Wildlife & Biodiversity

Meet thy neighbours

Every existence has its excuse, it is said. Every year taxonomists in India venture into uncharted landscapes and scan every nook and corner to find out many such existences and unveil the excuses. In the past year they found 523 species of animals and plants. Down To Earth introduces a few of the country's newest citizens to you, each of them equally contributing to the megadiversity of India

 
By Jigyasa Watwani, Snigdha Das, Chaitanya Chandan
Last Updated: Tuesday 16 February 2016

Say hello to stunning new species

In the mid-18th century, when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus established the modern system of classifying all organisms known to the human being, he believed that the boundaries of life were just around the corner; there would be hardly 10,000 plant species in the world, he used to say. But 260 years later, and after identifying 17 million species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes scientists are nowhere close to knowing the basic kinds of organisms, let alone understanding them or naming them. Worse, they do not even know how much is left to discover.

Probably, this is the reason every year biodiversity enthusiasts and some determined, even obsessed, scientists from across the world scan unknown terrains, from the most inhospitable of places to deep seabeds, and comb through a billion museum collections and fossils to look for new species. And when they stumble upon one—be it a bizarre-looking animal, an unimaginably small insect or a plant from the Jurassic era—national and international institutes and scientific journals publish the finding with great enthusiasm, and add it to the inventory of living species and fossils.

In 2015, India added 523 new living species to this ever-expanding inventory. According to the documentations released by the country’s two premier institutes engaged in the exploration of flora and fauna—the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and the Botanical Survey of India (BSI)—and non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), scientists and taxonomists have identified 246 animal species and 277 plant species in 2014.

Seed plants (118) have accounted for more than 40 per cent of the new plant species discovered. And as every year, insects (119) have outnumbered other groups of animals (see ‘523 reasons to feel happy’). The list, however, does not include any species of mammal.

“We have a fair idea about the absolute diversity of mammals as well as birds,” says K C Gopi, scientist at ZSI. That is why discovery of new mammal species is touted as the discovery of the decade, or even the century. On the other hand, insects are hardly well-documented because of their small size, and we discover hundreds of them every year, Gopi explains.

At least 185 of the new animal species reported last year are new discoveries, or new to science; and 61 are new records, meaning spotted for the first time in India. Similarly, of the 249 plant species reported by BSI alone, 148 are new discoveries and 101 new records.

In either case, new species are significant as they indicate the richness of India’s biodiversity. Kailash Chandra, director-in-charge of ZSI, says India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries, encompassing four biodiversity hot spots—the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the northeastern region and the Nicobar islands.

Every year, as ZSI and BSI carry out nearly 100 countrywide expeditions, these regions spring the maximum number of surprises, particularly related to plant species. In fact, these are among the 37 most biodiverse regions in the world. In 2014, the Western Ghats, which has recently been accorded the World heritage status by Unesco, accounted for the maximum—22 per cent—number of plant discoveries; 15 per cent of the new plant species were found each in the Eastern Himalayas and the northeastern region; 11 per cent in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; and 9 per cent in the Western Himalayas.

Discovery of new species helps us better understand the ecosystem, says Shekhar Mohite, senior researcher at the Biodiversity Research and Conservation Foundation, an environmental non-profit in Ahmedabad. “As we find out where these species live and how they interact with the ecosystem, it helps us design effective conservation measures. Their unique attributes also help expand our knowledge about the origin and evolutionary history of life on earth,” says Mohite.

Though all species are significant in their own ways, some assume greater importance to humans owing to their economic or ornamental significance, or ability to boost biodiversity research. For instance, the discovery of different species of cereals and pulses in the wild led scientists to interbreed them and generate disease-resistant varieties. These varieties were then domesticated, cultivated and used for consumption or medicinal purposes.

“You never know how a new species and its variants can be used,” says Y V Jhala, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

Take the case of Thrips parvispinus—a pest recorded for the first time in India in August 2015. Earlier, it was recorded infecting papaya plants in Hawaii, gardenia plants in Greece, and chilli, green beans, potato and brinjal in other countries. “The identification of a pest is the first step which unlocks the barriers for further research in planning appropriate management strategies for the pest involved,” notes a paper that reported about T parvispinus in Journal of Insect Science.

Unfortunately, young researchers are losing interest in taxonomy, which deals with the science of identifying, classifying and naming new species. Since discovering new species is an arduous task, they are more interested in species already discovered, says Mohite.

