A ‘Ribit’ting tale: discovering a new frog species

Seshadri K.S, a 2008 batch student from St. Joseph’s College, was part of the team that recently discovered a new frog species. Srishti had a conversation with him about the discovery.

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While working on a project on epiphytes in the Western Ghats, which involved climbing onto a canopy 100 feet above the ground, Seshadri noticed something small jump off. It took him some time to figure out that it was a frog. Though he had worked with birds and reptiles, frogs were still uncharted territory for him.

Illustration credits: Greg Wright

This moment led to a research project. In 2008, along with his friend, Dr. K.V. Gururaja, he studied frog roadkills. He had met Gururaja earlier the same year. After a stirring conversation with ecologist M.B Krishna (at Koshy’s, where we met), Seshadri went off to meet an IISc alumnus who in turn recommended him to Dr. Gururaja who was based in the Centre of Ecological Sciences building.

He was familiar with that part of the campus since he had worked on dragonflies with a research scientist there. This time around, everyone looked like a geek to him and he did not know what Gururaja looked like either. Seshadri asked a young man wearing steel-rimmed glasses, where he could find Gururaja.

This turned out to be Gururaja himself, and the two went to the canteen where Seshadri listened to a spiel about the kind of work he was doing. During the next three days, they came up with the study on roadkills in the Sharavati river basin and soon began work on it.

Very few ecologists in India have studied road kills. Only eleven studies have been published, two of which are Seshadri’s, both on the amphibian kind. The concept of a road may seem like a negotiable hazard to us, but for frogs it is a huge barrier.

Unlike bigger, mobile species like elephants, or even deer, frogs are immediately crushed when a speeding vehicle runs over them. To study this further, they went to a place near Shimoga with three different habitats: a paddy field, a pond and a forest.

Here, they sampled a 100-metre stretch. Over the next three days, they studied what species died on the roads. Their research of three days paid off, and was published. It was a good start for Seshadri too. He now had a paper to his name before he started his Master’s. He joined ATREE after that and got into researching road ecology.
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During his childhood, his family had a garden featuring a rose-bush that was almost a tree, a lemon shrub and many flowering plants that drew several birds. Seshadri was terrified of these birds for a reason that he cannot identify. He still carries that opaque fear. Once, a bird entered their house and hid next to a time-worn Godrej almirah. His mother shooed it out. Some others built nests in the well outside.

When he returned home from school one day, he found the well covered with mud courtesy his parents who had undertaken an expansion of their one bedroom casita. He sneaked inside the well only to find a broken egg-shell, from a sparrow’s nest, in one of the cavities.

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Right after his Bachelor’s, he studied roadkills inside the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. His study here was not restricted to frogs.

Inside the tiger reserve is the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple. It is one of the temples of Lord Ayyappan, the most prominent one being Sabarimala which is visited by over ten million people every year. The Sorimuthu temple has a sacred tree that is said to ‘absorb’ the bells tied onto it by the devotees, who see this as the Lord accepting their offerings. Another story is that Lord Ayyappan came to this place in human form, and married the two daughters of Valai Pagadai, a member of the local shoemaking community. The legend stayed and to this day the devotees follow the custom of leaving their chappals for the deity Valai Pagadai.

Each year, in the Tamil month of Aadi (July-August), on the night of the new moon, pilgrims come to pray for the dead. For this Aadi Amaavaasai festival, they usually arrive a month in advance and stay in tents, cooking their own food smack in the middle of a reserve.

During peak season, there is considerable vehicle density: of about 300 per hour. Seshadri’s study went on to become long-drawn; he studied roadkills in the tiger reserve across four festivals, at the pace of one festival every year. This study put pressure on the forest department to restrict the large-scale entry of vehicles into the reserve. They completely restricted night-time entry. It worked for a year. In the year 2016, over 75000 people thronged the Ayyanar temple, inside the reserve.

Following that venture, Seshadri travelled with Dr. Gururaja to Kumta. At Kumta they met C.R Naik who worked in the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve. Naik was a humanities student and had no formal training in ecology. He got into the forest department through a compassionate grounds appointment, after his father passed away.

On the first day of his posting, Naik stopped a road construction. This move did not go down well with politicians in the area, and so he was transferred to a place without even a phone network. Seshadri called it a punishment transfer.

