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Saturday, August 26, 2017

India's Western Ghat mountains have been found to be home to a species of purple cave frog that, unlike other burrowing amphibians, spends almost its entire adult life underground. The frog's discoverers, scientists from Hyderabad's Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, named the species, Nasikabatrachus bhupathi, with the commmon name Bhupathy's purple frog, after their fellow herpetologist, Dr. Subramaniam Bhupathy, who died in these mountains three years ago while conducting his own research. N. bhupathi is described in the latest issue of Alytes, the official publication of the International Society for the Study and Conservation of Amphibians. The discovery of this frog adds to the body of evidence supporting the Gondwanaland continental drift scenario.

The newly described species resembles N. sahyadrensis (shown) but has light purple skin and a blue ring around its eye.
Image: David V. Raju.

"This frog lineage is very ancient, and has a very low diversity, so this finding is very special and unusual," says Elizabeth Prendini of the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the paper describing the frogs. The frog has one close relative, N. sahyadrensis, which was discovered in the Western Ghats in 2003, but Bhupathy's purple frog has light purple skin, a pale blue ring around its eye, and audibly different calls. These two species are also related to other frogs that live in the Seychelles, which are closer to Africa than to India. This supports the idea that Africa and India were once part of the same ancient supercontinent, called Gondwanaland, which eventually became part of the later supercontinent, Pangaea.

Scientists located N. bhupathi by listening for mating calls coming up from underground, where the frogs had burrowed near a temporary stream. While many species of frog can burrow temporarily, Bhupathy's purple's bodies are built for long-term life underground: they have spadelike forelimbs for digging and long snouts that they use to send their tongues aboveground to sweep the surface for ants and other prey, rather than the snap-and-recoil motion stereotypical of other frogs. The only time the adult frogs come aboveground is when the rain falls at the beginning of the northeast monsoon season, at which time they use the opportunity to mate. The tadpoles, rather than swimming freely, attach themselves to the stony walls behind waterfalls, where they spend six months feeding on rock-dwelling algae. The young frogs, called imagos, have mottled brown skin, only turning purple during full adulthood.

This discovery was part of an effort sponsored by the Indian government to sample the DNA of every frog species possible. Scientists declined to say exactly where they collected their sample frogs because the site was on private property.