And the result is evident. There has been a decline in the size of new discoveries and records. In 2013, ZSI and BSI documented 302 new animal species and 347 new plant species. In 2014, the numbers were down to 237 fauna and 275 flora. Similarly, between 1998 and 2008, WWF discovered 354 new species in the Eastern Himalayas. It discovered only 211 new species over the next five years.

But scientists of ZSI and BSI are hopeful. Though the size of findings was small last year, the list includes species that are significant in terms of ecology and economy.

One such species is a palm-like plant, Cycas sainathii, which scientists have regarded as living fossil from the dinosaur era (see p42). Another is a shade tree, Glochiodion tirupathiense, which scientists have discovered not from a less visited site but from the pilgrimage site of Tirumala hills, on the way to Kumaradara Pusupadara Dam (see p41). However, they could locate only a few plants of the species. Then there are freshwater crabs (Ghatiana aurantiaca and Gubernatoriana triangulus) that are considered ecologically and economically important.Both the crabs play a significant role in maintaining the nutrient cycle of water and act as an intermediate link in the food chain of natural habitat. They prey upon small aquatic organisms, and, at the same time, are predated by birds and mammals. Local tribal communities are known to relish these crabs, and hence they can be considered as a fishery wealth (see p30). The new findings also include nine new species of wild bananas (see p38) and 10 species of orchids (see p40).

Down To Earth roped in the country’s top scientists, who supervised these incredible discoveries, to share their experiences of ecological incursions. The magazine got access to the institutions’ complete data on species discovered during 2014-15, and the authors spent hours with the scientists to make sense of the new discoveries. As these authors pored over heaps of files on new species, they discovered a fascinating new world. In the next 22 pages Down To Earth profiles a select group of new plant and animal species.

For that lucky encounter
 
Nobody goes to the field thinking that they are going to discover new species. It is purely accidental. But turning an accident into a discovery requires a prepared mind and thorough follow-up

Needed: eye for detail

Expeditions to find out new species are usually carried out in biodiversity hot spots, but species can be found anywhere. "All you need is the basic knowledge of taxonomy and plant/animal nomenclature," says D K Singh, scientist at Botanical Survey of India (BSI). Only an eye for detail leads one to a new species.

Look for novel features

A specimen with hitherto unseen characteristic is recognised as a new discovery. So sensible scouting must be followed by careful comparison. The morphological (external and anatomical) features of a specimen suspected to be a new species are studied, and compared with the morphological features of other species in the genus.

Join an expedition

One can be part of expeditions conducted by Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and BSI every year. The group is led by a senior scientist, and assisted by a junior officer, field collectors and lab assistants who store collected specimens. The specimens are then sent to ZSI's National Zoological Centre (NZC) or BSI's Central National Herbarium (CNH). As of now, NZC has four million animal specimens and CNH houses two million plant specimens. "Independent researchers also send us photographs of what they think is a discovery. We collect samples from the spot and compare their morphological characteristics with those of other species in the genus," says S K Pati, scientist with ZSI.

Or, try genetic study

In some cases morphological differences are difficult to observe. In such cases, scientists compare molecular/genetic features of the specimen suspected to be a new species with those of other species in the genus. A hitherto unknown molecular/ genetic feature translates into a new discovery. Since 2012, ZSI has been conducting molecular taxonomic studies, which include chromosomal mapping and DNA barcoding to genetically characterise species and their variations in the natural population. ZSI already has its molecular systematic laboratories at its headquarters at Kolkata and regional centres of Chennai and Dehradun. It is now setting up new laboratories in Hyderabad and Pune. BSI's laboratory for molecular studies is located in Howrah.

Get the findings published

Approach ZSI and BSI to catalogue the discovery in their annual publications released on June 5, the World Environment Day. These publications are recognised as referrals for biodiversity and taxonomic studies, says Paramjit Singh, director of BSI. One can also approach other national institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Wildlife Institute of India, Derhadun, or international institutions such as International Union for Conservation of Nature to get the findings published. One can also get the findings published in any standard national/international scientific journal, say ZooTaxa.


