Note: This blog post is dedicated to my dear friend Tushar Verma. Tushar, who’s a writer and a nature lover, had come down to Manipal all the way from Raipur to enjoy the beauty of the sea, the frogs and the forests. Vrinda, a core team member of FoM and I took him on a long frog-walk which was a part of my campaign #NotJustFrogs with the Jane Goodall Institute. We trekked up the mountains, cutting through tall trees and reeds on a warm summer evening. And while the seasonal warmth left us sweaty and lost in the middle of nowhere, we were delighted to find ourselves immersed in the wild setting of the scenic lush green mountains of the Western Ghats. The nightjars gave background music and five monsoon monsters allowed us to get close and watch them. With Tushar in town, I felt as if the summers had cooled down a little!
The Indirana group of frogs is by far one of my favourite frog groups. I am not sure why I have this unfair bias towards the Indiranas but I find them pretty psychedelic (read the last paragraph) in nature. Part of my interest in the Indiranas also lies in their evolutionary history, their overall structure, the habitat that they live in and their exceptional tadpoles (stay tuned- I’m going to write an elaborate post about Indirana tadpoles in the coming weeks). All Indirana frogs are endemic to the Western Ghats. When I come across any of these, my days instantly become super memorable! One day during my surveys in the benevolent mountains, I felt extremely fortunate to have gotten a chance to interact with the Gundia Leaping Frog (Indirana gundia) in the wild, thanks to my mentor – Dr Gururaja KV. On another frog walk, I stumbled upon three individuals of these frogs while exploring the forests of Agumbe.
On 21st March 2017, a warm sunny day greeted the three of us as we explored the depths of a forested patch in Manipal. The greenery around me filled me with joy and soon my eyes caught a glimpse of a freshwater lake that had taken the colour green to match the surroundings. As the birds chirped and flew back to their homes, the setting sun painted the sky in shades of pink and orange. Soon darkness took over. Vrinda and I passionately looked for frogs near the reeds and scanned the fringes of the road in our dim torch lights. It looked like we were crawling on the ground in search of marbles or pebbles like kids used to before the tech era got them searching for virtual marbles. Tushar simply walked along with a wide smile and looked at the two of us as if we were indulging in childlike activities under the dark blanket of the night sky embedded with sparkling stars. Little did he know how important our daily frog walks are to research these dying frog species!
After some time, all three of us got into a single line to have a look at one of the darkest corners in the forest. Our torches pointed towards the ground as we trekked in search of frogs. Suddenly my torch beam fell on a chunky frog that was sitting in a tiny burrow surrounded by dry leaf litter of the acacia trees. At first, I couldn’t identify the frog so I decided to catch it to examine it closely. But as soon as that thought crossed my mind, the frog sensed our presence and jumped to take cover under some small plants. I jumped straight at the frog and caught hold of it in one go. Over months of running behind these hoppers, I have now mastered a unique skill set. I can hop like a frog to catch my prey and walk like a human to show my intelligence. At this point, Tushar was probably traumatised by my behaviour. He was trying to figure out what exactly happened in the darkness, a few meters ahead of him. I placed the frog in a setting with appropriate lighting and photographed it quickly taking utmost care to not injure it. As soon as I had the pictures I needed, I studied the morphology of the frog and gently placed it back from where I had found it first.
That night, Tushar and I returned home to process the photo and admire the elegance of the Small-handed Frog that we were lucky enough to find! This frog belongs to the family of Ranixalidae, otherwise referred to as the ‘Indian Frogs’. Ranixalidae is an ancient family of frogs that evolved independently in India over millions of years. The family is now known to have two genera – Indirana and Sallywalkerana. The Small-handed Frogs are distributed across the Western Ghats. The overall size of the frog can range from 2.3 to 5.5 centimetres. The one we saw (photographed above) was a male frog of 4 centimetres in size. The presence of a pair of special glands, called the femoral glands, on the insides of the frog’s thigh tells me the gender. Femoral refers to the femur (thigh bone) or the thigh and that’s how they got their name. This gland is considered as a secondary sexual characteristic and is present only in the male frogs. The gland is also known to release pheromones to facilitate mating. Although the function, presence and absence of this gland needs further clarification in the case of Indirana frogs, in the Small-handed Frog, the gland is said to be present in all males but its function remains largely unknown.
It is easy to identify this frog. It is the commonest frog to be found among the Indiranas. The frog dwells on the ground, on wet rocks or leaf litter. It has a very typical rotund structure. The overall coloration can vary but is largely pinkish brown. The frog’s back has longitudinal irregular skin folds. Tiny spine-like structures can be noticed on the sides of the frog. The lower jaw has a leopard-like spotted pattern of alternate dark and light brown markings. And the eyes are very like any other frog (staring right at you) – large and round. Tympanum or the circular ear drum is placed, one on either side, right behind the eye and is almost the size of the frog’s eye. A pair of large, well-developed hind limbs has greenish brown and light brown alternate bands. Forelimbs look unusually small when compared to the body size; maybe that’s why it was christened the Small-handed Frog?!?!
In conclusion, I have a small experiment for you to try which Tushar and I have tried and tested when we were high (on life) that night. Download the above picture of this incredible frog onto your computer or mobile phone. Then open the file in any photo viewer that you are using; put the picture in the full-screen mode. Now look into the eyes of the frog and you will return to innocence and find love, devotion and feelings! Otherwise, the obvious ‘no-connection’ that human beings exhibit towards frogs will become apparent. Make sure you let me know how you felt when you looked into the frog’s eyes!
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