Archive for the ‘Amphibians’ Category

Toxic frog joins elite endemic club

February 16, 2016
The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

Mihintale is recognised as one of the world’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries, so it is fitting that a new frog found to be endemic to Sri Lanka has been named after Mihintale to honour its ancient values.

“On top of being a historic sanctuary, Mihintale is also the point of unison for two ancient cultures, when Mahinda Thera (Son of Indian Emperor, Asoka) met Dewanampiya Tissa (the king of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka) in 246 BC. Hence we named the frog Microhyla mihintalei”, Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura, who led the research team, said.

This frog is now officially called the Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog (Microhyla mihintalei). The specie is found mainly in the lowland dry zone and also has a small presence in some parts of the Wet Zone. The specimens these scientists used for their study lived near Mihintale.

As its name implies, the frog has a narrow mouth that restricts its diet to smaller prey such as termites and other ants. It is reddish in colour and a little bigger than Microhyla ornata (ornate narrow-mouthed frog) the other species in Sri Lanka that can be confused with this species. The females are bigger – up to 2 inches, while males can be 1.5 inches.

Being in proximity, Sri Lanka and India share many wild species. But as a result of thousands of years of separation due to the sea barrier, Sri Lankan populations of a number of amphibians evolved to become unique to the island.

Tadpole of Microhyla mihintalei – MadhavaM

The Mihintale frog had been previously considered to be a species called Microhyla rubra that is widespread in India and Sri Lanka.

Being a dry zone species, the Mihintale frog has to wait for torrential rains to breed. They lay floating layers of eggs on the surface of rainwater pools. The tadpoles have to be lucky to become transformed into frogs before the water pool runs dry.

The skin of this frog is toxic, so many predators avoid it, giving the species a greater chance of survival.Unlike other endemic frogs, the population of Mihintale frog is considered stable.

The reporting of this endemic species is yet another success story of joint research by Sri Lankan and Indian scientists. The discovery was published in the Zootaxa journal with research being carried out by graduate students Nayana Wijayathilaka, Sonali Garg, Gayani Senevirathne, Nuwan Karunarthna under the supervision of Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura of University of Peradeniya and India’s frog expert, Prof. S.D. Biju.

There are 118 frogs and toads in Sri Lanka and with the new member, 102 of them are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 31.01.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160131/news/toxic-frog-joins-elite-endemic-club-181321.html

Garden lizard gains an elite relative from Knuckles

April 11, 2014
Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai

Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

 The The common green garden lizard that belongs to the Agamid lizard family this week gained a new relative that brings to 19 the number of spcies in this group, 16 of them endemic to Sri Lanka. new addition is been a result of strenuous scientific analysis under difficult conditions by young researchers Thasun Amarasinghe and Sameera Suranjan Karunaratne.

This lizard lives in the forests in the Knuckles Range. It had been misidentified as the Crestless Lizard – Calotes liocephalus. Studying the lizard in the Central Highlands and the Knuckles Range, researchers Amarasinghe and Karunaratne spotted some differences in the Crestless Lizards found in Knuckles Range from the same species found in the Peak Wilderness in the Central Highlands. After further study they concluded that the Knuckles lizards were a different species.

Researchers only had nine male specimens from the Knuckles and five males from the central highland to conduct this study but they said the differences were significant enough to classify this species. The specimens in the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) and other museums too had been studied.

Males of the new species are different from males of C. liocephalus because of the absence of a gular pouch and by having mid-gular scales smaller in size than those of its counterpart. The scales in different parts of the body too had clear distinctions, helping the researchers to separately identifying the two species.

But this left researchers with another challenge. C. liocephalus was classified by a researcher named Günther in 1872 using a single male specimen. He did not mention the precise location of the type specimen collected. Thus Amarasinghe and Karunaratne had to compare the holotype with museum specimens and live specimens (not collected) from the Knuckles massif and Central Highlands. The type specimen has been secured in the Natural History Museum in London and Mr Amarasingha also visited the museum to carry out further research.

“After identifying the specimens, we saw that the holotype resembled the Central Highlands populations. Hence we describe the population distributed in the Knuckles massif as a distinct species” said Mr Karunaratne. He and his colleague named the new lizard Pethiyagoda’s Crestless Lizard – Calotes pethiyagodai – to honour Rohan Pethiyagoda for his effort to make Sri Lanka a biodiversity hotspot. In Sinhala the lizard’s is name is Pethiyagodagë Nosilu Katussa.