Courtesy: taibif.tw
Lark comes home

GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK
Calandrella brachydactyla dukhunensis
REPORTED BY: S Rajesh Kumar and C Raghunathan from Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Port Blair; G Maheswaran and K Venkataraman from ZSI, Kolkata
LOCATION OF FINDING: Landfall Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

One winter afternoon, a scientist with ZSI was taking a stroll on the seashore of Landfill Island Wildlife Sanctuary, one of India’s endemic bird areas. He suddenly spotted a sparrow-like bird actively foraging in the sand; it walked quickly and sporadically picked up items from the ground. The scientist could not identify it immediately, but was able to take several photographs. Later review showed that the bird had fine streaks on its forehead, its bill was pale pinkish, cylindrical and shorter, and underparts were white. The features suggested that it is the eastern race of the greater short-toed lark. The bird, Calandrella brachydactyla dukhunensis, is not new to ornithologists. It has an extremely large range, and breeds across southern Europe, North Africa, Turkey, southern Russia and Mongolia. As winter approaches, the race dukhunensis migrates in compact flocks southwards. This is for the first time the bird has been recorded from the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Based on old records of dukhunensis from southern Myanmar, scientists say the bird might have arrived on the Andamans via Myanmar.

Courtesy: WWF INDIA
Last guard of a singer's family

SPOTTED WREN-BABBLER
Elachura formosa
DISCOVERED BY: Per Alstrom from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala
LOCATION OF FINDING: Arunachal Pradesh

It looks like any other songbird—wrens and wren-babblers—and is so shy that it remains hidden in dense forests throughout the mountains of eastern Himalayas and southeast China. This is the reason, ornithologists had for decades thought it was a variant of wren-babbler and clubbed it under the genus Spelaeornis and named it S formosus. They realised its distinct identity in 2014 while studying evolutionary history of Asian songbirds using a computer-enabled technology that analyses large DNA data sets to reconstruct family trees. The data shows that spotted wren-babbler is neither a wren nor a wren-babbler. In fact, it has no close living relatives at all. Further investigations showed that the bird has distinct morphological features and vocalisation patterns. It measures about 10 cm and has a short tail. It is brown above, white below, with rufous wings. It has white speckles all over its body and black stripes on its wings and tail. During breeding season, the males sing their characteristic, high-pitched song, which does not resemble any other continental Asian bird song. The researchers concluded that the spotted wren-babbler is the sole representative of a unique avian family that is the earliest surviving evolutionary offshoot in perching birds, and named it Elachura formosa.

Photographs Courtesy: Zoological Survey Of India
Fluke encounter

PARASITIC FLATWORM
Gorgoderina spinosa
DISCOVERED BY: Charles R Bursey from Pennsylvania State University, USA; Anjum N Rizvi and Pallab Maity from ZSI, Uttarakhand
LOCATION OF FINDING: Budhna village, Dehradun, Uttarakhand

It came to notice during a routine study of parasitic worms in a frog, Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis, in Dehradun. The frog is common across eastern and northeastern India and other neighbouring countries. Scientists found one frog harbouring four individuals of an undescribed species of a parasitic flatworm, Gorgoderina. They isolated the parasite from its urinary bladder and named it G spinosa because of the spiny covering on its body and its distinct morphology of vitelline glands that produce yolk cells. With the discovery of G spinosa, Indian amphibians are now host to six of the 55 Gorgoderina species found worldwide. The parasite is known to have a complex life cycle, involving several hosts, right from mollusks to amphibians. It usually infects a frog when the latter ingests an infected organism. The parasite quickly invades its kidneys and bladder and kills it within a few days. It is feared that with landscape alterations, the parasite may change its transmission pattern and infect humans.



The new water sentinel

POND SKATER
Amemboa bifurcata
DISCOVERED BY: Srimoyee Basu and K A Subramanian from ZSI, Kolkata; Dan A Polhemus from Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, USA
LOCATION OF FINDING: Kalikhola, Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal

Though extremely small, pond skaters or water bugs have constantly attracted the attention of scientists for their unique ability to walk on water while staying completely dry. So far, scientists have identified more than 1,700 species of this family, Gerridae. Recently, they have identified one more in Jalpaigudi.

Named Amemboa bifurcata, it is small, oval-shaped and can be easily identified by the silvery markings on the dorsal surface of the body. Unlike other Gerridae species whose front legs are shorter and middle and hind legs are elongated, the hind legs of A bifurcata are relatively shorter than its middle legs.

Understanding Gerridae insects is important as they reflect the concentration of contaminants in their aquatic habitat. Pond skaters have the ability to accumulate high mercury levels. Due to their ubiquity, long life span and predatory nature, scientists often analyse their body to measure mercury build-up in aquatic food chains.


