The frog hunters

The frog hunters

New Delhi: Frogs jump out at you from every corner of Sathyabhama Das Biju’s small laboratory in Delhi university. They nestle in delicate pencil sketches on the wall, peer out of voluminous taxonomic tomes on the large wooden bookshelf, float in bottles of alcohol concealed behind a light black curtain, and squirm and burrow in layers of mud in large plastic boxes stacked on top of each other.

A large number of these specimens are new to science, waiting to be studied and named by researchers at the Systematics Lab. In the five and a half years since it started, the lab has become a veritable frog factory, revealing new species with a regularity that has startled scientists around the world.

In the competitive world of species discovery, where even a single species is a life-time achievement, it has notched up an impressive tally of 60 new species, making it one of the best amphibian research labs in Asia.

If Biju is to be believed, this is only the start. In the next few months, he says, he will announce the discovery of a new family (of caecilians, a kind of legless amphibian), and 25 new species. “This," he says with certitude and tone of a man not prone to modesty, “is my year."

“In the next two years, I’ll hit my century," continues the tall, frizzy haired professor, who has discovered 48 of the 60 species (the others have been discovered by his students). The cricketing reference sounds unlikely coming from a scientist, but it conveys an enthusiasm, that at times borders on mania.

Biju started his career as a botanist, but his fascination with frogs prevailed, and he switched over to zoology, getting a second PhD from the Amphibian Evolution Lab in Brussels.

“They always fascinated me, technically speaking," he smiles. “How, I wondered, did these creatures evolve 40 different modes of external reproduction? How did they use their croaks to communicate?"

Over the years, as the lab has accumulated data and found answers to some of these questions, more have cropped up, with the result that it now works on everything from the genetic make up of frogs to their migration patterns.

The monsoons are a busy time at the lab. Frogs of all shapes and sizes emerge en masse from the lairs in which they’ve waited out the scorching summer, to breed in ponds, rivers and stagnant pools of water.

For the scientists, it’s a short four-month research window, during which they head out into the field.

Their entry is determined by the distribution of India’s amphibian population, which is divided broadly into two groups (that spill over the international border).

The best hunting grounds are the Western Ghats of India and Sri Lanka, which are to frogs what Africa is to human evolution. This is where, according to Biju, the greatest diversity and the most ancient lineages are to be found.

The other area, which starts from north-east India, stretching in an arc across Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, has a distinct population and is home to India’s seven species of caecilians.

Of the six students who’re pursing master’s degrees and PhDs at the lab, most are away, having fanned out from Laos in Southeast Asia to Maharashtra and the Western Ghats in Kerala.

Biju, too, is raring to head out, packing in marathon classes and winding up some remaining bits of research.

The fieldwork is gruelling, he says, holding up a finger that remains partially paralyzed by a viper bite in the forests of Munnar where he was studying tree frogs. “If there are 10 frogs talking in the forest, you can be sure that there’ll be five snakes nearby."

The rigours start with days of trekking through dense, rain-drenched forests that are crawling with leeches. The researchers work on two hours of sleep a day and live on the most basic food. Fungal infections are common.

The most frustrating part, however, is the days or weeks spent waiting for their quarry.

But when it does hop slowly into view, it often justifies the wait.

The most exciting moment of Biju’s career has been the discovery of Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the coelacanth of frogs, a purple, pug nosed creature that resembles a glob of jelly.

Using molecular technologies, which Biju complains have been resisted by conventional taxonomists and zoologists in India, it was identified as “relic lineage" that dated back 130 million years.

In his paper on the discovery, published in the prestigious international journal Nature in 2003, he identified a frog that is now found only in Seychelles as Nasikabatrachus’s closest living relative. It was the first concrete proof, he claims, that Madagascar, Seychelles and India were part of a single landmass that separated much after the break-up of Gondwanaland had started.

The discovery made Biju famous. “Nasikabatrachus made me," he says candidly.

There’s been no looking back since. Biju and his researchers discovered India’s smallest frog, Nyctibatrachus minimus, which, at 10mm in length, can sit on a Rs5 coin with room to spare; the only (Indian) frog that lives in tree canopies at a height of more than 20m; and a curious set of species that makes nests in which they lay their eggs.

The study of these species has upturned some established beliefs about the migration of frogs from the Western Ghats to parts of Africa, and the reasons for the genetic differences in frog populations of southwest and eastern India.

While the science produced by the lab has been excellent, a clever prioritizing of research areas has also been responsible for bringing the lab the Rs3.8 crore that it has today in funding from universities and research bodies around the world. Biju has made sure that his students work in emerging areas that “will become big in the next five years".

Species discovery was the flyover in the amphibian world over the last decade, but the focus is shifting. The lab has started working on neuro-communication, the neural basis of communication in frogs, and the possible medical benefits of peptides and pheromones found in different species.

They’re also working on a DNA bar-coding project funded by the department of biotechnology, as part of which they’ve already analysed 1,200 samples from around the country.

“In India, we’ve traditionally followed the West, which means that we’re always five years behind," Biju says, “it’s time that changed."

Conservation of the new species, most of which are endangered, has also become a concern. According to Biju, habitat destruction is the biggest reason for the alarming decline in India’s amphibian populations.

“There are so many species out there that are disappearing without even being identified," says Biju passionately. “Can you imagine your own brother dying without being given a name?"

How difficult was setting up the lab? “When I started working on frogs, my friends said I was crazy."

Money for fieldwork was a problem. At one point, Biju even threatened to sell the name of the next species he discovered to the highest bidder to fund it. The notice is still on his website, but luckily it never came to that.

Getting good students at the Delhi university wasn’t easy either, but Biju seems happy with the team he’s managed to bring together.

Chun Kamei, a quiet, serious researcher has been at the lab since it started. She’s been working on the caecilians of the North-East, having discovered three new species; and is at the centre of the new discoveries the lab will announce shortly.

She washes hands carefully and then digs around in the mud of one of the boxes stacked in the room. “Here it is," she says gingerly picking out what could pass for a large fat worm, except that it’s got a snout.

It’s probably a new species of caecilians, but Biju seems reluctant to talk about it.

Neither will he talk about the bulk of the 600 different specimens, nearly twice the number of amphibian species documented by the Zoological Survey of India, that float in bottles on his shelves.

Those are his new species, news-making revelations, and the secrets to his (and the labs) future successes.

“I’m no Linnaeus, Hooker or Darwin," he says leaning back in his chair, “but it does feel great when people line up after conferences to shake my hand."