for National Geographic News
A frog species whose ancestors evolved in the shadow of dinosaurs has been discovered burrowing into the remote mountains of southern India, a pair of biologists report in the October 16 issue of Nature.
The blackish-purple living fossil looks like a bloated doughnut with stubby legs and a pointy snout. Its closest relatives hang out in the Seychelles, a group of islands 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) away.
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"We had no idea it would be the closest relative of these Seychelles frogs," said Franky Bossuyt, a biologist at Free University of Brussels in Belgium, who described the species with his colleague S. D. Biju.
Biju and Bossuyt named the new species Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis and say it is so unique that it warrants the establishment of a new frog family, Nasikabatrachidae, of which it is the only member.
The relationship of Nasikabatrachus with the Sooglossidae in the Seychelles suggests that these frogs evolved about 130 million years ago before an ancient landmass known as Gondwana broke apart, sending India on a collision course with Asia and splitting the Seychelles adrift in the Indian Ocean.
Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park who wrote an accompanying News and Views on Nasikabatrachus for Nature, said this discovery is remarkable and unique.
"New species are found all the timeabout 70 are found each yearbut almost always they are related to other known species," he said. "This one is not; it is not closely related to anything and distantly related to a family in the Seychelles. That makes it very remarkable."
There are only 29 families of frogs, encompassing approximately 4,800 known species, and almost all were discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries. This makes the discovery of Nasikabatrachus a once-in-a-century find, added Hedges.
Nasikabatrachus was discovered in the Western Ghats, a mountain range in southern India covered in tropical forests. Conservationists consider it a biodiversity hotspot, a rich but threatened reservoir of unique plant and animal life.
Human pressure, primarily from agriculture, has reduced forest coverage there to less than 10 percent of its original extent, said Hedges. What does remain is remote and inaccessible, which may explain why Nasikabatrachus went undiscovered for so long.
"To go out and search for these things is not easy," said Hedges, who added that as demonstrated by this discovery, it is still worth going out to look around.
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