta genus started appearing, it became easier to identify the specimens more reliably.”
In 2019, this team was inspired to revisit their logs. On a second look with the help of experts in the field, they found the species’ distinct features: “The bright blue colour of face and legs, along with the shape of the appendages, helps distinguish it,” Joshi says.
It was named cyanofemora for its characteristic cyan face and legs.
“That there were seven new species of dragonfly and damselfly described in 2020 indicates that even these well-documented insect groups have many exciting surprises in store, especially from less-explored, remote parts of India,” adds KA Subramanian, one of the authors who described the cyanofemora.
A sneaky web-weaver
If you suffer from arachnophobia, look away from this one. A grand total of 32 new species of spider from India were described in 2020. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with one thing in common: they each have eight crawly legs.
This species, a trapdoor spider named Idiops vankhede in honour of the Indian arachnologist Ganesh Vankhede, was found in the Solapur district of Maharashtra.
“Trapdoor spiders live in burrows, which they line with a thick layer of silk. One invisible line goes from the entrance to the burrow, which when tripped by prey or predator, sends warning signals to the spider inside,” says Manju Siliwal, of the Wildlife Institute of India. “They also seal the entrance of the burrow with a cork-like door, which is camouflaged.”
Therein lies the challenge: finding the burrows.
Once Siliwal and her research partner Rajshekhar Hippargi had found a few specimens, they still weren’t sure if this was a new species of trapdoor spider. “All the species of this group look similar,” says Siliwal. “Most are brownish-black. Without examining them under a binocular microscope it is quite tricky telling them apart.” But closer examination proved that the I. vankhede was indeed an arachnid of a new kind.
A fishy worm
Here’s where it gets a bit icky. Acanthocephalans are a group of spiny-headed parasitic worms that range in size from 1mm to 1cm in length. They don’t have a digestive track, so they pierce the digestive tract of the host species — which can range from mammals to fish and even certain insects — and absorb nutrients from them.
“Once they parasitise a creature, they cause loss of weight, then death,” says Neelam Kumari Gautam, a parasitologist at University of Lucknow and lead author of the report describing the species.
Gautam and her team had set out to investigate why populations of the snakehead fish were decreasing in India, when they stumbled upon the Pallisentis thapari. They examined fish from a pond near Lucknow and found that their entire alimentary canals had been blocked by a type of worm that was hijacking all the nutrients from the digestive tract of the fish.
Because these worms are so small (3 to 5 mm), naming the thapari took over two years and involved the use of a camera lucida, an optical device used to recreate very small and microscopic objects.
The P. thapari has been named after the late Gobind Singh Thapar of the University of Lucknow, who was a pioneer in the study of Acanthocephalans in India.