By KATY DAIGLE, Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) — Since before the age of dinosaurs it has burrowed unbothered beneath the monsoon-soaked soils of remote northeast India — unknown to science and mistaken by villagers as a deadly, miniature snake.
But this legless amphibian's time in obscurity has ended, thanks to an intrepid team of biologists led by University of Delhi professor Sathyabhama Das Biju. Over five years of digging through forest beds in the rain, the team has identified an entirely new family of amphibians — called chikilidae — endemic to the region but with ancient links to Africa.
Their discovery, published Wednesday in a journal of the Royal Society of London, gives yet more evidence that India is a hotbed of amphibian life with habitats worth protecting against the country's industry-heavy development agenda.
It also gives exciting new evidence in the study of prehistoric species migration, as well as evolutionary paths influenced by continental shift.
"This is a major hotspot of biological diversity, but one of the least explored," Biju said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We hope this new family will show the importance of funding research in the area. We need to know what we have, so we can know what to save."
His first effort in conserving the chikilidae was to give it a scientific name mirroring what the locals use in their Garo language. The chikilidae is a caecilian, the most primitive of three amphibian groups that also include frogs and salamanders.
"We hope when the locals see the name, and their language, being used across the world, they will understand this animal's importance and join in trying to save it," Biju said. "India's biodiversity is fast depleting. We are destroying these habitats without mercy."
The chikilidae's home in long-ignored tropical forests now faces drastic change under programs to cut trees, plant rice paddy, build roads and generate industry as India's economic growth fuels a breakneck drive in development. More industrial pollutants, more pesticides and more people occupying more land may mean a world of trouble for a creature that can be traced to the earliest vertebrates to creep across land.
Biju — a botanist-turned-herpetologist now celebrated as India's "Frogman" — has made it his life work to find and catalog new species. There are too many cases of "nameless extinction," with animals disappearing before they are ever known, he said. "We don't even know what we're losing."
Amphibians are particularly vulnerable, and have drastically declined in recent decades. The same sensitivity to climate and water quality that makes them perfect environmental barometers also puts them at the greatest risk when ecological systems go awry.
Biju, however, is working the reverse trend. Since 2001, he has discovered 76 new species of plants, caecilians and frogs — vastly more than any other scientist in India — and estimates 30-40 percent of the country's amphibians are yet to be found.
Within the chikilidae family, the team has already identified three species, and is on its way to classing three more, he said.
The chikilidae's discovery, made along with co-researchers from London's Natural History Museum and Vrije University in Brussels, brings the number of known caecilian families in the world to 10. Three are in India and others are spread across the tropics in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. There is debate about the classifications, however, and some scientists count even fewer caecilian families.
Because they live hidden underground, and race off at the slightest vibration, much less is known about them than their more famous — and vocal — amphibious cousins, the frogs. Only 186 of the world's known amphibious species are caecilians, compared with more than 6,000 frog species — a third of which are considered endangered or threatened.
Even people living in northeast Indians misunderstand the caecilians, and rare sightings can inspire terror and revulsion, with farmers and villagers chopping them in half out of the mistaken belief that they are poisonous snakes.