The next day we made our long road journey to Munnar, a land of tea plantations set amongst the grand Anamalais. Here we would be met by two amazing researchers, both of whom we had heard much about, Lilly Margaret and Sandeep Das. Varad, through the course of his studies throughout the country, had managed to convince these two to take some valuable time off their research projects to join us and impart their collective knowledge.
We met Lilly first, well known for her work involving the study of amphibians in modified landscapes. As she would elaborate, tea plantations have been in Munnar as long as 1890, and along with eucalyptus formed the dominant landscape in and around Munnar. Yet as her work was beginning to show (and we would soon see first-hand), anurans here were resilient, and had not only survived but adapted and flourished. She was also very specific in her objectives for us. Sure, she would do her best in showing us the diversity of amphibian species and the identification and behavioral aspects to look for, but we were also to be trained in basic monitoring and study techniques so we could be employed as resources in surveys for the future.
As many in the field are aware, herping is best carried out at night when the animals are most active, so after freshening ourselves up in the accommodation Lilly had arranged for us, we congregated near the road bordering a few tea plantations in the night. Lilly and now, Sandeep joined us as well. Sandeep’s reputation preceded him, he was already well-respected by many researchers and experts of the country in batrachology (study of frogs and toads) for the extensive work he had done in the Agasthyamalai range for various species, key among them, Raorchestes chalazodes. During the course of our walk with Sandeep, he introduced us to an interesting line of thought. Frogs, especially of the Raorchestes genus might have specifically adapted to suit the ecological niche in each range of the Western Ghats. An example would be Raorchestes tinniens, which had occupied the grassland niche in the Nilgiris, which Raorchestes dubois occupied in the Anamalais. Similar was the case for Raorchestes ochlandrae in Wayanad, and Raorchestes chalazodes in Agasthyamalai. Built from this foundation, he provided a framework for identification of anura. Field identification (aside from certain unique morphological characters) of anura can be based on two facets: geography and bioacoustics or calls (It is also noteworthy to mention however that amphibian identification now is seeing an increasing reliance on DNA and phylogenetic studies, and while morphology or physical characters still occupy an important space in the area, the former have come to gain greater weight in describing a species in recent times).
Over the course of the night, Lily and Sandeep’s penchant for finding frogs would leave us spellbound. Without much difficulty, they tracked the frogs using a combination of visual and auditory cues, and we saw a stunning variety of frogs, including Raorchestes dubois (Kodaikanal Bush Frog), Raorchestes chlorosomma (Green-eyed Bush Frog), Raorchestes kadalarensis, Raorchestes jayarami (Jayaram’s Bush Frog), Raorchestes beddomi (Beddome’s Bush Frog), Nyctibatrachus Pucha (Meowing Night Frog) as well as a Fejervarya sp. (Cricket Frog) [The genus of Fejervarya in the Western Ghats has been hotly debated in the last few years, there have been quite a few papers published on the subject. Morphological characters of the fejervaryan frogs of the Western Ghats, and the rest of the country and South-east Asia were both proposed and contested. Until a few months ago, cricket frogs of the Western ghats fell into two genera: Zakerana and Minervarya. However per this recent paper (http://biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.3999.1.5), both this genera have again been synonymized with Fejervarya. ]
The highlight of the night surely had to be our sighting of Ghatixalus asterops (Star-eyed Tree Frog). We saw the individual making its characteristic bird-like call on a moonflower plant (Datura sp.) overlooking a stream. Locally common, we took this specimen for closer study and observation, and it turned out to be a juvenile.
This species has also been seen in different morphs, and this juvenile looked totally different from any textbook illustration we’d seen (We would see the adult the next day too), but its arresting feature were definitely the brilliant eyes, fine lines emanating from its pupil across the iris, the colors getting reversed in the adult morph. What a frog and what a night!
The next day Lily devoted some time to give us a brief and some practical experience on monitoring techniques. While there were a number of methods utilized in the field and possibly each of the textbook methods had to be adapted to suit the landscape, she emphasized that integrity of data was essential. Hence the sampling and data collection techniques had to be chosen with care. As a test exercise, we were asked to create a 5X5m quadrate in a eucalyptus plantation. After our collective efforts in creating one, when Lilly said she had been using 20X20m quadrates for her study across plantations along with only 1 more person, we were left flabbergasted.
That night, our quadrate study didn’t yield much amphibian activity. However, outside of our study area, we were able to find another species for our trip, Raorchestes griet.
Post our sighting, we quickly reported back to Lilly’s station where Sandeep had prepared a short presentation on one of the most enigmatic amphibian species in India, a frog that had garnered worldwide attention, Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the Pig-nosed or Purple Frog. The first formal description of the adult specimen was by Dr. Biju and Franky Bossyut in 2003, and while initially thought to be rare it is now being increasingly found in various localities. However, due its burrowing nature, it is seldom seen, but Sandeep along with his team members had managed to get some fascinating insights about its breeding behavior. It seems that most individuals of this species within a particular locality would come out of their subterranean homes for a very short window of time, re-instating its status as an enigmatic species. While we were listening, apparently Lilly had stepped out and said she had gone looking for a ‘surprise’. Our barrage of questions to Sandeep was put to a stop when Lilly re-entered. And while perhaps it is puppies or other baby mammals, which elicit compliments of cuteness, what we saw in front of us was surely a very strong candidate. It was a froglet of Rhacophorus Pseudomalabaricus known as the Anamalai or False Gliding Frog. We’ll let the picture do the talking for this find.
Finally, we went on our last night walk. Impossibly, we had covered nearly all the anuran species found in this locality save for a few. And almost like a clichéd Bollywood happy ending, we would end up with two more of the remaining ones. While walking, Lilly suddenly stopped as if she heard something and scrambled into the nearby Eucalyptus plantation. Scrambling back, she held in her hands, the adult Pseudomalabaricus. Astounded, we studied the characters.
We started the trip with wynaadensis, so it only seemed fair we ended with its compatriot, munnarensis. While wynaadensis belongs to the Pseudophilautus genus, munnarensis belongs to Raorchestes, though both can classified as bush frogs.
As we wound our way back, we took stock of the sheer magnitude of learning during our visit here. The revelation of so many concepts in the field of amphibian study was truly illuminating. In fact, Lilly had mentioned some concepts such as site fidelity (where the same individual of the species is seen year on year occupying the exact same locality), which she along with Sandeep had personally observed, and these required further study and validation. Batrachology in India is at a ripe stage for the entry of those enthusiastic in pulling the veil of this still under-studied class of organisms. Given their specialization and their ability to adapt to specific ecological niches, frogs will remain a vital part of our further studies to understand ecosystem services as they serve as indicator species and hence the conservation of microhabitats must be carried forward with equal care and conviction as with larger landscapes. Just like tigers, conservation of frogs on a micro-level will help in conserving other biodiversity as well such as this Large-Scaled Pit Viper (Trimeresus macrolepis).