[The following story is from a visit in October, 2014, have done my best to add updates per October 2015 :)]
‘What crazy looking eyes!’, we exclaimed as we pored over the field guide of the ‘Common Amphibians of Kerala’ by P.S. Shivaprasad, moving along the bumpy roads outside Calicut, driven by our Keralite Schumacher, Majeedji.
For the 7 of us travelling together, the past few months had already been a roller-coaster ride. Dr. Varad Giri, one of the most well-renowned Indian herpetologists, had started a 4-month course dedicated to amphibians in June for those interested in the same, regardless of their background, as part of his initiative of the Western Ghats Regional Station to raise a fresh crop that could participate in further studies of this little-known class of organisms. All our notions and perceptions of amphibian identification had been shattered in the last few months. We would recognize that color and pattern are weak identification marks because both frogs and toads have the ability to change the above in relation to their environment. In some genera such as Micrixalus [a class of frogs known as foot-flagging or dancing frogs], the same population within the same locality will have several different morphs.
And the reverse occurs as well, specimens that look similar might be entirely different species. All this in an environment where taxonomy was undergoing continuous review. Phew! Which is why us novices had to rely on several other characters, the body shape, the fingers and toes, the tympanum (the external hearing structure of frogs and toads), texture of the skin, presence of glands, shape of the snout, under-parts and yes, the eyes. The study of these characters and the specific measurements taken using a digital caliper we would learn, came under the term, ‘morphology’. Such characters can only be studied well when the specimen is at close quarters, so unlike birds where observation at a distance can be sufficient for identification, one often has to catch the frog. This requires extreme care, and the correct technique is essential in order to not cause any injury to the frog; this we had been learning in the past few months.
This motley crew was now making its way to the evergreen treasures of the southern Western Ghats to Wayanad, and from there on to Munnar. Sahil Latheef, one of our fellow participants in the programme, was also our host for this trip. We had already taken good advantage of his hospitality by digging hungrily in to the huge lunch spread at his family home in Wayanad. And though half-sleepy, we were incredibly excited as we made our way to the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary. Sahil had done an amazing job of coordinating with the forest department and the ZSI (Zoological Survey of India) office there. When we had arrived, it seems some of the local media was quite abuzz with our visit. Apparently, our visit had prompted the forest department to organize an official ‘Frog Watch’ in conjunction with ZSI, and several more interested students and volunteers would be joining our small foray.
As we reached the Kakkayam forest gate and unpacked, the evening air was already filled with the croaks and whistles of our objects of study. Just a few meters from where we stepped out, we came across one of Wayanad’s iconic species, Pseudophilautus wynaadensis or the Wayanad Bush Frog.
After observing it for a while, we proceeded and met up with the other participants of the programme. Dr. Jafer Palot of ZSI gave a brief round of introductions and also elaborated on the amphibian diversity of the area while Varad talked about the objectives of our visit there. Undoubtedly, we were all on the lookout for one of the most charismatic amphibian species of India known from its type locality (the area from where a species is first described) here in Kakkayam, Raorchestes ochlandrae or the Ochlandrae Reed Frog so named for the Ochlandra setigeri reed brakes it inhabits. However, it was a difficult frog to find at the best of times, so we would have to take our chances.
We started from the get-go, trekking into a patch of reed beds. Wet evergreen forest, moist leaf litter and a humid environment meant we were soon donating a few pints of bloods to the local collectors, leeches. As we plucked them off, we came across our second amphibian find, a Nyctibatrachus sp. (possibly kempholeyensis)
Not having any luck with the reed frog, we proceeded to the main trail once again, and came across several other anuran (the combined term for frogs and toads) species: Clinotarsus curtipes (Bicolored Frog), Euphlyctis Sp. (possibly cyanophlyctis, Skittering Frog), Duttaphrynus parietalis (Ridged Toad), Microhyla Sp. (Narrow-mouthed frog), Raorchestes akroparallagi (Variable Bush Frog), Rhacophorus malabaricus (Malabar Gliding Frog) as well as 2 different Hylarana sp. (Golden-backed frogs) [Hylarana as a genus of frogs has undergone major taxonomic churn, this genus now has recorded splits in the Western Ghats into two different genera, Indosylvirana and Hydrophylax, the latter referring to the Fungoid Frog, which has since been further split into two species]
Needless to say, we were already quite satisfied with the amphibian diversity of the place. But Lady Luck had decided she was going to be incredibly generous with us that day.
