In a wayside puddle, not too from far vehicles barrelling down a main road in Wayanad, Kerala, Sonali Garg found some tadpoles she couldn’t quite recognise. Sonali, a PhD student at Delhi University and amphibian researcher, thought they looked “strange” and a genetic comparison failed to reveal any known matches in the region. Thus began a two-year-long journey for Sonali and her supervisor, Prof SD Biju, of searching for the adult frogs that these unrecognisable tadpoles would grow into. It was only in 2015, during a heavy monsoon, that they finally found them.
Sonali and Biju, an amphibian expert, discovered a new genus and species of narrow-mouthed frog -- a find that did not take place in the forested depths of the Western Ghats, one of India’s most biologically diverse regions, but just a few kilometres from human habitation. “What’s surprising is that there’s this new frog sitting right under our noses,” Sonali said. “It’s just managed to remain out of sight.”
This week, their findings were published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports.’ The new genus was named Mysticellus (from Latin mysticus, meaning ‘mysterious’ and ellus, a ‘diminutive’). The species was called Mysticellus franki, in honour of the renowned biologist Prof Franky Bossuyt of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, who researched Indian amphibians as well.
The frog has remained invisible in part because of its brief breeding season - less than four days - after which it seems to vanish without a trace. With eye-like black spots on its lower back, this males in this frog species make an insect-like pulsating call to attract females. Despite extensive surveying, it’s currently only known to a single locality in the region. Its closest relatives, researchers say, are more than 2,000 kilometres away in Southeast Asia.
“What is most interesting about Mysticellus' location in the Western Ghats is what it tells us about the history of the land-mass we call India and how in geologic time it interacted with Eurasia,” said Darrel Frost, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York NY.
Conservation begins in the wake of each new discovery, the researchers said. Amphibians, both in India and globally, are under severe threat of extinction, primarily due to habitat loss and degradation.
This is why finding the frog so close to vehicles, human settlements and plantations is a cause for concern - the amphibian was not discovered in the Western Ghats’ demarcated protected area, Sonali said. “It’s a really small frog and you have no idea that it’s there,” she said, also noting that “the specific site needs to be preserved to protect this frog.”
Prof Biju noted, “Both legal and illegal encroachments are equally bad for conservation and biodiversity.”
Growing up, Sonali said she was hard-pressed to find research on frog conservation since it was mostly focused on larger animals, like tigers and elephants. Around the 1980s though, a growing interest in Indian amphibian life began to take shape, Frost said.
Compared to other parts of India, the Western Ghats receive a significant amount of scientific attention, and the discovery of new frogs is not uncommon, experts say. Yet, that makes its vulnerability to pollution and deforestation so much greater. “It harbours such a large amount of diversity that the threat to species would be more,” Sonali said. “The implications are huge in the Western Ghats as compared to a less ecologically-diverse place.”
Sadly, it may be a case that these frogs are probably disappearing before we have even tried to discover them, Sonali said.
Prof Biju is credited with coining the term ‘nameless extinction’ -- the vanishing of a species before they’ve been documented.
“In my view, India, largely because of its colonial past, remains largely terra incognita (unknown, unmapped land)," said Frost, referring to colonisers who failed to study the country's rich flora and fauna for documentation purposes. "Biju and his team are heroically doing what they can to familiarise us with the amphibian fauna there before it is gone,” he noted. “But, they will not be completely successful. Too much territory, too few people, too late.”