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Night song of the frog

Scientist Sathyabhama Das Biju's fascination with the amphibian manifests in startling discoveries and incredible photography

Published: Oct 6, 2016 06:10:45 AM IST
Updated: Oct 3, 2016 07:06:04 PM IST
Night song of the frog
Image: Sonali Garg
Setting up a picture at night involves science and photography skills, says Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju

Discovering unknown frog species is a calling. It has to be. Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju heeded his and is now among the foremost experts on the amphibians in the world. From his discovery of a new frog family in 2003, considered a once-in-a-century-find, to his recent one involving an astonishing new mating position, Biju has consistently brought these beings into global limelight.

The 53-year-old from Kerala heads the Systematics Lab he established at the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Delhi. And, in less than two decades of his professional career as an amphibian systematist, his efforts have thrown up over 100 new species and formally described 80 new species, eight new genera and two new families of amphibians. In 2011, Biju was the recipient of the Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award for his “extraordinary passion which led to the discovery of several new species”. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature too recognised his “extreme dedication to discover and conserve the vanishing amphibian fauna” by conferring him the Sabin Award.

But it isn’t just all science and accolades for Biju. He believes in the significance of each species, and dismisses the superiority of one kind of living creature over the other. So the frog isn’t just a curiosity to him but a being that deserves nurturing and attention, he tells ForbesLife India in this interview. Here are edited excerpts:

Q. Your discovery of a new family of frogs in 2003 has been universally acknowledged as a ‘once-in-a-century’ find.
I will always remember the date. October 16 was the day when my discovery of the Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) was published in the prestigious journal Nature. That requires more than just the quality of research. The behaviour and nature of the purple frog was like nothing they had heard of before.

Discovering a new family is very rare in the world of science. Describing a species is one thing, but describing a new family at a higher level of the classification system was a thrill. This discovery proved the bio-geographical relationship between India and Africa, as relatives of this frog are found in Seychelles (northeast of Madagascar). The next day, media across the globe splashed the news about this new family of frogs.

Q. How did you come upon this frog?
It was an accidental discovery. I am notoriously popular around the Idukki area in Kerala. Whenever anyone sees a frog, they call me: ‘Biju, there’s this frog hopping around on my verandah’ (laughs). One late evening, a friend called to say they’d come upon a creature while digging a well. They had found it 15 feet under the soil and weren’t even sure if it was a frog. The digger had inadvertently chopped it in two. I rushed there at 3 in the morning. It looked neither like a turtle nor a frog. I collected its tissue to study its genetics. Thereafter, I spread the word, and spent a month looking for them [the species]; I got a call from another village in a plantation area in Kattappana in Idukki district. I saw a bunch of them, male and female, croaking away. I took a couple and started studying their bioacoustics and so on. The locals said they’d seen them around for just about two days in all of a year. I had just begun my second PhD in Animal Science then, in Brussels. This is the first paper I published in Nature with my supervisor. It’s a sentimental attachment: The purple frog made my life.

Night song of the frog
Image: Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju
The Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) family, discovered by Dr Biju, is usually found 18 feet under the soil and comes up to breed about once a year

Q. It’s a strange looking frog.
It is. It looks like a turtle, or a little pig. They live deep—about 18 feet under the soil—for most of the year, coming out for about eight days pre-monsoon, mainly to breed. Soon after, they go underground again.

Q. Aren’t frogs as ancient as dinosaurs?
Frogs are living fossils. With 230 million years of evolutionary history, frogs are the first land animals with a backbone that moved on earth. They are among the few living beings with us who have witnessed all the five mass extinctions.

Q. But how do you go looking for a frog you haven’t seen or heard of before?
Finding the potential habitat is tricky. Many people work in the same habitat, but I see the frogs that others don’t! So it’s an ability or experience, I guess.

Q. Well, you’ve grown up with the forest in your backyard, literally.
Fortunately, I was born in Kadakkal, a remote village close to a forest on the Kollam-Thiruvananthapuram border. We moved to Madathura, where we lived for a long time. I learnt a lot from nature. We could see a wild elephant in our backyard every day. I helped my parents from a young age in earning our livelihood. We had a small plot of land that we tilled. I bathed the cows, fed the chickens, walked every morning for five kilometres to sell the milk to a shop. It’s a life I cherished. That’s my strength.

Q. You had no formal schooling?
I had no formal education, not until the age of 11. My father was unusual; he put no pressure on me to do my schooling. He is my role model, my mentor and my hero. He influenced my life. All the nature I observed in my childhood laid the foundation of my future research. Frankly, I still don’t think you need a degree to do research.

