New frogs found. And they dance.
Scientists have discovered 14 new species of so-called dancing frogs in the jungle mountains of southern India just in time, they fear, to watch them fade away.
Indian biologists say they found the tiny acrobatic amphibians, which earned their name with the unusual kicks they use to attract mates, declining dramatically in number. This took place during the 12 years in which they chronicled the species through morphological descriptions and molecular DNA markers. They breed after the yearly monsoon in fast-rushing streams, but their habitat appears to be becoming increasingly dry.
"It's like a Hollywood movie, both joyful and sad. On the one hand, we have brought these beautiful frogs into public knowledge. But about 80 percent are outside protected areas, and in some places, it was as if nature itself was crying," said the project's lead scientist, University of Delhi professor Sathyabhama Das Biju.
The study listing the new species published in the Ceylon Journal of Science brings the number of known Indian dancing frog species to 24.
They're found exclusively in the Western Ghats, a lush mountain range that stretches 990 miles from the western state of Maharashtra down to the country's southern tip.
Only the males dance it's actually a unique breeding behavior called foot-flagging. They stretch, extend and whip their legs out to the side to draw the attention of females who might have trouble hearing mating croaks over the sound of water flowing through perennial hill streams.
They bigger the frog, the more they dance. They also use those leg extensions to smack away other males an important feature considering the sex ratio for the amphibians is usually around 100 males to one female.
"They need to perform and prove, 'Hey, I'm the best man for you,'" said Biju, a botanist-turned-herpetologist now celebrated as India's "Frogman" for discovering dozens of new species in his four-decade career.
There are other dancing frogs in Central America and Southeast Asia, but the Indian family, known by the scientific name Micrixalidae, evolved separately about 85 million years ago.
These are tiny, delicate frogs no bigger than a walnut and can easily be swept away in a gushing mountain stream. So breeding happens only once the level of a stream levels drops to the point where the water babbles over boulders and stones, he explained. If streams hold less water or dry out too early, the frogs get caught without the right conditions to breed.
The Western Ghats, older than the Himalayas, is among the world's most biologically exciting regions, holding at least a quarter of all Indian species. Yet in recent decades, the region has faced a constant assault by iron and bauxite mining, water pollution, unregulated farming and loss of habitat to human settlements.
Many of these newly discovered frogs could soon be joining them, Biju said. Many of the 24 known Indian dancing frog species lives only in a single, small area. Seven were in what Biju described as highly degraded habitats where logging or new plantations were taking over, while another 12 species were in areas that appeared in ecological decline.
Biju's determination, or even obsession, with documenting as many new frog species as possible stems from his fear that many will vanish as "unnamed extinctions" before scientists ever learn they exist. Scientists believe Earth has about 8.7 million distinct plant and animal species, but they have documented only 1.5 million.
Amphibians are particularly vulnerable. At least one-third of the world's known 6,000 frog species are threatened with extinction from habitat loss, pollution, changing temperatures or exotic diseases spread by invasive animals and pests, according to Global Wildlife Conservation.
Sonali Garg one of the study's co-authors, said her family initially thought she was crazy for wanting to study frogs. "But slowly, they're becoming aware of how important and special frogs are," she said. "Slowly, I'm converting them."
Critical thinking challenge: Why must frogs dance instead of croaking to get attention?