Of a different hue

A TYPE OF MOTH
Capissa alba
DISCOVERED BY: Jagbir Singh Kirti and Rahul Joshi from Punjabi University, Patiala; Navneet Singh from ZSI, Patna
LOCATION OF FINDING: Patnitop, Jammu and Kashmir

When scientists spotted the moth in Patnitop, a hilltop tourist location in the Siwalik belt of the Himalayas, they could easily notice its distinctive features. It differs from other moths due to creamish white wings and triangular lower body. Understanding the diversity of moth species and the density of their populations is important as this nocturnal insect acts as a significant link in the food chain as a prey organism, and innumerable birds, rodents and bats predate on them. They are indicators of the health of an ecosystem as they symbolise the biodiversity richness.

Photo: Mario Madrona
Staring from the web

JUMPING SPIDER
Evarcha flavocinta
REPORTED BY: Tapan Kumar Roy, Dhruba Chandra Dhali and Dinendra Raychoudhury from University of Calcutta, Kolkata; Sumana Saha from Darjeeling Government College, West Bengal

LOCATION OF FINDING: Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, Nepuchapur Tea Estate and Kailashpur Tea Estate, Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal The species belongs to a family Salticidae, which is represented by 207 species. Scientists spotted the spider while surveying the tea ecosystem of Dooars and its adjoining reserve forests. The remarkable feature of the spider, which actively hunts its prey rather than trapping it in webs, is its four pair of eyes that are arranged in three transverse rows. The anterolateral (first row) eyes are surrounded by horn-like tuft of long, stiff, slightly curved bristles.


Tale of a farmer's insect

A SPRINGTAIL
Entomobrya diskitensis
DISCOVERED BY: Enrique Baquero and and Rafael Jordana from University of Navarra, Spain; Gurupada Mandal from ZSI, Kolkata
LOCATION OF FINDING: Ganglatok village, Diskit district, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir

It is one of the seven wingless insects, commonly called springtails, that scientists had found during a trip in 2008 to Ladakh as part of the Cold Desert Expedition of ZSI. The scientists had found the species in the leaf litter of agricultural products in one of the localities in Ladakh.

With eight eyes and a length of 2.6 mm, excluding antennae, E diskitensis is typically pale yellow. Its dorsal body is covered with lateral violet-blue irregular lines. Like several other springtails, E diskitensis is beneficial for agriculture. Being a litter dweller, it is responsible for the control and dissemination of organic matter and microorganisms in the soil.



Friendly parasite

BEE-LIKE INSECT
Mischotetrastichus keralensis
DISCOVERED BY: T C Narendran, C Bijoy and K Rajmohana from ZSI, Kerala
LOCATION OF FINDING: Mannavanshola, Idukki district, Kerala

Hymenoptera is the third largest order of insects and comprises wasps, bees and ants that may be parasitic, carnivorous, phytophagous or omnivorous. The recently discovered Mischotetrastichus keralensis is a Hymenopteran parasite. It acts as an important biological control agent as it feeds on insect pests, such as parasitic wood wasps that attack wood-boring beetles; and a variety of wasps that parasitise many moths, butterflies, wood-boring beetles, several crop pests, orchard pests and scale insects.


Courtesy:deepnreef.com
Announcing presence

FASCIOLARIID SNAIL
Granulifusus poppei
REPORTED BY: Ravnish R, A Biju Kumar and K V Dhaneesh from University of Kerala; K Preetha from Christian College, Kerala; S George from Rajeev Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram
LOCATION OF FINDING: Kerala coast

Though exact range of geographical distribution of this species of sea snail is not known, it had never been recorded from the Indian coast before. In 2013 three specimens of G poppei were collected by bottom trawlers at an average depth of 100 m off the Kerala coast. DNA analysis confirmed that the shell, which is whitish to light brown in colour, is of G poppei.


Photographs: Courtesy: Journal Of Threatened Taxa
Hidden in trees

TREE BARK-DWELLING SPIDER
Hersilia aadi
DISCOVERED BY: G B Pravalikha, Chelmala Srinivasulu and Bhargavi Srinivasulu from University College of Science, Osmania University,Hyderabad
LOCATION OF FINDING: Osmania University, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Species of genus Hersilia are typically long-legged, medium-sized spiders. They are commonly found on tree trunks, and are known as bark spiders or two-tailed spiders. Though first identified in 1820 and is known to be present across Asian and African tropical regions, only six species of Hersilia are known to scientists. Recently scientists have spotted another species, Hersilia aadi, on the bark of neem (Azadirachta indica) and Polyalthia cerasoides trees in the Osmania University campus, Hyderabad. The scientists say the species diversity in the family Hersiliidae is under-represented and future research can result in the discovery of more species.


