In 2014, a team of researchers surveyed to uncover the diversity of frogs belonging to the family Micrixalidae. They found 24 species of dancing frogs across the Western Ghats of India. The size of these dancing frogs (males) ranged from 1.46 to 2.88cm; the Sali's Dancing Frog was the smallest and the Kalakkad Dancing Frog, the largest. The Kottigehar Dancing Frog is among the larger members of the family, with the male coming in at around 2.29cm.
The Kottigehar Dancing Frog is known to live in perennial, primary streams within semi-evergreen and evergreen forest patches of the Western Ghats of India. Primary streams are basically water pathways that flow through fixed routes and eventually feed into a larger river system. Besides perennial streams, these dancing frogs are also known to live in the myristica swamps of India. Myristica swamps, as a local resident explained to me, function like sponges, holding water throughout the year and making it available to its inhabitants during drier times. They are freshwater swamps dominated by trees from the Myristicaceae family. The trees with their large roots that pop out of the ground, called ‘stilt and prop’ roots, make the swamps difficult to walk in for a human being.
The Kottigehar Dancing Frog requires a special habitat for breeding. The female is known to lay her eggs below a layer of gravel within these freshwater systems. After amplexus (mating), the female digs out a cavity and stores her eggs underneath the gravel, safe from predators like birds and crabs. This habitat also provides the dancing frog with its share of critters. Most amphibians, including the dancing frog, feed on small invertebrates like flies and mosquitoes. They feed opportunistically throughout the day, thus keeping the critter population under control.
We know that amphibians, especially frogs and toads, croak vigorously to attract mates and to signal their presence to other males in the territory. The Kottigehar Dancing Frog also croaks, but it does so rather feebly. To help overcome this challenge, the species has evolved an extremely unique way of visual signaling called foot-flagging.
The Kottigehar Dancing Frog extends one leg at a time followed by the other, in quick succession in order to demonstrate its presence. Only the males are known to extend their legs and dance on the rocks while the females wait and watch the show. One of the reasons for this behaviour could be that they live in relatively louder environments where croaking to compete with the background noise would be a waste of energy. There are only a few frogs in the world that we know of that exhibit such intense visual signalling. One such frog is known from Borneo – Staurois latopalmatus.
With support from the ZSL-EDGE Fellowship, my team and I have sampled habitats across the Western Ghats to study this species and its habitat. We are currently gathering baseline data to understand the basic biology and ecology of this frog. We have actively involved people living around known dancing frog habitats in the process of data collection, and to our surprise, they were able to even show us some new sites of the Kottigehar Dancing Frog.
We have also created posters to initiate conversation and get people to start talking about this incredible species. In the future, we will also plan to release an infographic designed by cartoonist and illustrator Rohan Chakravarty, to help create more awareness about the species.
If you have seen the dancing frog or if you stumble upon one in its natural habitat, I urge you to not handle the frog and maintain at least a meter and a half distance from the individual. Throughout the study period, my team and I observed that the frog is easily disturbed by human presence – just our body heat and noise are enough to cause a disruption. The picture of the frog in hand was clicked by my teammate while I handled the frog with gloves (for scientific purposes only). I have undergone extensive training with the Zoological Society of London and have learnt how to handle amphibians with care and with the least disturbance. It doesn’t matter if you are a filmmaker, photographer, explorer or just an enthusiast; it is important to be mindful of the impacts and the disturbance caused by such activities.
If you are a student and are enthusiastic about learning more about the species, do follow my work on my social media channels and please feel free to write to me.