Q. People thought you were bluffing when you claimed in 2001 that there are over 100 frog species yet to be discovered.
And in the Western Ghats alone! Before I announced my finding, I had been silently working day and night for nearly nine years in the biosphere hotspot bordering Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to see and photograph the frogs. My first paper, ‘The synopsis of the frog fauna of Western Ghats’, announced my conclusion that there are more than 100 frogs from this area not known to science, and, potentially, they are all new species. Because I was trained till then as a botanist, there was sarcasm.

Conventional thinking is that one needs a degree to be authentic. Many great scientists here questioned my expertise. I just ignored it. I decided to quit my job, and do formal research for a PhD in Belgium. After a couple of years, those who made disparaging remarks were going around making the same announcements about undiscovered frogs!

Night song of the frog
Image: Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju
Bombay night frog (Nyctibatrachus humayuni)

Q. You did switch from plants to frogs.
Sometimes, one’s job doesn’t align with one’s interests. After my first PhD in Plant Science (in 1999, from the University of Calicut), I worked as a scientist at the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Thiruvananthapuram for 10 years. That’s when I became more interested in frogs than plant research. At my promotion interview, which happens every four years, I was honest about my plan to publish my first paper on frogs the next year. They believed I was making a mistake. I resigned the next day.

Q. You were responding to an inner call.
Between the resignation and my decision to do a PhD in Animal Science, it was a very tough time for about a year. I had a wife and daughter and no safety net, no savings. Coming from the background I did, I had no godfather or mentors in the profession. I wrote letters to many great scientists across the world at places like The Field Museum in Chicago and American Museum of Natural History, to Robert Inger (an American herpetologist), expressing my passion and ambition, submitting my findings and asking for a position to do my PhD.

I chose Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium from the many that responded. That was the turning point in my life. I was granted sufficient money and left undisturbed to do my PhD, while I took on a teaching assignment at the university. I was conferred the degree with the highest distinction. It was a wonderful four years, they respected my work, I published a lot of papers.

Q. This is a reflection of the attitude European universities have, of being so open to someone who is entrepreneurial in his ideas.
Absolutely. That’s what we are lacking here.

Q. Why did you choose to come back then?
Frankly, we are living in a wonderful country. Look at India’s biodiversity! It’s a storehouse of research material. It’s all here. I wouldn’t be able to do the research I am doing today if I was sitting in a university in Europe. Besides, in 2006, I did accept the offer from the University of Delhi to join them as a reader. I was ignorant of the university’s greatness until then (laughs). Delhi is centrally located for my travels to the northeastern part of India that I am now interested in. I have travelled extensively in remote regions all over the Northeast and know it better than many. It is unbelievable.

Q. How different is its biodiversity?
Let me explain: 90 percent of the frogs in the Western Ghats are endemic to the ghats, you don’t find them elsewhere. But the northeastern species are less endemic and are found in neighbouring countries like China, Myanmar and Thailand. Therefore, the study is more challenging in terms of systematics.

Frogs, unlike birds, are difficult to identify from external appearance. Even genetic studies cannot pinpoint the identity of a species sometimes. We have to compare it with many other bio-geographical units, not just the regions within Southeast Asia. There’s a lot of work to be done there.

Q. You did voice your concern that a lot of these species might disappear even before we discover them. But we also know of creatures that evolve from extreme situations.
It’s not easy. Frogs have survived five mass extinctions. But what we are doing now in India, destroying the vegetation—their habitat, is causing the species to deplete rapidly. There’s no way they can survive that. All the conservation efforts revolve around the tiger, elephant or leopard. Have you heard of any strategy concerning the lower forms of life? They don’t even list them as wildlife. This is our responsibility as Indians to our biodiversity. People applying for research grants on lower forms of life are rejected, while five other applications for research on the tiger are prioritised.

Night song of the frog
Image: Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju
Kottigehar dancing frog (Micrixalus kottigeharensis)

Q. I am struck by the quality of these photographs of frogs you’ve taken.
I am a scientist but I do photography because it’s my passion. Frogs are among the most tricky and challenging subjects to photograph in my experience. You know why? Their skin is moist all the time. If you don’t use a flash, you can’t get the colours of the frogs, but if you do [use one], the reflected light from the moist skin drowns out the texture. I spent years fine-tuning the technique. The frog is shapeless from certain angles, and the lenses reinforce that.