Courtesy: novataxa.blogspot.in
Serpentine fish

RAY-FINNED FISH
Aborichthys cataracta
REPORTED BY: M Arunachalam, M Raja, P Malaiammal and R L Mayden from Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu
LOCATION OF FINDING: Hong village, Upper Subanshri district, Arunachal Pradesh

The genus Aborichthys was first described in 1913 based on specimens in streams and rivers of Abor hills in northeastern India. The type species was described as Aborichthys kempi. Since then, five additional species have been added to the genus from northeastern India, with the latest being A cataracta. Scientists found it in a small creek near a waterfall in Upper Subanshri district. This serpentine-shaped fish grows up to 9. 3 cm and has elongated snout. Its caudal fin (tail) is round and wide; dorsal fin has nine rays and the anal fin has six rays. Females are larger than males. Its sand-coloured body is covered with thin wavy stripes.



It's a genus

FRESHWATER CRAB
Ghatiana aurantiaca
DISCOVERED BY: S K Pati and R M Sharma from ZSI, Pune
LOCATION OF FINDING: Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, Raigad district, Maharashtra

One monsoon, when people living in the vicinity of the Phansad wildlife sanctuary spotted small orange-red crabs, they thought it was an invasive species from Australia. When ZSI scientists investigated the claims, they discovered that the truth was more fascinating than the story the locals reiterated. A closer look at the crustacean revealed that not only was it a species that had not been recorded so far, but also its characteristics were so distinct that it could not be classified under any of the existing genera of crabs. It was a species from a new genus. Since the crab was found in the Western Ghats, the scientists named the genus Ghatiana and the species Ghatiana aurantiaca after its red-orange colour. Locating the crabs is difficult as the species is usually active during the rainy season and at night. Most of the time they crawl into crevices of rocks and tree trunks or remain hidden in burrows near streams.

Scientists say the newly described crab is both ecologically and economically important, as it plays a significant role in nutrient cycle and water quality monitoring. They also play the role of an intermediate link in the food chain of natural habitat; they prey upon small aquatic organisms, and, at the same time, are predated by birds and mammals.

Courtesy: clubplongeemask.blogspot.in
A voracious coral

A TYPE OF CORAL
Nemalecium lighti
RECORDED BY: Pooja Nagale and Deepak Apte from Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai
LOCATION OF FINDING: Poshitra, Gujarat

The coral is quite common in tropical shallow waters. But this is for the first time the species has been recorded in the Indian waters. In fact, this is for the first time scientists have recorded any Nemalecium species from Indian waters. They found N lighti in Poshitra, a relatively pristine coral reef flat in the Gulf of Kachchh. This live hard coral is present in erect colonies, both branched and unbranched. Its unique feature is its large and elongated polyps, armed with nematocysts, which help the coral feed on a variety of small organisms. The species is also known for its fast growth and high production rate.


Small and shy

FRESHWATER CRAB
Gubernatoriana triangulus
DISCOVERED BY: S K Pati and R M Sharma from ZSI, Pune
LOCATION OF FINDING: Mahabaleshwar, Satara district; Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary and Tamhini Ghat, Pune district, Maharashtra

Measuring less than 2 centimetres, this tiny crab’s unique features are its smooth, squarish and brown carapace (chitinous case covering its back) and a triangular subterminal segment of male gonopod (specialised appendages modified for reproduction). So far, the species has been found only in the Western Ghats. They are active mainly during rainy season (June to September) and usually dwell under small stones along stream banks. Local tribal communities eat it. The finding is important because the Western Ghats remains largely under-explored for crustacean species. In fact, a large number of freshwater shrimps and crabs in the region are in danger of becoming extinct due to increasing human activity in their habitat and irregularities in their classification and documentation.


