Is it a bird? Is it a babbler? A frog?!

Ghatixalus asterops. Thalnar Valparai(2)
Ghatixalus asterops, or Star-eyed ghats frog. Photo by Sagar Nambiar

 

Wu wuwuwuwu wu. “That’s a bird,” I said, nodding to myself and moving on.

“A bird!? At night?? What are you saying?” said Vishnupriya. “That is definitely a frog.”  I paused momentarily to consider this possibility, and then dismissed it.

“Nah… that’s a bird,” I said with finality.

It was night and Vishnupriya, Rushi and I were walking along a coffee estate stream. We were surrounded by whistles, clicks, and croaks coming from the vocal sacs of bush frogs and gliding frogs. Conditions were perfect for herping—that is, there was a slight drizzle and leeches were numerous. Herping—an activity practiced by eccentric skulkers of the wildlife community—involves crawling about, often under cover of darkness, and cooing over such things as snakes, lizards, and frogs. It is a term derived from herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

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Western Ghats of India, photo by Premnath Thirumalaisamy/Flickr Creative Commons 

Vishnupriya is a herpetologist  investigating community structure of amphibians across different agricultural landscapes, such as coffee and tea estates, in the Anamallai hills which are situated in the western Ghats of southern India. I was her intern and Rushi an enthusiastic volunteer. Though I am not a professional herpetologist,  snakes, frogs, and other creatures of the night have always greatly fascinated me. I had been listening to frog calls every night for the past few weeks and figured I had a decent grasp of the amphibian language of the region. Therefore when I heard this new call I was confident that it wasn’t a frog.

Rushi however was not so convinced…

Wu wuwuwuwu wu

He took one step towards the source of the sound, looked up, looked down.

He took a second step towards the source of the sound, looked up, looked down.

He took a third step, looked up but this time did not look down.

He took a fourth step…

Rushi was now waist-high in icy water desperately scrambling for a handhold on the slippery, mossy rocks. It was only then that he came face to face with a frog the size of a golf ball clinging to a tree trunk and judging this exhibition of extreme clumsiness with disdain.

Wu wuwuwuwu wu

GHATIXALUS!” he shouted. I rushed to the scene, taking care to make sure I didn’t fall prey to the same pitfalls that had ensnared young Rushi. I knelt down to get a close look at the frog – black lines radiated from the pupils into the iris. “Ghatixalus asterops.” I proclaimed, hoping that swiftly identifying the species would hide the fact that, mere seconds ago, I had confidently mistaken a frog for a bird. The black lines on the iris are the primary identifying feature for this species. It is also where this species gets its name: asterops refers to star eyed, the rarely used common name of this frog is Star eyed ghats frog.

Ghatixalus is a genus of frogs endemic to the high altitude forests of the Nilgiri, Anamallai and Palni hills which are situated in the Western Ghats of southern India. They once were classified under Polypedates (tree frogs), but have recently been grouped into this new genus, one that features some of the most outrageous characters in the animal kingdom. . There are three species of Ghatixalus, all as weird as the next–

Ghatixalus magnus. Magnus in Latin means great, and as the name suggests this is a giant of a frog measuring almost 10 centimetres in length. It is the largest known tree frog in the Western Ghats.  It is so rotund it can no longer sit on tree branches because of its immense weight and instead squats on boulders in rocky streams.

Ghatixalus variabilis. This is a species undecided on what it is supposed to look like. Every individual comes with its own unique paintjob. Do you want it green with brown speckles? Yup we’ve got that. How about a little orange with green spots? Sure, no problem.  It is said that you can walk along streams in the Nilgiris where this frog is found, and find no two that are coloured alike.

Ghatixalus asterops named for its beautifully patterned iris. It is golden in colour, with black lines radiating out from the pupil like a star. And, as it turns out, they sound like a bird– a Scimitar Babbler, to be precise. I do not know why this uncanny resemblance exists and actually, there are many unknowns about this species like their ecology, population and distribution. But we do know that due to deforestation steadily chipping away at their highly fragile and specialized habitats it is very likely that these species are in decline. On that note let me make two vows; one; I shall never stop fighting to conserve our planets biodiversity and the species we have left and two; the next time I hear a strange call at night I shall think twice before saying “bird.”

Ghatixalus asterops. Thalnar Valparai
Photo by Sagar Nambiar

Sagar Nambiar was born, raised and currently lives in Bangalore city in India. He has undergraduate degrees in environmental science and zoology, and is passionate about wildlife–especially for those creatures that like to live in dark places. His other hobbies include writing, reading and walking long distances for no reason at all.

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