New Delhi: Kerala-born Satyabhama Das Biju is an amphibian biologist and has discovered more than a hundred new frog species. A plant scientist, his fascination for frogs started 25 years ago. The discoveries that stemmed from his personal work have resulted in Biju having probably the most productive amphibian research laboratories in the world, which he established a decade back.
Fifty-two-year-old Biju is head of the Systematics Lab Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, leading a team of young and dynamic researchers. Popularly known as the ‘Frogman of India’, he can easily be regarded as the world’s foremost amphibian expert.
He claims the world has about 7,000 species of frogs and half of them are on the verge of extinction. Frogs have an extraordinary history of evolution of more than 350 million years. In his relentless pursuit, he goes into the forest with a team of researchers and discovers new species of frogs. He has formally described over 80 new species, eight genera and two new families.
Born into a family of farmers, Biju worked as a junior scientist at a research facility. His job was to explore plants and find out about their utility. But that bored him. Using his modest salary, he bought a camera and a motorcycle and began exploring the forests in southern India. That’s when he found himself drawn towards frogs.
He speaks to Gulf News.
GULF NEWS: What’s your latest discovery?
SATYABHAMA DAS BIJU: About a fortnight back (March 30), we discovered the remarkable tadpoles of Indian dancing frogs. These tadpoles have eel-like bodies and live under soil and gravel beds unlike other tadpoles that swim in water. They swallow sand and sediments. Early this year, we discovered a new genus of canopy dwelling tree frogs that breed inside tree holes. The mother exhibits remarkable parental care by laying unfertilised eggs to feed her young ones until they metamorphose into baby frogs. Rediscovered in the forests of north-east India, the tree frog, thought to be extinct for more than a century, remains under threat with the region’s tropical forests disappearing because of cutting trees, planting rice, expanding human settlements and building roads. The frogs were very difficult to locate, as they live in tree holes at heights up to 20 feet above ground. It was found accidentally when we heard a full musical orchestra coming from treetops!
Is it correct that a frog has been named after you?
Yes, some researchers named a new species of tree frog after me as Polypedates bijui. In general, tree frogs are a group of beautifully coloured small frogs that are found on vegetation — from short bushes up to 20-foot-high tree canopies. From this group, I have described about 20 new species, including the first canopy frog.
When and how was the smallest frog discovered?
The smallest (10 millimetre) Indian frog, which can sit on a coin, is considered the smallest in the world. It was discovered in 2007 from forest streams in Kerala during one of our field expeditions in the Western Ghats. When we came across this tiny frog, we almost ignored it, assuming it to be the baby of another frog. But one evening, during the monsoon, we heard this frog call. Since usually, only adult male frogs call to attract female frogs for mating, we grabbed this frog and examined it. Based on DNA studies, we described this frog as a new species.
Which are your other interesting discoveries? Where are these kept?
I was fortunate to find from the Western Ghats an entirely new and unique family of frogs that live under the soil, as deep as 20 feet. They come above the ground for less than two to three weeks in a year for reproduction. It was named Nasikabatrachus. (‘Nasika’ meaning nose in Sanskrit and ‘batrachus’ means frog in Greek). Most of these are deposited in national museums after formal description.
Which frog species has fascinated you the most?
I love frogs and it is my passion to learn more about them. I never consider this as part of my job. It is sheer joy and excitement for me to search frogs in the wild, understand them and document these unique creatures. But yes, the Indian Purple frog that I discovered in 2003 changed my life professionally. It got me a lot of recognition and I gained popularity because of it.
How many more discoveries are yet to be made and how do you come to know that those species still exist?
It is not possible to conduct a field expedition simply to search for new species. We stumble upon new findings while we conduct extensive expeditions at appropriate time (usually during the breeding season) and at places having the potential to harbour high amphibian diversity. I believe several more amphibians and other life forms still remain to be discovered and described. Specifically in the case of amphibians, at least another 100 more undescribed species exist in India.
What steps must India take to preserve its unique amphibian fauna?
We should be proud of the rich biological diversity that our forests harbour. We need to give due credit to all forms of life, especially the lower forms like amphibians, which play an equally important role in the ecosystem just as large animals. My work is an effort in this direction and frogs are one of the most beautiful mediums (unlike the usual perception people have of the grey, brown, slimy or ugly frogs) that communicate the wonders of nature to people.
Biju’s amphibian journey
• Born and raised in Kerala in the town of Kadakkal, Satyabhama Das Biju spent his childhood herding cows.
• He did his Master’s in Botany from Kerala University in 1987 and obtained his PhD in Plant Systematics in 1999 from Calicut University.
• He worked as a scientist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, Kerala.
• Bored with plants, he quit his research in plant science in 2000 and following his pioneering fieldwork in the Western Ghats, worked in the Amphibian Evolution Lab, Brussels for his PhD on Indian frogs.
• In 2008, he was conferred with the Sabin Award by International Union for Conservation of Nature.
• In 2011, he received the Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award for discovering several new species of frogs.
• He launched a unique nationwide campaign called Lost Amphibians of India to rediscover ‘lost’ species of frogs, not sighted for over two centuries.