When it comes to the world of amphibians, professor Sathyabhama Das Biju, 58, is something of a celebrity. India’s leading “frogman”, he has discovered 105 species so far, starting with the Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) in 2003.
A few years before that find, Biju, a former botanist then new to herpetology, published a paper claiming that there were hundreds of frogs yet to be discovered in India. It was based on the decade Biju spent in the Western Ghats, studying how indigenous communities used medicinal plants.
At the time, no one in the world of herpetology gave any credence to Biju’s claim. Then he discovered the strange-looking purple frog, evidence of the ancient geographical link between India and the Seychelles, an island now almost 4,000 km away in the Indian Ocean, and things began to change.
Biju has since led hundreds of expeditions, in the Himalayas and Western Ghats, Lakshadweep, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Sri Lanka. He’s been on frog-finding expeditions to China, Indonesia and Thailand. “Every trip is a different experience, even in the same location,” he says.
Amphibian research is challenging, though. For one thing, frogs are best observed at night, in the three or four monsoon months in the year when they are active. “No rain, no frogs,” Biju says. That means researchers must work in pitch dark, in dense forests, as it rains, encountering (whether they like it or not) insects, aquatic creatures and leeches.
It helps greatly to be accompanied by indigenous people who live in and off the forest. “Their knowledge and experiences is invaluable,” Biju says, adding that he has named three of the species he discovered for tribal communities he has worked with.
Biju continues to spend time in the field; it’s the part of his job he enjoys most. Now dean of science faculty at the University of Delhi, he and his team of researchers gather data from the field and then spend months conducting comparative lab studies, documenting external morphology, anatomy, DNA, vocalisations, behavioural observations, ecological data. “Sometimes it takes years before a new species is formally described and named,” Biju says.
So far, Biju has discovered India’s first canopy-dwelling frog (the Raorchestes nerostagona, in the Western Ghats); the tiniest member of the Nyctibatrachus frog family (the 10-mm Nyctibatrachus minimus, in Wayanad, Kerala); and in the Himalayan foothills he uncovered the Frankixalus jerdonii, a species of tree frog that feeds its young with unfertilised eggs and was thought to be extinct for nearly 150 years. He has 14 species of dancing frogs in his tally.
Some of these took years and hundreds of digs to find. He discovered a new family of legless amphibians which he called Chikilidae (from a Garo word for the caecilians), for instance, after 250 soil digs across north-east India over five years.
As with all things wild, a lot has changed over the years. The quality of forests he works in, especially in the peripheries, is diminishing rapidly. Frogs’ natural habitats are vanishing. “We are still not thinking about tackling threats specifically faced by amphibians,” Biju says, “even though they are one of the most threatened animal groups in India and the world.”
Frogs are sensitive, so they’re good environmental health indicators; they are an important evolutionary link for the transition of life from water to land. They have emerged as a source of novel peptides for new drugs. “The list goes on,” Biju says. The truth, he adds, is that no form of life, from the most microscopic to the most charismatic, is here without reason.
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