Tuesday, April 3, 2012

India’s ‘Frogman’ terms region a hotspot of amphibian life

Meghalaya in general and Garo Hills region in particular has been known for many known and unknown species like the Shillong Buggle-nest frog, named after the Meghalaya capital, with some of them already extinct and new ones being discovered or ‘resurfacing’ including an entirely new family of amphibians – called Chikilidae – endemic to the region but with ancient links to Africa.

The Chikilidae (commonly named Tailless burrowing caecilians) which has existed from before the Jurassic Age, remained beneath the monsoon-soaked soils of the Garo Hills and other parts of North East India – unknown to Science and mistaken by villagers as a deadly, miniature snake. But this legless amphibian’s time in obscurity has ended, thanks to an intrepid team of biologists led by India’s ‘Frogman’ Professor Sathyabhama Das Biju of the University of Delhi. The scientific name Chikilidae is derived from the Garo language.

This discovery, published on Wednesday in a journal of the Royal Society of London, gives yet more evidence that Garo Hills and other parts of the North East is a hotbed of amphibian life with habitats worth protecting against the country’s industry-heavy development agenda.

It also gives exciting new evidence in the study of prehistoric species migration, as well as evolutionary paths influenced by the Continental Shift.

Prof Biju’s first effort in conserving the Chikilidae was to give it a scientific name mirroring what the locals use in their Garo language. The Chikilidae is a caecilian, the most primitive of the three amphibian groups that also include frogs and salamanders.

“We hope when the locals see the name and their language being used across the world, they will understand this animal’s importance and join in trying to save it,” Prof Biju said, while adding, “India’s biodiversity is fast depleting. We are destroying these habitats without mercy.”

Prof Biju – a botanist-turned-herpetologist (one who studies amphibians), now celebrated as India’s ‘Frogman’ – has made it his life work to find and catalog new species. There are too many cases of ‘nameless extinction’, with animals disappearing before they are ever known, he said. “We don’t even know what we’re losing,” he added.

Prof Biju has discovered 76 new species of plants, caecilians and frogs – vastly more than any other scientist in India – and estimates that 30-40 per cent of the country’s amphibians are yet to be found. Within the Chikilidae family, his team has already identified three species, and is on its way to classing three more, he said.

The Chikilidae’s discovery, made along with co-researchers from London’s Natural History Museum and Vrije University in Brussels, brings the number of known caecilian families in the world to 10. Three are in India while the others are spread across the Tropics in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

Because they live hidden underground, and race off at the slightest vibration, much less is known about them than their more famous, and more vocal amphibious cousins, the frogs.

Only 186 of the world’s known amphibious species are caecilians, compared with more than 6,000 frog species – a third of which are considered endangered or threatened.

People living in Northeast mostly misunderstand the caecilians, and rare sightings can inspire terror and revulsion, with farmers and villagers chopping them in half out of the mistaken belief that they are poisonous snakes. “But the Chikilidae is harmless, and may even be the farmer’s best friend – feasting on worms and insects that might harm crops and churning the soil as it moves underground,” Prof Biju said.

Much remains to be discovered in further study, as many questions remain about how the creatures live, the Frogman said.

So far, Prof Biju’s team has determined that an adult Chikilidae will remain with its eggs until they hatch, forgoing food for some 50 days. When the eggs hatch, the youngs emerge as tiny adults and squirm away.

They grow to about 4 inches (10 centimeters), and can ram their hard skulls through some of the region’s tougher soils, shooting off quickly at the slightest vibration. “It’s like a rocket,” Biju said. “If you miss it the first try, you’ll never catch it again.”

A possibly superfluous set of eyes is shielded under a layer of skin, and may help the chikilidae gauge light from dark as in other caecilian species.

DNA testing suggests the chikilidae’s closest relative is in Africa – with the two evolutionary paths splitting some 140 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed what was then a southern supercontinent called Gondwana, since separated into today’s continents of Africa, Antarctica, Australia, South America and the Indian Subcontinent.

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