Credit: Mirza And Sanap
A lizard from the old world

LEOPARD GECKO
Eublepharis satpuraensis
DISCOVERED BY: Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap from National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru
LOCATION OF FINDING: Pachmarhi, Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh; Popatkhed, Amaravathi, Maharashtra

It is believed that the lineage that gave rise to the genus Eublepharis, commonly called leopard geckos, evolved in Asian forests some 100 million years ago and likely invaded India after the accretion of the Indian plate to mainland Eurasia. This old world lizard is by far one of the least studied lizards in India, and so far only three species have been identified. Scientists found the new gecko species while studying amphibians in the Satpura Hills. They compared the collected specimens with museum material and concluded that it belongs to a new species. They named it E satpuraensis after the region where it was found. Since the species is nocturnal and secretive in nature, very few people in the locality were aware of it. The new species of Eublepharis from India highlights the need for dedicated herpetofaunal surveys across the country and especially in the Satpura Hills, known for rich biodiversity.

Courtesy: Journal Of Threatened Taxa

Purple surprise

PURPLE-SPOTTED SEA SLUG
Chromodoris aspersa
Recorded by: Deepak Apte and A Vishal Bhave from Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai
LOCATION OF FINDING: Kavaratti, Lakshadweep

This white sea slug with deep violet spots on its body can be easily spotted across the Indo-Pacific region that comprises the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and seas connecting the two. But this is for the first time scientists have spotted it in the Indian waters.

They spotted it hiding under dead coral boulders in the Lakshadweep archipelago during low tides. Measuring 16-33 mm, all the specimens were mid-sized, which are rarely seen. The finding underscores the need for more intensive surveys around the archipelago.


Credit: Mirza And Sanap
Spotted, but not in the wild

THE HOUSE GECKO
Hemidactylus acanthopholis
DISCOVERED BY: Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap from National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru
LOCATION OF FINDING: Thirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

This large rock-dwelling species is mostly found on large boulders, caves and forts and is said to be spread across the Western Ghats. But herpetologists Mirza and Sanap did not discover the species in the fields, but in a collection at the National History Museum in London. They compared it with other known species at that museum as well as at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco; the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai; and ZSI, Kolkata; and found that the species is indeed distinct. They named it Hemidactylus acanthopholis due to the large warty outgrowths on its back. It grows up to a length of 20-23 cm and sports a brown shade with dark undulating bands on its back.

Photo: Sathyabhama Das Biju
Little dancing fighter

DANCING FROG
Micrixalus kurichiyari
Discovered by: Sathyabhama Das Biju from University of Delhi
LOCATION OF FINDING: Kurichiyarmala, Wayanad district, Kerala

It belongs to a genus, Micrixalus, that has been hopping about since the time when dinosaurs roamed on earth. Scientists spotted an amphibian belonging to this ancient genus following a decade-long search across the Western Ghats. Its small size—measuring 13 to 35 mm long, M kurichiyari is no bigger than a bee—and the colour of its skin that acts as a perfect camouflage makes it more difficult to spot. Following the annual monsoon, when rainforest streams reach the ideal level for breeding, it is relatively easy to find these frogs. Males can be found calling from surface of wet rocks, usually near falls and splash zones of small, fast-flowing streams, with their noticeable flashy white vocal sacs. During the breeding season, both male and female species are seen stretching their hind legs away from the body and waving a fully extended webbed foot. While this resembles a dancing pose, scientists have observed that the frog uses the move to mark its territory and kick any intruder. Female dancing frogs also show similar behaviour when it comes to laying eggs.


Credit: Abhijeet Bayani
Hopping all the way

AMBOLI LEAPING FROG
Indirana chiravasi
DISCOVERED BY: Anand D Padhye and Nikhil Modak from Abasaheb Garware College, and Neelesh Dahanukar from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, in Maharashtra
LOCATION OF FINDING: Amboli, Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra

This new species was spotted while scientists were studying the diversity and distribution of species under the genus Indirana in the Western Ghats region of Maharashtra. Called leaping frog, or Indirana chiravasi, its unique features include its longer head and single internal vocal sac.

The species is often found in the crevices of the laterite boulders. The skin colour of male I chiravasi changes from grey to brown and olive brown with scattered yellow markings. This helps them merge into their surrounding environment, which is usually wet rocks or boulders covered with mosses. Males are mostly seen while calling from these mossy rocks. Females, however, remain in groups under logs in the forest or under roadside stones. They lay eggs under the mosses on lateritic wet rocks and boulders. Unlike other amphibians, unhatched eggs show the embryos with external gills and hatchlings remain at the egg laying site. In fact, embryos, hatchlings and tadpoles of two different stages are observed in the same habitat and tadpoles are seen feeding on algal matter on wet boulders.

