Uncovering the mystery of Microhyla sholigari using citizen engagement

By Seshadri K S


The Western Ghats of India is known for its myriad diversity of amphibians. Frogs in particular have been hopping all over the place and one can find reports of new species being discovered almost on a monthly basis. As a case in point, over 100 species of frogs have been discovered from the Western Ghats in the last decade alone. 

In this broad context of species discoveries, what if some species remain elusive? Yes, there were many frogs that have never been seen again since they were originally described. In the dark forests along the River Bhargavi – on the banks of which the famous Doddasampige is situated – one such story unfolds.

Doddasampige in Kannada refers to a large Michalia champaka tree and is located inside the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRTTR). Back in year 1997, a tiny frog belonging to the genus Microhyla was discovered by the senior amphibian biologist Rtd. Prof. Sushil Kumar Dutta of the Utkal University in Orissa and P. Ray of the Regional Museum of Natural History, Orissa. They formally described this species as one new to science and honored the ‘Sholiga’ tribes by naming the frog after them as Microhyla sholigari. Though the frog was seen in 1997, the paper was published only in 2000. Since then, M. sholigari was sighted only once from Wayannad in Kerala. For the next 15 years, no one had a clue as to what this species was doing, where all was it found or how it looks when alive.

In 2015, Dr. Gururaja, formerly the Chief Scientist at Gubbi Labs, led a team of researchers into the BRTTR with an invite from the forest department and started searching for the frog. However, their expedition remained a failure, until that same evening, when Ms. Priti, a PhD student at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) jumped up in surprise  while having tea at the ATREE field station. She had sighted a small microhylid frog. It turned out that they had accidentally stumbled upon the endangered frog by the kitchen of their field station. They soon realized that their colleagues Dr. Aravind and Roshmi who used to work on mollusks in ATREE had seen this very frog inside the kitchen itself in the previous month. They decided to collect some specimens and extract DNA for analysis.

And only a few months later, I too got dragged into the picture. June was the beginning of monsoon and I was in India doing my field work for my PhD with the National University of Singapore (NUS). Gururaja called me excitedly about a potential new species of frog that was discovered by Mr. Ramit Singal, an engineer turned conservationist based out of Manipal. He asked me if I could go with Ramit and help him in the formal description. I went without second thoughts. We ended up seeing not one but two potential new species. One of them was the microhylid frog about which Ramit had told us. He took me to a largely laterite based land and as we stood quietly, I heard a loud call from the grass. It sounded something like “Zheeee… Zheee….”. Ramit said that it was a frog and I did not believe him. I stood there, indignantly claiming that it was a cricket. I eventually gave up and looked down and was flabbergasted to see a frog there. For the first time, I had heard a frog sounding so much like a cricket. We made specimens as per ethical protocols and I returned to Bangalore. Without any further delay, Priti took some tissue samples and began processing them with Dr. Ravikanth, based out of ATREE. The next month, I joined Dr. Gururaja and we headed to Bisle along with Ms. Vidisha and a team of researchers to participate in the annual “Bisle frog watch”.

Bisle frog watch is the name that an informal group of frog enthusiasts call themselves. They meet every year and spend two nights searching for frogs. We stayed in the village community hall and geared up for the night. We had a very productive night and saw many frogs and were on our way back to hit the bed. And right then, I suddenly heard the same “Zheeee…. Zheee….” call that I had heard earlier in Manipal. I was near a small pond, right next to the community centre, and I shouted over to Dr. Gururaja, immediately asking him to come and check out the frog call.

Sadly, as soon as we turned on our lights, the calls stopped. For about half an hour, we  kept futilely trying to find the frog without any results. And then finally, we were successful. It turned out to be  a tiny microhylid frog indeed, but not what we had seen in Manipal. Since we did not have the necessary materials to make specimens for taxonomic work, we left it there. But, we did show this beautiful frog to the frog team, including to Mr. Vineeth K K, a PhD candidate at the Mangaluru University.

Priti however, was busy working away in the lab and had some wonderful news when we got back. The frog from Manipal was indeed a new species and we now had genetic evidence to support the same. She had also managed to process the tissue of the suspected M. sholigari that they had collected from the ATREE field station earlier. All this was really good, but now we had a new twist to the mystery.

Microhyla sholigari was reported to be found only in BRTTR and one more location in Wayanaad. As a result, It was listed as Endangered species in the RedList, put out by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN). Now, we were really intrigued to find out the identity of the Bisle frog. We called up Vineeth and asked him to collect a few specimens and send us tissues for analysis. Being more enthusiastic than us, he went and got the specimens the same day and reached Bangalore within two days. Meanwhile, Priti got to work again and this time, within a week, we had results that showed conclusively that even the Bisle frog was in fact, M. sholigari. When we shared this news with Ramit, he exclaimed that he had seen this frog in over 10 locations all along the South West part of India. Gururaja too dug into his images and pulled out a photo from Bannerghatta and then concluded that this so called “Endangered” frog species was now known to be found over a wide region.

Thinking about this entire episode, I realize that a lot of times, papers are written with a very limited amount of information. Dr. Dutta and Ray had only found individuals that were not fully mature and had described the species solely based on them. What happens in such a situation is that the subsequent researchers end up struggling to identify frogs that closely match the description in the original paper. We had now begun to realize that despite being widespread, this frog had managed to remain ignored and undetected.

This led us to re-describe the species, based on our data from the new adult specimens, a  more detailed call description as well as molecular evidence to support our claims. Since the species is now known to be widespread, it can no longer meet the guidelines provided by IUCN. Thus, we suggested that the species be down listed to ‘Least Concerned’ now.

Ultimately, this long journey has proved to be fruitful, as we now managed to fill up several knowledge gaps in what is known about M. sholigari, by effectively engaging non-scientists in this pursuit of science. I strongly believe that such efforts of engaging citizens is indeed the way forward to understanding our biodiversity and eventually, in conserving it.