Soon, one of the students who had joined our trail thought he might give a go looking into some reed hollows in a small patch near the path. After a few seconds of searching, he shouted ‘Ochlandrae!!’ We rushed to the spot and wonder of wonders there it was, looking at us with those psychedelic eyes. This celebrity’s time had come, and soon enough was surrounded by adoring paparazzi (yes, that includes us!). Little is actually known about this frog. In its description paper by K.V. Gururaja, K.P. Dinesh, Jafer Palot, C. Radhakrishnan & T.V. Ramachandra, the scientists had observed egg clutches of this species in hollow reeds, and with both the male and female seen nearby, it was hypothesized they may be indulging in parental care as well [This indeed was the case for another reed frog species, Raorchestes chalazodes from Tamil Nadu, where parental care by the male was observed and similar reproductive behavior has been ascribed to Raorchestes ochlandrae: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bij.12388/abstract. ]. With new reed frog species being discovered, there is increasing curiosity whether these frogs represent an even further specialization among bush frogs.
Extremely happy with our finds, we nevertheless moved to one of the nearby streams. We quickly came across the frogs we had expected to find near fast-flowing streams, Micrixalus sp. or the dancing frogs. Their foot-flagging behavior has been well recorded by scientists and natural history observers, and hence the attribute of ‘dancing’ (Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOdwvrn7ors).. We didn’t witness this behavior, but several of them hung on to rocks here with their well-dilated digits.
And that was when we heard another shout….
We reached the spot where Dr. Jafer Palot had taken one specimen for collection. Smiling, he pointed to some rocks on the upper parts of the stream. And we could not believe our eyes. We had not expected to come across this species at all, it was restricted to riparian evergreen forest and was known from very few localities. Standing in front of us, for all the world looking unconcerned was a Ghatophryne sp. or a Torrent Toad.
This animal looks like a relic from another time, and though it has the warty appearance of a toad (the warts are known as tubercles, and are actually glands that produce secretions, which are often designed to repel predators), it has a sleeker and thinner appearance. The genus is endemic to the Western Ghats, after it was separated from the similar-looking Ansonia of South-East Asia based on molecular and phylogenetic (phylogenesis being the grouping of species based on their evolutionary history) studies, adding to the already rich store of endemic amphibian diversity here. This individual did give us a peek of its feeding habits, when an unfortunate ant blundered too close, and was snapped up for a quick snack.
Thoroughly sated with the night’s discoveries (18 species in all), we reached home late with the realization this was only the beginning of our trip.
Will be sharing the latter part of the journey at Munnar soon 🙂
Guide: The Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary is accessible from the main gate at Kakkayam (approximately a 2.5-3 hour drive from Calicut) and one simply needs to take a ticket from the counter there to enter the forest. Exploration here inside the sanctuary is possible only by foot and the forest staff there are quite helpful and enthusiastic to guide new visitors. During the monsoon, the area is a paradise for those with herping interests with several species of reptiles and amphibians, the area is a known haunt of the world’s largest venomous snake, the King Cobra. Bird diversity is also incredible here, with some estimates pegging the number at 180 species including Malabar Trogon, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceylon Frogmouth (which we did actually see, a bonus sighting during our ‘frogging’), Malayan Night Heron, Legge’s Hawk Eagle among them. Butterflies too abound, the Malabar Natural History Society had recorded 142 species in their last survey including the Pale Green Awlet, Pointed Line Blue and the Sahyadri Small Palm Bob. Many of the mammals of the Western Ghats are also present here including tigers, elephants, gaur and there are even endemics such as the Lion-tailed macaque and Brown Palm Civet, however visibility for all mammals is low owing to the largely dense foliage and limited access. However, the scenic beauty of the evergreen forests, small streams and waterfalls here are sure to not leave nature lovers disappointed.
Equipment used: : Nikon D5300, Sigma 70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG