S.D. Biju. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

​Having Tea with India’s Frogman

S.D. Biju, aka India’s Frogman, has a hard enough time getting his mom to care about his frogs, to say nothing of the entire planet.

Mar 3 2016, 12:00pm

S.D. Biju. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Contrary to what one might expect, Sathyabhama Das Biju, better known as the Frogman of India, is not half-man, half-frog. As such, one can imagine my surprise when I passed through a door marked "The Frog People" at Delhi University only to find a mustachioed, middle-aged man without any discernible amphibious qualities seated at Biju's desk.

The man responsible for putting Indian herpetology on the map acknowledged my arrival with one finger and returned to the email he was working on, leaving me to survey the Frogman's domain. The spartan décor of Biju's office only made the presence of its few ornamental items all the more pronounced: against one wall three graduate students were furiously typing under an array of journal covers—Nature, Science, Royal Proceedings B—each announcing one of 90 species of frog discovered and described by Biju. Opposite the graduate students was a wall covered in stunning photos of some of the world's rarest and most beautiful frog species, each photo taken by Biju himself.

As I stood admiring Biju's photography, the Frogman finished his email and came over to introduce himself. I commented on his photographs, which looked more like they belonged in a gallery than an academic journal. Biju took a seat and, with typical Indian hospitality, offered me some chai before an explanation. As we sat sipping tea, the conversation once again turned to Biju's photography, which as it turns out is often featured in coffee table art books or full page spreads in National Geographic.

"I'm not going to call myself a photographer, but I passionately like photography," said Biju. "I started by photographing frogs because they are such challenging subjects. They're small, they're nocturnal, they have moist skin… and just look at the beauty. There are thousands of frog species and they're all so beautiful."

Indian Tree Frog. Photo courtesy of S.D. Biju

Indeed, it was Biju's photography which eventually turned him into what The Economistaptly described as the "closest thing Indian herpetology has to a celebrity." Although Biju has been working with frogs for over 30 years, he began his scientific career as an ethnobotanist, studying the ways India's indigenous communities used plants as medicine. During his decade-long stint as a botanist, Biju found himself becoming increasingly interested in the frogs he encountered during plant hunting trips to the Western Ghats, a mountain range largely in the Southwestern Indian state of Kerala. When he would encounter an interesting species of frog, he would photograph and document it for his own enjoyment.

Things came to a head in 2000 when Biju had to submit an annual report to his affiliate research organization detailing what he had been up to for the past year. By Biju's own admission, he had been dishonest with previous reports, citing bogus progress in his plant research to appease his superiors. He came clean in his 2000 report in which he frankly admitted that he hadn't really been doing much at all for the past two years. So Biju quit his job as a plant systematist at theTropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in Kerala and began pursuing his second PhD at the Amphibian Evolution Lab at Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium.

Biju first garnered international attention for his work with frogs in 2001. This was the year he published a paper through the Indian Society of Conservation Biology in which he claimed that India was home to hundreds of previously undescribed species of frogs. The paper, about 25 pages in length, detailed the previous 15 years of Biju's frog-related field notes and quickly drew skepticism from the international herpetology community.

One of Biju's labs. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

According to Biju, some herpetologists refused to believe that so many undiscovered species could be living in India. The fact that this outlandish statement was being made by a botanist, rather than one of their own, only increased their scorn.

"The [herpetologists] put out a statement saying that two hundred undescribed species was impossible," recalled Biju. "But of course I knew that it was not like that, I knew that it was possible. Now after so many years, the people who made that statement are saying, 'Oh, there really are more than 200 species of frogs [in India].' It always makes me smile to hear these people saying the same thing I was saying 20 years ago."

Following his initial controversial publication about the staggering biodiversity of India's amphibians, Biju found himself in the throes of frog fanaticism. With little financial backing to support his frog hunting endeavors, Biju took matters into his own hands. By scraping together his own funds he bought a motorcycle, threw his possessions into a backpack and headed out to the jungles of the Western Ghats where he would live for months at a time during the monsoon season documenting frog life.

His perseverance soon paid off. In 2003, Biju published an article in Nature in which he detailed his discovery of Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, more commonly known as the Indian purple frog. The purple frog's discovery is remarkable for a number of reasons. In the first place, it's taxonomically unique. Due to its singular morphology—the frog has a tiny head and pointed snout—it was assigned its own family upon discovery.

Indian purple frog. Photo courtesy of S.D. Biju

Finding the purple frog in this particular region of India also provides some solid evidence that the islands of Madagascar and Seychelles broke off from the Indian landmass well after the breakup of Gondwana, a supercontinent that predates Pangaea. This conclusion is based on the observation that the closest living relative to the purple frog is found 2000 miles across the Indian Ocean in the Seychelles. And then there's the remarkable coincidence of the find itself: the purple frog lives underground all year, only emerging for about two weeks during the monsoon season to lay thousands of eggs in the rock pools that form after the rains.

"Every discovery in my life is fascinating, but the purple frog made my life," Biju told me. "Without that frog, it is very difficult to imagine my life like this today."

While the discovery of the purple frog was instrumental in making Biju a herpetological celebrity, it also gave him a platform to further conservation efforts oriented at saving the object of his obsession. Yet as Biju is quick to point out, his struggle is not for the conservation of frogs and their habitats alone. Rather, frogs were simply the vehicle with which he hopes to convey a much larger and more important message about the need to conserve all forms of life, not just those animals we find charismatic.

According to many conservationists, amphibians are the most endangered class of vertebrates on the planet (frogs account for most of this class, which also includes salamanders and caecilia), with some estimates concluding that an estimated one-third of the over 6000 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction, with the world having lost at least 200 species of frogs since the 1970s. (For the sake of comparison, about 12 percent of bird species and 23 percent of mammals are threatened with extinction, which is still a significant amount.) Additionally, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains an extensive list of threatened wildlife, estimates that between 41 and 56 percent of all amphibians are threatened, with an estimated 75 species of amphibians threatened in India alone.

The reasons for this troubling decline in amphibian populations are manifold: disease, pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss have all been cited as causes leading to amphibian mass extinction.The most significant driver has been the chytrid fungus however, which is estimated to be responsible for the extinction of at least 100 species of amphibians in the last 30 years, although some conservationists think this number may be much higher.

First described in 1998, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is a type of chytrid fungus that has been detected on nearly 270 amphibian species in over 30 countries on six continents. It affects the skin of the infected amphibian, with 100 percent mortality rates in some species and only sporadic deaths in others. The ubiquity of the infection coupled with its high mortality rates and lack of information regarding its transmission and treatment have led some herpetologists to label the frog chytrid as "the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates."

It is this ongoing amphibian mass extinction that Biju hopes to combat through his work with frogs, but as he is quick to point out, his work is about more than just frogs—or even amphibians for that matter.

"I'm not just talking about frogs—I'm talking about all forms of neglected lower forms of life," said Biju. "That is much more important. I'm so proud to be an Indian simply because of the amazing biodiversity of life forms. When I started 30 years ago, no one was talking about small fauna and now look: People are talking about frogs, spiders, all sorts of small, non-charismatic fauna. I believe that is my contribution to the country."

Each year, Biju returns to the jungle to schlep through the mud looking for frogs with his graduate students. Securing funding for his field work has become easier since his discovery of the purple frog, and although his field digs are slightly more commodious than a backpack and a motorcycle, the work is still rough going.

According to Biju, the best time to find frogs is during India's monsoon season, which runs June through August. Biju and his team begin their hunt around 6 PM each night, prowling through the dense jungle until about three in the morning. Their work takes them from the depths of murky swamps to the heights of the forest canopy, and almost all of it is done while it is pouring rain.

As for actually finding the frogs, there are two ways to go about it. One of the ways basically just boils down to luck—happening to come across a frog while casually moving through the jungle. The other way is more rigorous, but also more rewarding. It involves finding frogs by their vocalizations, which allows the team to both identify the frog and triangulate its position.

By Biju's own estimate, he is able to identify almost 50 percent of the frogs he has discovered by sound alone, although he is the first to admit that the successes of his jungle expeditions are largely the result of the skill of his trackers. These trackers are members of Kerala's indigenous communities who have lived in the Western Ghats for generations. Their knowledge of the local flora and fauna has proven invaluable to Biju, and he in turn trains them in the art of frog hunting and identification. Biju considers this relationship invaluable to his work and the bonds he's formed with his handful of trackers run deep—many of them have been working with Biju for nearly two decades.