It is the 11th species of Indirana found in the Western Ghats. Since these species are highly threatened, scientists call for urgent studies to understand their distribution patterns. Additional information on ecology and natural history would help design conservation measures to save the species.


Courtesy: Journal Of Threatened Taxa
Hiding in India

MARINE GASTROPOD MOLLUSK
Elysia rufescens
Reported by: Deepak Apte and A Vishal Bhave from Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai
LOCATION OF FINDING: Kavaratti, Lakshadweep

Though common in shallow exposed reef areas of Myanmar, Guam, Indonesia, Australia, Tahiti, Hawaii, South Africa, the Philippines, Samoa and Japan, this is for the first time scientists have spotted the marine shell-less snail in western part of the Indian Ocean. Ranging between 20 mm and 40 mm, its skin is olive green in colour, profusely mottled with white patches. Edge of its parade has red band and egg case is white. Scientists found the species under dead coral boulders and shallow pools from where they had collected 60 other species from the same group. This shows that the region could be home to many more species than thought.

Standing out

WILD BANANA
Musa argentii
DISCOVERED BY: Rajib Gogoi and Souravjyoti Borah from Botanical Survey of India, Arunachal Pradesh Regional Centre, Itanagar
LOCATION OF FINDING: Lohit district, Arunachal Pradesh

Wild bananas are native to the humid tropical forests that extend from India to the Pacific countries. Unlike other crops, bananas are difficult to classify as one cannot make a proper judgement about them from herbarium specimens without living material; preparing voucher specimens is difficult owing to the large size of the plants; and distinguishing cultivars from the species is also difficult. This is the reason, wild bananas have not received sufficient attention by scientists although northeastern India is the fruit’s microcentre of evolution. Recently, scientists spotted a different variety of banana in Lohit district. Based on its morphological features, they declared it a new species and named it Musa argentii in the honour of George Argent of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, who had described banana family.

Long pedicel means more fruits

WILD BANANA
Musa nagalandiana
DISCOVERED BY: Santanu Dey from Nagaland University, Kohima, and Rajib Gogoi from BSI, Kolkata
LOCATION OF FINDING: Nagaland

Scientists spotted this species in tropical semi-evergreen forest on the bank of the river Doyang in Zunheboto district of Nagaland. Its unique features are: yellowish-orange pseudostem with brown or black blotches; male bud that lifts many bracts at a time; much longer ovary in male flowers; and longer fruiting pedicel.

The species has been named after Nagaland, from where scientists collected it. Its discovery signifies the need for more research on banana species in the northeastern India, which is considered the microcentre of evolution of banana.

Photographs Courtesy: Botanical Survey Of India

Try for its orange pulp

WILD BANANA
Musa indandamanesis
DISCOVERED BY: Lal Ji Singh from BSI, Port Blair
LOCATION OF FINDING: Andaman and Nicobar islands

Scientists discovered the species in a remote tropical rainforest, Krishna Nalah forest, in the Little Andaman island.

They describe it as a distinct global species with unique green flowers and fruit bunch lux (axis) thrice the size of a regular banana species.

Unlike the other banana species that have conical flowers, the flowers of M indandamanesis are cylindrical. The fruit pulp is orange, edible and very sweet.

They named the species after joint spelling of India and the Andamans.

Forgotten flower

A TYPE OF ORCHID
Eria gloensis
DISCOVERED BY: Paul Ormerod from Australia and D K Agrawala from BSI, Sikkim
LOCATION OF FINDING: Mishmi Hills, Kamlang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh

It was a sheer accident. Scientists discovered this species of orchid (Orchidaceae) among the material kept at the herbaria of Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, while preparing a synopsis of the Malesian taxa of Cylindrolobus, a plant species of the family Orchidaceae endemic to the Philippines. The specimen was originally collected from the Mishmi Hills by Frank Kingdon Ward in 1949. Following critical observation, the scientists found that the specimen was an undescribed species of Cylindrolobus. Its flowers are cream coloured and externally pubescent.