In Kumta, however, Naik would go around talking to kids about wildlife conservation. He would get hold of someone to make him slideshows, and then conduct talks at schools about wildlife conservation.

He has been involved in several conservation projects since and was recently given the Jumbo award instituted by the Kumble Foundation—run by Chetana and Anil Kumble–to recognise forest officials for their contribution to wildlife conservation in Karnataka.

While Seshadri and Gururaja were in Kumta, C.R Naik took them home, and asked them about their research. Soon C.R Naik began to tell them things about the biodiversity surveys that he was undertaking at the reserve, where he had heard the call of a frog that he couldn’t identify.

At first, the two thought that he was joking. C.R Naik was known to joke about a lot of things—such as the time when he went into a coma after being bitten by a krait, and resumed cracking jokes after waking up. They told him to take photos and videos the next time he heard the call, and left it at that. The very evening, Naik went and collected evidence to support his claim, and to prove that he was not joking.

It turned out to be a frog, albeit an unusual-looking one. Seshadri had never seen anything like it before—it had a long, pointed snout that was different from other frogs. When he heard a recording of its call, it was a dead giveaway for a new species.

Seshadri looking excitedly at Raorchestes ochlandrae.                                     Photo credits: Gururaja K V

150 kms away, in Manipal, a colleague Ramit told him that he had seen something similar. Seshadri went down to Manipal to collect some specimens, but did not regard them as his priority, since he was doing another study on microhyla , which are narrow mouthed frogs.

The two went to a barren stretch, where Seshadri heard the frog for himself. It sounded like the sound of a cricket coupled with the sound of a phone vibrating. He couldn’t believe that it came from a frog till he saw it sitting in the canopy of a laterite rock. He collected the frog specimens and preserved them. By the time he finished, it was 3 am.

The same morning, he left for Kumta, excited by the discovery. C.R. Naik took him to the field immediately, where he saw the obvious similarities between the frog at Kumta and the one he had seen the previous evening. Since all the buses to Bangalore had left by the time he had finished, Seshadri decided to spend the night at Naik’s.

He sat about in their living room, delicately euthanizing the frog by putting benzocaine on its head, while Naik and his mother watched. He was lining a box with cotton to put the frog in, when Naik’s mother joked that even dead people don’t have as elaborate a procedure.

The next morning, Seshadri took a bus back home.

At the lab, he compared the measurements to the specimens he already knew about, and these appeared different. The tissue samples he had collected the previous evening and on the one before that were sent for sequencing and it confirmed that they had indeed found a new species of frog. They called it Euphlyctis karaavali, taking the specific name from the Kannada word for coast.

After completing the molecular work of the specimens, call analysis and other nitty-gritty, the team began to write the paper. This part was a breeze, says Seshadri. He calls it low hanging fruit, because they knew that it was a new species and that nobody was working on it.

Getting it published was an arduous process. They sent their paper to the Journal of Asian Herpetological Research, as submission for a scholarship to attend a conference in China. It took as long as 9 months to get it published, but, on the plus side, the reviewers played fair and gave them constructive criticism.

A few hours after we began listening to him talk about his research, interspersed with anecdotes about his umpteen encounters with bears, elephants, and snakes, a waiter came and politely asked to take away our plates. My eyes followed V’s plate of half eaten mushroom toast, now precariously balanced on a waiter’s experienced arm. We left soon after.

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K.S Seshadri is a Ph.D student at National University of Singapore, and is studying the evolutionary significance of reproductive behavior in frogs. He spends his time looking at frogs nesting in bamboo through an endoscope.

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Srishti L

Srishti | Bangalore. Currenly she spends her time tending to her plants and indulging in her caffeine addiction. Skills include making list of lists and taking photographs. Fears include very bubbly people, butterflies & clowns.

Latest posts by Srishti L (see all)

Srishti L

Srishti | Bangalore. Currenly she spends her time tending to her plants and indulging in her caffeine addiction. Skills include making list of lists and taking photographs. Fears include very bubbly people, butterflies & clowns.

One thought on “A ‘Ribit’ting tale: discovering a new frog species

  • 25th February 2017 at 9:58 am
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    Excellent writeup of an unusual pursuit. I have a niggling objection – the two illustrations used are from a western context. The man is Caucasian, surely.

    Reply

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