Q. Besides, they don’t sit in one place...
They are nocturnal animals. Ninety percent of the species are seen only at night. That’s why it is challenging to track, and photograph one. When we are out in the field, we sleep in the day, and work in the night, from about 6 in the evening till about 3 in the morning. There’s no other way.

Q. Are you telling me most of these photographs were taken at night?
Yes. Take, for example, this frontal view of a frog calling (see picture above), its vocal sacs bulging.  You can’t set that up. You can’t take a picture like that unless you know the science behind the calling hours and time your shot accordingly. These photographs have been published in leading magazines like the National Geographic. I earn some money—other than my salary—from these photographs that I take.

Q. The forest is a fearful place to be in after dusk!
It is a frightening place. Our research always takes us to a deep, remote jungle at night. It’s a real risk. I can only pretend to be brave. When we get back, we take our muddy boots off, and go ‘Ah! safe’. But when we are out there, and we hear the different call of a frog, we completely forget the world.

Q. This is tough.
One can’t set it up. It takes a lot of waiting, because frogs always hide and call. Let’s say there are a bunch of male frogs calling. There’s a limit to approaching a frog. If you do so much as disturb a leaf, they just go silent for half an hour! Or they start moving away. So you wait and wait until you find one that’s [sitting] on an exposed leaf.

Height is a big constraint too. There are frogs that sit on plants about two feet off the ground and there are frogs that live on treetops. A majority of the Western Ghats frogs belong to tree frog groups. Tree frogs never call during the day, only at night under ideal temperature and humidity. Sometimes you get just one shot at them with the flash, after which the frog starts jumping. I shoot using macro lenses and multiple flash set-ups. But I still insist I am a scientist who takes good pictures. There’s a thin line between taking good pictures and being a photographer.

Night song of the frog
Image: Gopinath Sricandane
Biju usually trudges through forests from about 6 in the evening to 3 in the morning

Q. These calls go out very far.
Frogs have vocal sacs to amplify their sound. The purple frog’s calls can be heard half a kilometre away. It has a peculiar moan, like a buffalo’s, not at all like a croak.

Q. Are they all mating calls?
Almost all the calls are to attract a female. There are stress calls too, like frogs make when there’s a snake nearby. In June this year, we discovered a new mating strategy among a species called the Bombay night frog (Nyctibatrachus humayuni) that lives in perennial streams in a village near Koyna in Maharashtra. It’s a new sex position actually! We took several years to discover this. There are 7,000 species across the world and we had only known of six mating positions until now. Our discovery was ‘reported’ by (American late night show host) Stephen Colbert in his show in good humour.

The male and female mate completely differently; there is no physical contact at the time of egg laying and fertilisation. It goes like this: The male clambers above the neck of the female and ejects his sperm onto her back at the very instant that she shrugs him off.  While the male scrambles off, she stays put without moving, and lays her eggs instantly, synchronising it with the sperm that is trickling down her back onto the eggs to fertilise them! (For the curious, the video can be seen on YouTube.)

Q. They take all this trouble and there’s really no pleasure principle in this mating, apart from a purely evolutionary need to propagate their species!
There’s a lot of touching. Unfortunately we can’t ask them if they’re enjoying it!

Q. Frogs are symbols of good luck in some cultures.
True. Frogs are a symbol of the monsoon; they sense it better than anyone. In tribal villages, the call of the purple frog is a definite marker of rain the next day. You’ve heard of frog marriages in Assam and Rajasthan. When there’s a drought, arrangements are made for a wedding, grander than any human’s. It’s a deep-rooted belief that the gods will relent and there’ll be rain soon after.

Q. That western fairy tale reinforced the idea of a frog as ugly.
….and grey and brown. I can challenge you that the variety and variation of colours you can find among frogs surpass those of birds and butterflies. The great artists wouldn’t even have visualised such colours as on a frog. They have unbelievably large popping eyes. I was recently asked to contribute a photograph to a book compilation by a premier magazine. When I got to know that the theme was ugly creatures of the world, I refused. I didn’t want to approve of frogs being called ugly.

Q. In your photos, they are full of poise and grace.
The thing to understand is we humans are also a species; we have to learn to shrug off our sense of superiority, learn to live together, to respect and conserve nature, to learn to live as part of the ecosystem. Sometimes, at seminars, I am asked: ‘Of what use is a frog?’ If a frog were to come up to you and ask, ‘Of what use are you?’ would you really have an answer?

(This story appears in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)