Ashish Thomas studies the Indian Purple Frog, possibly one of the world’s wierdest amphibians. Only discovered in 2003, it’s so unusual as well as threatened, that it ranks up at No. 4 on the EDGE of Existance priority amphibians list collated by ZSL. Whilst we know almost nothing about this species, Ashish is trying to rectify this problem to help develop an effective conservation management plan. Here he tells us more about this enigmatic frog and what life is like in rural India.
Name: Ashish Thomas
Species: Indian Purple Frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis)
Location: Western Ghats, India
Bio: I recently finished my doctoral research (in 2014) from the University of Delhi under the supervision of Dr. SD Biju. My research focussed on Systematics, Reproductive Biology and Conservation of the Indian Purple Frog. Currently I am working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi and teach Ecology and Environmental Studies to undergraduate students.
Please tell us about yourself. What do you work on currently and how did you get into conservation?
My initial training during undergraduate and Masters programs was heavily tilted towards molecular biology and Biochemistry. However, joining an amphibian lab (www.frogindia.org) for my doctoral program and choosing the Purple Frog as my topic of research ignited in me the passion for Biodiversity research and conservation. Five years of chasing the world’s most elusive frog has strengthened my resolve to work towards conservation of amphibians in India, most importantly for the Purple Frog. I have recently won a Rufford Small Grant for a project that focuses on conservation of the Indian Purple frog through threat identification, area prioritization and community education.
My study species, Indian Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), is one of the most ancient lineages of frogs having originated about 100 million years ago. The Purple frog is endemic to the Western Ghats of India and its distribution is restricted to southern part of this mountain range.
Recent studies have shed considerable light on the biology of this enigmatic species. The Purple frog is fossorial, which means it can stay underground all throughout the year and emerges out only for breeding activities. The frog has been found at depths of 5-7 meters! As of now there is not much information about their underground activities. Populations of this species are localised near seasonal streams where they complete their life cycle. Males of the species begin vocalizing at the onset of the pre-monsoon showers and male-female pairs lay eggs in cavities and depressions in the stream. Fertilization is external. Tadpoles are very unique and are found clinging onto the rocky floor of the stream. Complete development from an egg to juvenile occurs in about 90-100 days.
Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis has often been considered as the flagship species for amphibian conservation in India, particularly in the Western Ghats. It is categorized as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Redlist. Of particular concern is the extensive degradation of the habitat of this species owing to large-scale anthropogenic activities. Hence, conservation of this species is an urgent priority and requires a concerted effort from all relevant stakeholders.
As part of my research, I work mostly in tribal areas in Kerala that are located within the distribution range of the Purple frog. These tribal settlement areas are located mostly on the outskirts of protected areas and are less disturbed compared to the more urbanized locations.
Most places are accessible by public and private transport like buses and jeep, but some locations require a bit of trekking. I stay with the tribal families or in forest department lodges. Most tribal homes lack basic amenities like electricity and clean water for example, so one has to be willing to survive on meagre means.
Over the last few years, I have developed very close relations with some tribal families. They lend support by assisting in my field studies and also provide me with food and accommodation. They also have good knowledge about the natural history and behaviour of species living in their area and the information provided by them is often very vital. Since the purple frog is so rare and hard to find, having a good network with locals is very important for my research, since more often than not, one has to rely on their vital information for locating and studying this species.
Being close to nature: It’s always very refreshing to be in the field. My research gives me opportunity to visit the most pristine places and this, I feel, is the best part of my research.
Unravelling nature’s mystery: Understanding the biology of an enigmatic species like Purple frog is both challenging and satisfying. Although it requires the utmost patience, the sense of satisfaction on achieving my objective is extremely overwhelming. The more I get to understand about this rare species, the more I am in awe of nature, its myriad of creations and their intricacies.
Getting to meet new people and knowing about various cultures: Field research gives me the opportunity to meet new people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Interacting with these people is always an enriching experience.
Educating people about biodiversity and conservation: The most satisfying aspect of my work is about creating awareness and educating people about conservation and then to see the positive result of that effort. I firmly believe that the common public is the most important stakeholder for the success of any conservation program. Hence, educating them should be a top priority of conservation researchers whenever and wherever possible.
Getting Forest Permissions: Forest department officials are hard nuts to crack and it is quite difficult to convince them and obtain permissions for field research, more so for early career scientists!
Small window of activity of the frog: As mentioned earlier, this species becomes terrestrially active only for a very short duration of about two weeks per year. Hence all the research plans need to be executed within this short time frame. Once the breeding period is over, it is not possible to locate the frog from above the ground and one has to wait until the next year!
Torrential rains and night ventures on difficult terrain: The species is mainly localised around montane seasonal streams. Once the monsoon begins, the stream rocks become extremely slippery and one has to be very careful while surveying the stream, especially during night surveys. Torrential rains, which are common to this region, also hamper the surveys and at times, can be damaging to the scientific equipment that I carry.
1) Be passionate about nature and conservation: Field-work is hard and if you are not passionate, it might become all the more painful.
2) Make a very good rapport with locals, especially tribal people: If you are working on a rare species, then it is extremely important to develop a good rapport with locals and also develop a good network. It is also important to utilise the anecdotal information that you receive from the locals, as more often than not, they have quite a decent knowledge about various cohabiting species.
3) Every minute detail should be properly recorded on a daily basis: Never ignore any information or data that you obtain, whether experimentally, serendipitously or from interaction with locals. It may not seem useful at that point of time, but might end up being very crucial later on. Maintaining discipline in recording data also is extremely vital.
4) Be extremely patient: Field studies, especially about behavioural aspects, tend to be extremely time consuming, more so in case of rare species. One needs to have loads of patience. If you are determined and persistent, things will fall into place sooner or later.
5) Utilise the available time and opportunity maximally and efficiently: While working in the field, the actual time of interaction with the animal is minimal. So it is important to have a very clear idea of the objectives and the experimental procedures/techniques that need to be implemented. An ability to think on your feet can be very handy as one should be ready to quickly improvise if a particular protocol or technique is not working.