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Canopy frog spotted in Wayanad

By P. Venugopal



The Wayanad frog can change its hue to all conceivable patterns to effect perfect camouflage with its surroundings.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, MARCH 24. A `blup-blup' sound resembling that of water drops falling on a stagnant pool could be heard coming from high up the trees in the Wayanad forests during the monsoon. The source of this sound had remained a mystery to researchers for decades.

Six years ago, the naturalists Anil Zachariah and P.K. Uthaman found that it was the call of a canopy frog that had made the high branches of the trees its home. Soon, the frog expert S.D. Biju was after the hitherto unknown creature, scouring these rainforests in the Western Ghats for a specimen.

Locating this strange frog was a real challenge and, ultimately, when he succeeded, it was found perching perfectly camouflaged on a branch more than 20 metres high.

Dr. Biju, who is now doing research in Brussels Free University in Belgium, and Franky Bossuyt of the same institution, recently identified that the frog belongs to an entirely new species. They have reported their find, Philautus nerostagona, in a recent issue of the Current Science.

According to Dr. Biju, now in Kerala as part of his research, the new frog is the first true canopy frog to be reported from India. Of the 220 described frogs from India, 55 belong to the tree frog group. The reported maximum height at which these frogs are found to inhabit is only four metres. A frog living in the high canopies 20 metres or more above the ground has not been reported from the country so far. A frog of the genus Philautus (140 species reported worldwide) living at such height has also not been reported from any other part of the world.

Can change its hue

Many frogs have the ability to change their colour from green to grey and back to green. But this Wayanad frog with fully webbed fingers and toes and frill-like limbs for survival on the canopy, can change its hue to all conceivable patterns to effect perfect camouflage with its surroundings.

Dr. Biju, formerly of the Tropical Botanical Garden Research Institute at Palode, near here, is soon to join the School of Environmental Science in Delhi University as a Reader. "This finding shows how little we know about the amphibian diversity of the Western Ghats, one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world. There is exciting potential for further investigation in the region. The subterranean (underground) and canopy layers of this region, especially, could do with a lot more explorations," he said.

The same S.D. Biju-Franky Bossuyt team was behind the finding of a purple, snub-nosed burrowing frog of the Western Ghats, Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, which became one of the hottest topics of discussion in the scientific world last year. That finding, reported in the British science magazine Nature was more significant than this one because of two reasons. First, only 29 families of frogs, encompassing approximately 4,800 species, were known till then. Most of these families were named by the mid-1800s and the last discovery of a species of frog belonging to a new family was in 1926. Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis was not just a new species of frog, but a frog of a new family reported after a gap of more than 75 years.

The second reason, which is more important, was the bio-geographical significance of that find. The frog's internal anatomy and DNA sequence data placed it deep into the family tree of frogs to the age of the dinosaurs. Its closest relatives now live in Seychelles, 3,000 km south of the Indian peninsula, suggesting that these two places were part of the same landmass during the time of the dinosaurs. The find supported the theory of continental drift.

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