Rare and endangered

AN ORNAMENTAL PLANT
Impatiens paramjitiana
DISCOVERED BY: Rajib Gogoi and Souravjyoti Borah from BSI, Itanagar
LOCATION OF FINDING: Daporijo, Along, West Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh

Scientists came across this species with deep purple flowers and shiny velvety leaves arranged in floral shapes, during an expedition to the Siang valley. They realised that the species falls in the family Impatiens but is yet to be described. They named it Impatiens paramjitiana, giving honour to Paramjit Singh, director of BSI, for his contribution to Indian plant taxonomy. The scientists could find only 50 plants along the road side and saw that its habitat was disturbed heavily by urbanisation and agriculture. They say the species is “critically endangered” as per the IUCN Red List criteria.

How about a temple name

SHADE TREE
Glochidion tirupathiense
DISCOVERED BY: Alok R Chorghe, L Rasingam, P V Prasanna and M Sankara Rao from BSI, Hyderabad
LOCATION OF FINDING: Tirumala hills, Andhra Pradesh

It was right there, along the bank of a stream on Tirumala Hills, which is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every day. But unique features of this shade tree remained unnoticed until a group of scientists visited moist deciduous forests on the hills.

Known as Seshachalam, the forest is the first biosphere reserve in Andhra Pradesh. They named the tree after the locality, the famous temple town of Tirupathi. As per the IUCN guidelines, the species is data- deficient since only a few individuals could be located.

Lone beauty
AN ORCHID
Habenaria nicobarica
DISCOVERED BY: C Murugan, Joju P Alappatt from Forest Training Institute, Port Blair; S Prabhu from BSI, Port Blair; and W Arisdason from BSI, Kolkata
LOCATION OF FINDING: Little Nicobar Tribal Reserve, Pulopaha, South Nicobar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a repository of diverse species, including 25 endemic orchid species. The genus Habenaria is estimated to have about 750 species that are distributed across the world. Of these, 100 are recorded from India and only one species, H andamanica, from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This is the reason the species has been named after its place of collection. Scientists came across the orchid with light brown flowers during an exploration in Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve and Little Nicobar Tribal Reserve.


Courtesy: Blumea
Gourd of confusion
A VARIETY OF GOURD
Herpetospermum operculatum
DISCOVERED BY: K Pradheep, A Pandey, K C Bhatt, E R Nayar from the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Pusa Campus, New Delhi
LOCATION OF FINDING: South District of Sikkim, Phek district of Nagaland

Researchers came across this gourd variety while on a survey tour to Sikkim and Nagaland for germplasm collection of cultivated cucumbers and their wild relatives during 2011 and 2012. Though it superficially resembled a cucumber, Luffa mill, it had strikingly different flowers, fruit and seed anatomy. Besides, the climber had distinct male and female characteristics. The scientists compared its features with digital images in online herbaria worldwide, and found that similar plants from Myanmar and China were kept under the name Biswarea tonglensis and Herpetospermum pedunculosum. Though the scientists have named it H operculatum, they are yet to determine its vulnerability due to confusion with two other species.



Lost in garden
INDIAN CYCAS
Cycas sainathii
DISCOVERED BY: R C Srivastava from BSI, Kolkata
LOCATION OF FINDING: Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, Shibpur, Howrah

This is incredulous. With dense foliage on top, the plant is quite big in girth size and height (3 m), and grows in a top botanical garden. Yet, it remained unnoticed by researchers. Botanist R C Srivastava studied the specimen closely and realised that it is a different species of Cycas. He named it in honour of saint Sai Baba of Shirdi. He says it was probably introduced from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands long back but was never studied closely. The discovery is important as Cycas happen to be living fossils, existing since the days of dinosaurs and have undergone very little evolution.


COURTESY: PHYTOTAXA
Wonder mushroom
A FUNGUS
Dermoloma keralense
DISCOVERED BY: K Anil Raj, K P Deepna Latha, Raihana Paramban and P Manimohan from University of Calicut, Kerala
LOCATION OF FINDING: Thenmala Shenduruni Forest Division, Kollam district, Kerala

Scientists spotted the fungus in small groups among litter on forest floor. Morphological features showed that the fungi is part of a small genus, Dermoloma, which has only 24 species worldwide.

The scientists have named it after the state where it was first observed. While most species of Dermoloma are found in temperate regions, D keralense is the second known fungi species found in the wet tropical climate of Kerala. The other fungi, D indicum, has been discovered from the Peechi forest in Kerala’s Thrissur district. Both the species have distinct features from all other previously reported species of the genus.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Related Stories
Related Video

India Environment Portal Resources :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.