Amphibians with moustache

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By G.S. Mudur in Delhi
  • Published 21.10.09
One of the two amphibians discovered; Biju and Kamei, the Indian team members who discovered the world’s first moustached amphibian in the forests of Manipur and Nagaland

New Delhi, Oct. 21: Scientists have discovered two amphibians with moustache-like stripes in the forests of northeast India, adding new members previously unknown to science to the family of primitive creatures called caecilians.

Biologists at Delhi University and The Natural History Museum, London, have found two new species of caecilians — legless amphibians that resemble large earthworms or small snakes — at several sites in Manipur and Nagaland.

The two species Ichthyophis moustakius and Ichthyophis sendenyu appear distinct from each other. But the moustache-like feature in both suggests that they are sister species, Sathyabhama Das Biju, a zoologist at Delhi University and his colleagues said, reporting their discovery in the journal Zootaxa.

The moustache-like feature has not been observed previously in any other amphibian species.

“We still don’t know the evolutionary function of these moustache stripes,” Biju told The Telegraph. During the survey of the Northeast, the researchers also found a new non-moustached species from the same family.

“We’re now trying to understand the function of this unusual marking,” Biju said.

The researchers detected 16 specimens altogether in a search spanning several years during which they trudged into forests, banana plantations, and paddy fields, and along highways.

The caecilians are burrowing creatures and scientists had to dig the ground for the search. “The most tricky part was trying to figure out where to search,” said Rachunliu Kamei, a doctoral student and team member, and an assistant professor at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.

“The young need water, so we pick certain microhabitats such as marshy areas, but most of the time, we don’t find them there.”

The caecilians are the earliest amphibians — among the first land vertebrates — that were followed by salamanders and then frogs and toads. The scientists say their discovery highlights the need to conserve species and habitats in the Northeast.

The discovery has increased the number of caecilian species in the northeast to seven. Scientists worldwide have so far catalogued about 170 species of caecilians, which are distributed mainly in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.