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Frog Systematics and Conservation in the Western Ghats of India

Friday, 21 September, 2007 - 16:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Science and Bio-engineering Sciences
Sathyabhama Das Biju
phd defence

Taxonomic nomenclature is the “common vocabulary” for scientific communications.
Accurate sharing of information, whether for casual communication or for precise
research, is possible because of this fundamental building block. Thus scientific
naming of an organism is the vital step before in depth studies.

However, before “naming” an organism, someone has to find the organism and
“know” the organism. This traditionally has been the preserve of natural history
studies. Though this line of study is centuries old, it still has relevance.
Combining classical natural history with molecular techniques, we see new species
of large animals emerging: surprisingly even animals as large as primate, tiger and
leopard. The central message appears to be that the species hunt must go on with a
combination of old and new methods.

My species hunt has been primarily in the Western Ghats. My target has always
been amphibians. Species level identification in amphibians is vital for studies on
patterns of evolutionary diversification and biogeography. It also provides the
methodology for assessing conservation needs and rationale for assigning
conservation priorities. Intensive and focused surveys has yielded recognized
extant amphibian species all over the world, especially from Malesia, Madagascar
and Sri Lanka. However, the potential biological spendour of amphibian fauna in the
Western Ghats did not get such systematic attention.

I started my field surveys in the Ghats against the backdrop of taxonomic
confusion - there were only a few reliable taxonomic publications for field

I started my research with several questions. How many frog species are there in
the Western Ghats? Could all the species be identified using morphological traits
alone? How many of them occur in other biogeographical regions? What parameters are
practically useful for identification? Can reproductive behaviors and developmental
pathways be used for taxonomic identification? How safe are these fauna in the
rapidly depleting habitat of the Western Ghats?

To answer these questions, I explored possible approaches and tools. My list ran
as follows – molecular phylogeny, creating profiles of reproductive behaviour and
developmental mode and of course data on morphological parameters. My study
describes 35 taxonomic novelties ranging from new family-Nasikabatrachidae-
(Chapter 2), two new genera- Ghatixalus and Anamisa (Chapter 3 and Chapter 4), 18
new species including systematic revision of the genus Philautus (Chapter 5), 14
new species including systematic revision of the genus Nyctibatrachus (Chapter 6).

My study opened the fascinating world of reproductive and developmental mode of
anurans. At least eight new reproductive modes and four new reproductive strategies
were observed, and many of them are in the process of formal documentation. In
Chapter 4 a new reproductive mode and its phylogenic implications is discussed.

The study also showed a major cause for concern. There were strong indications
that the natural home ranges of several narrow endemic species were depleting. The
last Chapter (Chapter 7) presents a conservation prioritization of Western Ghats
frogs by using IUCN global criteria. A comprehensive reference book on the Western
Ghats frogs (may be amphibians) is a critical need. It is my ambition to produce
it. This research is first step to realize this ambition.

We now live in a ‘century of extinctions’. To halt, reverse or at least reduce
this march of extinctions, we need to bring in whatever that could work. I hope
that my research will be a specific contribution in the wider efforts of
conservation. I am encouraged by the new interest in Amphibian research in the
Western Ghats. My research will continue; research in the Ghats can only be handed
over – not concluded.