It was the fag end of winter, and the morning mist had shrouded the granitic hillocks in a dense fog. We hiked up a small hillock in the Nijgal reserve forest, close to Bangalore along with a bunch of children. Suddenly, we heard sounds of something moving rapidly over water. It sounded like stones skipping on the surface of the water. Upon finding a small rock pool, we realised that what we’d heard was the common skittering frog (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis). These greenish-brown frogs are typically just under 8 cm in size and often float on water with just their eyes breaking the surface. They get their name because of what they do — rapidly skip on the water. The common skittering frog was among the first few frogs described in India back in 1799. Currently, there are only eight known species in this genus and seven are found in India.
Typically, skittering frogs are spotted in or on the edge of waterbodies. Often, they are seen in rock pools or on monolithic rocks that are well over 200 m higher than the land around them. The frogs must be climbing up the hill somehow. The common skittering frog is widespread across India and is found in all kinds of waterbodies, including old wells. At night, males float on water and produce a multi-noted call. Their paired vocal sac can be seen ballooning up on either side of their jaws, just beneath the eyes. They also mate, floating on water, and the female releases a bunch of eggs that float too.
Pondicherry pond frog
The pond frog (E. hexadactylus) is the other well-known member of the group of skittering frogs. The pond frog is twice as large as the common skittering frog, brighter green in colour without distinct patches on the dorsum, and appears to have a sixth toe, giving it the name six-toed frog (hexa-six, dactyl-digits). The “sixth toe” is actually a large tubercle on its hind feet. The first time I saw these frogs was in Pondicherry in 2009 on a birdwatching trip to Ousteri Lake. The frogs were floating in the water around the lake’s edge and would dive in, instead of skittering on the water.
A year later, as part of a frog survey, we noticed that the pond frogs were common. They were found right on the edge of the busy East Coast Road, as well as in large, remote wetlands. The pond frog has a vegetarian diet, eating more plant material than the insects typically eaten by frogs. One night, we were surveying frogs in a lake not far from Pondicherry’s White Town, when a young boy from the nearby village saw us wearing headlights and decided to come along. I chatted with him and asked if he knew about frogs. Sure enough, he did and gave us vivid details of how, every few months, they go with a bunch of adults, hunting these very frogs that we were studying. Small groups of people would step out at night and using the thorny twigs of the Acacia nilotica trees, they would whack pond frogs, impaling them into the thorns. They would then take about 40-50 individuals back to the village and eat them. “Isn’t it cruel to eat those poor helpless frogs?” I implored. To which, the kid snapped back “The guy on Discovery, jumps from planes and eats anything and everything he finds. Why should I feel bad?” I did not have a straight answer to that.
Frogs are a delicacy and until the mid-1980s when it was banned, India was a large exporter of frog legs to Europe. Unfortunately, the demand continued, and the trade shifted to Southeast Asia where thousands of frogs continue to be caught and shipped to Europe and elsewhere. We left the place convinced that there was a clear need to educate people about the importance of frogs and why we ought to let them be.
Hidden in plain sight — Karaavali skittering frog
In the monsoon of 2015, I was drawn into studying skittering frogs when a colleague, serendipitously ran into an undescribed species of skittering frog in his backyard. CR Naik, a forest officer based in Kumta on the west coast, had studied frogs around his house and encountered a unique looking species. He had also heard it calling and played us the call when we visited him. We brushed it off saying it was the call of a white-throated kingfisher, but he insisted that it wasn’t and played us a video. Lo and behold, it was indeed quite different from the pond frog. It was green, twice as large as the pond frog with a rather long snout with purple vocal sacs.
While making detailed comparisons with the pond frog, we realised that other researchers had seen this new species but had mistakenly identified it as the pond frog. Using the call, morphology, and genetic information, we described it as a new species to science and called it Euphlyctis karaavali. Karaavali is the Kannada language word for the coastal region where the frog was found. We did so intending to draw people’s attention to the frog by linking it to the region. Subsequently, others have found the frog in parts of Kerala as well.
Running into the common skittering frog atop Nijgal hill was just an excuse for us to stop and tell the beady-eyed children little stories about the discoveries that a common man like Naik, with no formal training in science, can make. It also was a chance to highlight how little we know about frogs. Be it the rare ones found in the jungles of the Western Ghats or the ones found right in our backyards. One can only hope that some of the children or readers of this piece will go out and discover something new about frogs.