Could New Frogs Found in Surprising Places Inspire Conservation?

In southwestern India, a tiny unknown frog has been discovered in neglected scrubland.
(Photo: ‘PLOS One’)
Mar 29, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

The discovery of a new frog species in southwestern India has put a spotlight on conserving biodiversity amid rapid economic development.

The tiny animal was found in the Western Ghats mountain range, in an unusual area: scrubland regularly used for mining and dumping.

“It’s common for people to consider these habitats as trash, because there isn’t any good forest around,” said Seshadri Kadaba Shamanna, a graduate student at the National University of Singapore, who coauthored a report on the new species. “But this species was just living in peoples’ backyards.”

Shamanna worked with scientists from around India and followed leads from a citizen scientist who had roamed the area listening to frog calls and collecting specimens. The frog, which measures just over half an inch—about the size of a thumbnail—is pale brown with prominent black markings. Its call sounds like that of a cricket, the researchers reported.

RELATED: A Rare Chance to Save an Entire Nation’s Frogs From Extinction

After using acoustic and genetic tests to compare the frog to known species, they determined that it was new to science.

Shamanna and her colleagues decided to dub the tiny frog Microhyla laterite after the area’s laterite rock formations, and they hope the name will remind people to take care of the environment. Their find was published in early March in the journal PLOS One.

“Conservation happens when people get connected with what is around them,” said Kotambylu Vasudeva Gururaja, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a coauthor of the study. “So now when we go around and talk to local people, we can say there is a new frog named after its habitat—so go ahead and conserve this area.”

All this matters because the Western Ghats region is developing quickly, which in India often means land is being rapidly cleared. The laterite rocks are cut for use as bricks, and sites not suitable for housing are used as dumps.

Researchers don’t know how many individual frogs exist, but they have estimated the size of the habitat at just 54 square miles. After taking into consideration the fragmentation of the habitat, they recommended that M. laterite be classified as endangered under the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Shamanna pointed out that there are still new species being discovered in the area, highlighting India’s need to factor conservation of biodiversity into economic growth.

The discovery came just weeks after a different frog was uncovered in another surprising South Asian location: an area under construction in the megacity of Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.