The Chikilidae- A New Family of Ambibians

 Chiklil fulleri a member of the family Chikilidae.

A team of biologists led by University of Delhi professor Sathyabhama Das Biju spent more than five years digging through forest soils in the rain, and discovered a new family of amphibians -the Chikilidae - endemic to northeast India but with ancient links to Africa.

Their discovery was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, providing yet more evidence that India is a hot spot for amphibians and a location worthy of protection against the country's industry-heavy development agenda. It also provides exciting new evidence for the zoogeography of caecilians.

"This is a major hotspot of biological diversity, but one of the least explored," Biju said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We hope this new family will show the importance of funding research in the area. We need to know what we have, so we can know what to save."

By naming it Chikilidae, a name from the Goro language, Biju hoped to increase the profile of the local people and make them aware of the importance of the new animal.

The forest habitat of the Chikilidae an ignored tropical forests now faces deforestation and development for industry as India's economic growth takes off. Industrial pollutants, pesticides and more people may mean a world of trouble for a creature that can be traced to the earliest vertebrates to creep across land.

Biju - a botanist-turned-herpetologist now celebrated as India's "Frogman" - has made it his life work to find and catalog new species. There are too many cases of "nameless extinction," with animals disappearing before they are ever known, he said. "We don't even know what we're losing."

Biju, however, is working the reverse trend. Since 2001, he has discovered 76 new species of plants, caecilians and frogs - more than any other scientist in India - and estimates 30-40 percent of the country's amphibians are yet to be found.

Within the Chikilidae, the team has already identified three species, and is on its way to discovering at least three more.

The discovery of the Chikilidae's , made along with co-researchers from London's Natural History Museum and Vrije University in Brussels, brings the number of known caecilian families in the world to 10. Three are in India and others are spread across the tropics in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. There is debate about the classifications, with some scientists counting fewer caecilian families.

Much remains to be discovered in further study, Biju said, as many questions remain about how the creatures live.

So far, Biju's team has determined that an adult chikilid will remain with its eggs until they hatch, forgoing food for some 50 days. When the eggs hatch, the young emerge as tiny adults and squirm away.

They grow to about 4 inches (10 centimeters), and can push their dense skulls through some of the region's tougher soils, disappearing quickly at the slightest vibration. "It's like a rocket," Biju said. "If you miss it the first try, you'll never catch it again."

A possibly superfluous set of eyes is shielded under a layer of skin, and may help the chikilidae gauge light from dark as in other caecilian species.

DNA testing suggests the chikilids closest relative is in Africa - with the two evolutionary paths splitting some 140 million years ago when India separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana.

Biju's team worked best during monsoon season, when the digging is easier and when the chikilids lay their eggs in waterlogged soils. Gripping garden spades with blistered hands, the researchers along with locals they hired spent about 2,600 man hours digging for the elusive squigglers, usually found about 16 inches (40 centimeters) deep.

"It was backbreaking work," said research fellow Rachunliu Kamei, who even passed out in the forest once, and some days found not even one specimen.

"But there is motivation in knowing this is an uncharted frontier," said Kamei, lead researcher and main author of the study paper.

Rachunliu G. Kamei, Diego San Mauro,  David J. Gower, Ines Van Bocxlaer, Emma Sherratt Ashish Thomas, Suresh Babu, Franky Bossuyt, Mark Wilkinson and S. D. Biju. 2012. Discovery of a new family of amphibians from northeast India with ancient links to Africa. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0150 (published first on-line)

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