Of Forests, Frogs and Fascinating History: Field Experiences from the Central Western Ghats

By Priti Gururaja

The lush verdant forests of the Western Ghats were not new to me. Although I resided in Mumbai, school vacations meant spending the three months of summer at my mother’s ancestral home in a small town Karkeshwara in Chickmagalur district, Karnataka. The ancestral home was a single large house surrounded by dense forests unlike Mumbai, where we jostled for space with our neighbours. During those days (i.e. about 1994 – 1995) at my ancestral home there were no fancy gadgets, not even a television set. My cousins and I spent our time by roaming inside the forests most often on foot, but at times, riding in a tiller after coaxing our house help to take us for a drive. There was something magical about the dark canopies, the pristine streams and the stillness inside the forests which was more fascinating than the hustle and bustle of a city. Spending time in my ancestral home thus led to an early fascination for forests.

Over the years, as I got busy with my studies, my admiration for forests never dwindled and my annual visit to the ancestral home continued though I could only stay for few days. All those years I never had the slightest idea that one can study forests, birds and other animals. I realised this only when I got an opportunity to read the “Hornbill” a quarterly magazine published by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) during my M.Sc. Years later, my dream to work in forests was first brought to fruition when I was introduced to the amphibian world by an ecologist Dr. Gururaja KV when I began assisting him on a pocket pictorial guide book to amphibians of the Western Ghats.

Field visits were made for this work starting from Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve of North Karnataka till the Bhagamandala region of Coorg district. This was my first time watching frogs at dusk in the forest and I was amazed to observe the daytime cacophony of the cicadas and bird calls get replaced by the calls of the frogs as the night set in. This exposure was enriching as I began to realise the difference between frogs found in cities and those found in the forests. They were of different kinds with diverse habitat requirements. Some frog species were widespread while others seem to be highly restricted due to various factors; I realised that frogs were good indicators of forest health.

I decided to pursue a PhD to grow in my understanding of the fascinating relationships between frogs and their forests and fortunately got a place in ATREE to pursue my interests. At ATREE while working on a research project, I was introduced to a different kind of forest ecosystem: the Myristica swamp forests (Image 1). These were fresh water swamp forests consisting specifically two kinds of trees: Gymnacranthera canarica and Myristica fatua. Upon further reading, I learned that many of these swamps could be good habitats for amphibians especially for those species that are stream dependent because of the perennial nature of these swamps.

To observe the diversity of frogs present in these swamps, I visited one such swamp in Kathlekan region of central Western Ghats during my fieldwork. This freshwater swamp which serves as a museum of ancient species was surprisingly close to a state highway. The forest floor was covered with the entangled roots of G. canarica (Image 2) and the pockets created by these roots served as hiding places for tadpoles.

 

Image 1: A Myristica swamp forest. Picture credit: Priti

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Image 2: Roots of G.canarica. Picture credit: Priti

This freshwater swamp harboured many endemic species of the frogs. There were frogs that waved their legs (dancing frogs), frogs that called like birds (Jog night frog) or toads that lived on trees (tree toads). (Images 3,4,5).The swamp was a treasure trove of amphibian diversity!

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Image 3: Dancing frog (Micrixalus kottigeharensis) Picture credit: Gururaja KV

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 Image 4: Jog Night frog (Nyctibatrachus jog). Picture credit: Gururaja KV

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Image 5:  Malabar tree toad (Pedostibes tuberculosis). Picture credit: Gururaja KV

It was here that our research team described a new species of frog known as the Mud-packing frog (Nyctibatrachus kumbara; Image 6), which uniquely, plasters mud on its newly laid eggs. While this behaviour was closely observed and studied by Dr. Gururaja, I initiatied genetic studies to study the species and discovered that this was species was new to science based on its genetic divergence from other Nyctibatrachus species. My joy knew no bounds because of the opportunity this frog gave me to contribute to India’s natural heritage!

You can read more about this discovery here:

http://www.atree.org/sites/default/files/articles/mudpacking_frog_zootaxa.pdf

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          Image 6: Kumbara night frog (Nyctibatrachus kumbara) Picture credit: Gururaja KV

Besides nature and science, I am equally captivated by history. During my field work, I tried to learn more about the history of the region I was working in and two historical incidents grabbed my attention.

Located in the Sharavati backwaters, Muppane is a small forested area that has now been converted to a nature camp by the forest department. Having only heard about the consequences of building dams, it was during my fieldwork that for I saw its effects for the first time. The traces of trees of Muppane in the backwater can still be seen here but most of the landscape is barren due to the inundation of water caused by the Linganmakki dam. This dam built on Sharavati River in 1964 acts as a testimonial to the consequences of the building of dams (Image 7).

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                                    Image 7: Muppane backwater Picture credit: Priti

I had also heard a lot about Kanoor kote, a fort inside the Sharavati Reserve Forest. The kote or fort was built by queen Chennabhairadevi of Gersoppa in 16th century (Image 8). She was known as Kaalmensina rani or Pepper queen as she was exporting pepper to Arab countries and was known to be brave and fearless. With her sharp wit and valour she had defeated the Portuguese. Records suggest that the Portuguese had decided that, “We must deal with her most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite and diplomatic to win her to our side”1. The magnificent fort which guarded her from many rivals and allowed her to rule a long time now sadly is just a ruin gathering moss (Image 9).

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    Image 8:  Inside Kanoor Kote. Picture credit: Priti

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      Image 9:   Fort remains lying inside the forest. Picture credit: Priti

Looking back I can only reflect that these wild forests, tiny frogs and monuments are an attractive force and that our natural heritage needs to be cherished and protected for they are a part of our identity.

If you want to read a bit more about the history, do check the link below:

About the Author:

Priti Gururaja did her Masters in Biotechnology and has always been interested in genetics. After a stint with a pharmaceutical company, she felt the need to go beyond the lab. Interactions with a field biologist led her to the wonderful world of the frogs of the Western Ghats. She got the opportunity to merge field and lab at ATREE, where she is now doing her PhD on the landscape genetics of two endemic frogs from the Western Ghats. Besides research, Priti likes to read fiction and autobiographies. Cooking, travelling, and numismatics are her other hobbies.

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