One rainy afternoon, Gururaja and I descended the Western Ghats to reach the coastal plains of Kumta. The monsoon had already set in and the time was ripe to study frogs.
Our journey had a single agenda, to meet C.R. Naik, a forest officer who had worked with Gururaja in Dandeli. When we reached Kumta, Naik was waiting by the side of the road and flagged our car down. He invited us to his warm and cozy house and ensured we stayed for lunch. Meanwhile, he began telling us about the surveys he was working on. Every fortnight or so, he would go into the fallow paddy fields around his house and conduct surveys to find frogs. On one such survey, he said he encountered a frog that he could not identify. “What do you think this is?” he asked, whipping his phone out of his pocket, like a cop drawing out a revolver. “White-throated Kingfisher”, was our unanimous response.
“Naik, despite working with both frogs and birds, you still cannot differentiate between the two”, teased Gururaja. Naik’s response took us by surprise. “No Sir, this is not from a kingfisher, but from a frog!” he exclaimed. Clearly, none of us knew what it was and we cajoled him to try and get a photograph the next time he heard that call. A sumptuous meal prepared by Naik’s mother was served, a hearty meal was had and we bid adieu.
Naik was introduced to the world of frogs in 2006 when he worked with Gururaja in what is now the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve (DATR). Back then, he was a guard and had been assigned the task of accompanying Gururaja. “What is this species?” he had asked, pointing at a frog in the dark that was making a bird-like call. Gururaja told him that it was a Castle Rock Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus petraeus), and went on to have a lengthy conversation with him on how to identify a frog, what to observe and how to record calls. Similar interactions continued through the years. He has now matured into a keen naturalist and has observed over 30 amphibians from the DATR.
Naik’s enthusiasm and passion is not limited to frogs but extends to all forms of life. A characteristic fascination for snakes has nearly taken him to the pearly gates of heaven and back when a Common Indian Krait he was trying to rescue bit him. He nearly died from the bite, but still jokes about it and has learnt to value his own life. Over the years, he has worked with several researchers and has studied hornbills, documented the fruiting and flowering patterns of trees, studied spider and butterfly diversity etc. His passion has only grown and his active involvement in education programmes by delivering free talks at schools and colleges to create awareness and spread messages about conservation won him the prestigious Jumbo Award in 2012.
Little did we know that our friend, the ever humble and unassuming Naik would be key to making a novel discovery. The same night, after we left Kumta, Naik sent us a photo of the frog that called like a kingfisher. We looked at the photo and knew that it was a skittering frog. We did not know which one it was and suspected that it could be a species that has never been scientifically named. Skittering frogs are called so because of their habit of floating on water and skittering away when disturbed.
It was already the 3rd week of July and I went in search of this frog. In those paddy fields, Naik and I found few individuals of the frog. Indeed, the frog’s call resembled that of a White-throated Kingfisher. It was through this clue that we located the frogs in inundated paddy fields.
While making specimens of the frog, Naik’s mother keenly observed the painstaking procedure of euthanizing frogs, labeling them and fixing them in formalin. We don’t even follow so many procedures for dead people in our villages, she retorted cheekily, when I placed the frogs in a box lined with cotton wool. Naik and I then made detailed notes about the habitat and the specimen itself.
Incidentally, Ramit Singal, a freelancer and a citizen scientist who was working on My Laterite: My Habitat – an outreach and education initiative at coastal town Manipal in Karnataka state sent us the recordings of the kingfisher-like call in July. We now knew that the frog’s presence was more widespread than we thought it was.
The immediate step now was to see whether it was indeed a new species or not. We sent the tissue samples to Ms. Priti H, a PhD Student at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). It was not easy to distinguish the new species even with molecular phylogenetic analysis. An earlier work of 2009, placed one of the DNA sequences of the new species to an earlier described species of the Green Pond Frog (Euphlyctis hexadactylus). Priti had to check for voucher specimens collected, localities of all described species to ascertain what we were looking was indeed new. Meanwhile, Gururaja and I performed bio-acoustic analysis of the call, which ascertained the frog species to be new to science.
With consensus from the team, the frog was named as Euphlyctis karaavali after Karaavali, the coastal region of Karnataka. The Karaavali Skittering Frog is considered to be endangered due to its restricted geographic area and threat from expanding developmental activities like expansion of highways and conversion of land for non-agricultural purposes. Currently, there are only seven known species in this genus and are found as far west as the Southwestern Arabian Peninsula through South East Asia to the east.
Naik was part of this discovery from the beginning to finish and his joy knew no bounds after our paper got accepted. “I am so happy that a new frog has been discovered from my native place and I am delighted to be part of this discovery”, he said. He was the Deputy Range Forest Officer at DATR but for reasons beyond his control, got transferred to a different place soon after. We met him recently when we visited Kumta. Because of his new posting, he could not stay back with us at night, but we went around and found the frogs to be thriving in the abandoned paddy fields.
The discovery of a new frog species involving citizen scientists like Naik and Ramit Singal was a wonderful journey in the enterprise of science. We strongly believe that this discovery will inspire and motivate many more people to get out there and observe things around their houses and hopefully, many such discoveries will be made. Frog Watch India portal has emerged to be an important place to post observations and is a growing repository of frog images. Naik’s discovery goes to show that a lot of times, discoveries are made by accident and scientists should shed their ideological lab coats and work with common people who are called citizen scientists. Only then can we have a successful amphibian conservation programmes, not only India, but across the globe.