"My trackers are my everything," said Biju. "I usually keep the same people because they're almost like my family. They're always doing something risky—climbing up trees to the canopy in the pitch darkness while it's pouring rain or something—and it's very frightening sometimes. We're not doing this like the BBC or some really big project with all this equipment. This is a completely different experience."

Raorchestes chalazodes, a frog thought to be extinct for 136 years and rediscovered by Biju. Photo courtesy of S.D. Biju

The nature of Biju's expeditions has changed somewhat in the 15 odd years since he began hunting frogs. What began as a mad dash to collect and describe as many species as possible has morphed into expeditions where the main goals are now photographing and studying the frogs in their natural habitats. The reason for this shift, Biju explained, is that he has already discovered the majority of frogs that can be discovered in the region—he has samples of these frogs, all that remains to do is formally describe them.

For a frog like the purple frog, which is clearly unique is both its appearance and behavior, describing and arguing it as a new species is relatively straightforward. But for frog with a number of relatives—say, a frog in a crowded genus with dozens of other species like the Hylarana, or golden-backed frogs—the process from discovery to publication can take upwards of a year, involving flights to natural history museums and laboratories around the world to compare DNA samples and study the new frog in comparison with other species in its genus.

Although Biju recognizes this as a crucial part of his work, the discovery and description process is not what brings him back to his office every day.

"If going into the field was not a part of my professional life I would not be so happy," Biju said. "Of course I like the science and describing the frogs fascinates me, but the ultimate point of my research is that there are three months in a year that I get to spend in the jungle. Seeing animals in the wild and staying with them—I believe that is the best part of my life."

An adult male of Frankixalus jerdonii. Photo courtesy of S.D. Biju

Throughout our conversation, the characteristically jovial Biju looked as though he was constantly trying to hold back a smile when he spoke about frogs. His passion for these animals was palpable as we sat in his office, and it is this love for frogs that Biju wants to communicate with others. Now that he is comfortably sitting on a mountain of undiscovered frogs that are only in need of description, Biju has begun to reorient his energies toward conservation.

In India, frogs and other neglected lower life forms are rapidly going extinct largely due to partial or total habitat destruction, a process only aggravated by other macroscale factors such as global climate changes. For Biju, one of the most frustrating aspects of combating this trend is simply getting people to care about these "non-charismatic" animals. He cites India's love affair with charismatic species such as tigers and elephants, which receive millions of dollars annually in funding for their protection, while other animals like frogs are being killed in droves.

"I'm living in a country with three or four charismatic animals and that is the complete wildlife concept of India, unfortunately," said Biju. "People say 'Oh it's a frog, [killing it is] no problem.' My mother is the best example here: If I'm talking about tigers ,she's willing to come sit with me and talk about tigers. But if I'm talking about frogs, her understanding of their importance is limited. As an adolescent she was taught there are two kinds of frogs and that they're both ugly. That is the problem."

To help people see the beauty in frogs and other lower life forms, Biju launched Lost! Amphibians of India, a campaign to rediscover amphibian species that were thought to be extinct. Launched in 2010, Biju took two years off of rigorous research to engage the public with programs meant to spur interest in frogs. He would take groups of laypeople out on expeditions and host public lectures to convey the importance of these animals to people who probably hadn't thought about frogs since grade school.

His most recent rediscovery, detailed last month in PLOS One, was of Frankixalus jerdonii, a species thought to have been extinct for nearly 150 years. This tree-dwelling species, which Biju described as "one of the most unique frogs in the world," was last documented in 1870, and is remarkable for its bizarre breeding habits. Females attach their eggs to the inside of tree hollows and when the eggs hatch, the tadpoles fall into the pool of water at the bottom of the tree hollow. The tadpoles' mother then feeds them her own unfertilized eggs until they grow into frogs, an unusual feeding regimen only documented in a few frog species around the world.

Frankixalus jerdonii, which was rediscovered by Biju after having been thought to be extinct for 146 years; Photo courtesy of S.D. Biju

Biju hopes that by turning people on to the importance and beauty of frogs like Frankixalus jerdonii and other amphibians, it will help mold their mindset into one that is more conducive to combatting mass extinction.

"We are still thinking we are something completely different, that we were created apart by God," said Biju. "After that, all things are roaming around for your benefit, or something like that. We annoyingly still think like that sometimes, even educated people. But we are losing our biodiversity really fast and the time has come [to change our mindset]. We are not separate from this system, we are a part of it."