The scientific paper describing this finding was published in the prestigious journal ZooTaxa. Researchers from Germany, Japan, Austria and England where specimens of these species exist helped the local researchers to make the comparison.

“It is not easy to get measurements of this specimen as it involves a physical count of the scales. It takes about a day to study a single specimen so scientists who helped us had to spend days analysing the specimens in their possession. So they too have been included as authors of this paper: they are Jakob Hallerann, Junichi Fujinuma, Heiz Grillitsch and Patrick D. Campbell.

Knuckles is already famous for its Horned Lizard and this new find will add more value to the area declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140406/news/garden-lizard-gains-an-elite-relative-from-knuckles-91795.html

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Gravid Female) Dushantha Kandambi

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe

Calotes liocephalus (Male) Dinal Samarasinghe

Ninja tadpoles against the dengue menace

November 24, 2013

The croaking sounds of frogs after rain, so common a decade ago, is now drowned by the whine of mosquitoes, and new research suggests that the decline in tadpole stocks [can also contribute in rise of mosquito numbers and lead to increase spread of diseases such as dengue.]

Fig1_P_cruciger_Madhava

The research reveals that tadpoles feed on mosquito eggs – in particular dengue mosquito eggs that act as vehicles to transmit the disease through seasons. The new study also reveals a fortuitous cycle in which egg-laying mosquitoes are attracted to water in which tadpoles live, which then gives the amphibian the opportunity to become a predator of the eggs and deplete future mosquito stocks.

Aedes aegypti – the dengue mosquito – not only lays eggs in water-filled discarded plastic containers, tyres, etc. but also in natural sites such as tree holes, marshy areas, ponds and temporary pools that are used by frogs for breeding. This means the amphibians should be recognised as a prime resource against the mosquito menace.

The Peradeniya University team that has conducted the research includes Gayan Bowatte, Piyumali Perera, Gayani Senevirathne, Suyama Meegaskumbura and Madhava Meegaskumbura.  Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura, an amphibian expert, said this was the first evidence that showed that tadpoles feed on mosquito eggs and play an important ecological role in mosquito control.

Biological control of mosquitoes is valued for its low ecological impact and reduced side-effects on humans, and fish are used as a biological weapon against mosquito larvae. But fish, especially when introduced, can cause ecological damage by becoming a threat to native creatures, including frogs.

Furthermore, fish need interconnected waterways to spread and are often not found in the isolated pools, tree holes, rock-pools, ponds and most temporary water bodies that are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Thus amphibians play a vital role in these areas, point out the researchers.

The transmission of dengue virus from female mosquitoes to their eggs and the resistance of the eggs to drought conditions make them excellent vehicles of disease propagation through seasons.  The number of dengue virus-laden eggs that survive unfavourable seasons determines the population size and incidence of the disease during the subsequent rainy season, so effectively dealing with mosquito eggs is key to controlling the propagation of the disease.

The five tadpole species used in this study are representative of several aquatic habitats: Polypedates cruciger tadpoles are typically found in open or closed shallow pools and ponds; Bufo melanostictus tadpoles in small and large pools and ponds, even where there are fish; Euphlyctis cyanophlictis in many types of shallow ephemeral pools and small streams; Hoplobatruchus crassus tadpoles in large pools including ephemeral pools, and Ramanella obscura tadpoles in tree holes and small pools, well isolated from streams. The presence of tadpoles in all these types of aquatic habitats, which are not often suitable for fish life, makes tadpoles very versatile in dealing with dengue mosquito eggs.

Fig10_Gayani_Senevirathne_Madhava

Gayani Senevirathne, sorting and counting mosquito eggs

Fig11_Madhava Meegaskumbura_Madhava

Madhava Meegaskumbura, examining a rare frog

Fig9_Gayan_Bowatte_Madhava

Gayan Bowatte, monitoring water quality

Furthermore, the breeding seasons of all frogs studied and the dengue seasons coincide, leading to maximum interaction. All five frog species studied by the University of Peradeniya team are commonly found amid human habitation, and many of them lay a large number of eggs. Bufo melanostictus, for example, lays thousands of eggs while Polypedates cruciger lays hundreds of eggs in foamy masses above water tanks into which tadpoles fall to undergo further development.

Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura said it was essential that the role of tadpoles be evaluated in the management of water bodies for mosquito-borne disease prevention.

published on SundayTimes on 24.11.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/131124/news/ninja-tadpoles-against-the-dengue-menace-74312.html 

Eight new shrub frogs discovered from the Peak Wilderness

March 26, 2013

Sri Lanka’s fame as a global amphibian hotspot got a further boost last week with the discovery of eight new amphibian species. The new discovery, takes the number of amphibians found in Sri Lanka to 119 with 103 being found only in this country and was published in the prestigious ‘Journal of Threatened Taxa’. But these unique creatures will be the first line of victims of Climate Change, says researchers. – reports Malaka Rodrigo 

The new species possess unique characteristics that make them distinct from one another and easily identifiable in the field, Mendis Wickremasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka who made the discoveries with his research team said. However the conservation status of the species except for one has to be seen as “Critically Endangered”, as they were discovered in single locations where their habitats are under threat, he said.

The discoveries were made by the research team during a study of herpetofaunal diversity (diversity of amphibians and reptiles) in the Sri Pada World Heritage site. The frogs were discovered along the trail leading from Palabaddala to the Sri Pada Peak, and the trail from Erathna/Kuruvita to the Sri Pada Peak during phase I and Phase II of the project conducted from 2009 to 2011.

Acknowledging the hard work carried out by the research team that included himself, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Gehan Rajeev, Chathuranga Ariyarathne, Amila Chanaka, Nethu Wickramasinghe, Imesh Nuwan Bandara and Dharshana Priyantha, Mr. Wickremesinghe said they braved the chilly nights and harsh conditions of the Peak Wilderness during the survey. Amphibians are mostly nocturnal creatures and the team guided by GPS locators, cameras and other equipment followed the amphibians in leech-infested territories.

The new species belong to the Pseudophilautus group that includes shrub frogs known as Panduru Mediya in Sinhala. This genus Pseudophilautus consists of 65 known species that are endemic to Sri Lanka. This group of frogs is believed to have separated from India long time ago with their evolution to taking place in isolation in Sri Lanka. Most of the shrub frogs are direct developers that are born directly from eggs, bypassing the tadpole stage. Therefore they don’t need to live near a waterway and can survive on moist cloud forests like the Peak Wilderness.

The researchers named these amphibians after eight individuals who play a role in protecting the environment or the conservation of wildlife. Among them are leading ecologists and botanists, Dr.Channa Bambaradeniya, Dr. Siril Wijesundara, Dr.Nihan Dayawansa and environmental activist Jagath Gunawardane. Wildlife officers Y.G.P. Karunarathna, Vijith Samarakoon have also been honoured while a leading surgeon and ardent naturalist Dr. Newton Jayawardane too has been recognized.

One of the frogs has been named after Veera Puran Appu (1812–1848) a freedom fighter who stood up to the might of the British rulers.

FrogsGrahic

The researchers rate the Peak Wilderness as one of the most threatened habitats of Sri Lanka as its unique cloud forest is surround by tea plantations that are rapidly encroaching the forest. In addition pilgrims to Sri Pada due to ignorance contribute to the pollution of this virgin forest. Attempts to build a helipad at the summit, and moves to introduce a cable car system have been condemned by environmentalists and researchers. The latter group fears that the unique biodiversity of the Peak Wilderness will be lost, even before it is discovered.

However, Climate Change will be a greater threat to all these amphibians they fear. Most of the Amphibians need right level of moisture for their survival. But global warming will change these parameters and even a slight change will make a big impact for these environmentally sensitive creatures also known as environmental indicators. Unlike reptiles or birds, which have hard-shelled eggs, amphibians have jelly-like, unshelled eggs that cannot survive desiccation. Amphibians also need moist climates to reproduce, and this makes them extremely sensitive to climate variabilities, he calls.

The frogs in high mountain areas are highly vulnerable to climate change claims the researcher. Many of Endemic Sri Lankan frogs live on cloud forests such as Peak Wilderness and Hortan Plains. It is feared the global warming will elevate the moist cloud drying the soil on lower areas. Other larger animals could move to other areas and adopt, but small creatures and largely immobile frogs would not be able to survive. Other factor is many of these frogs already lives in highest grounds, so they will have no place to move, making these creatures live in higher level the most vulnerable as when their habitat dries or warms, they have nowhere left to go. Other fact is that mountains are cony shapes and as you go higher, there are little living space. So there will be limited ecosystems for these frogs to survive.

Mr. Wickrememsinghe said their ongoing survey at Peak Wilderness would lead to more discoveries in the future, adding that he was grateful to the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, Nagao Natural Environment Foundation, and Dilmah Conservation for funding the survey.

Published on SundayTimes on 24.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130324/news/eight-new-shrub-frogs-discovered-from-the-peak-wilderness-38266.html

A tree frog leaps into list of Endemic Amphibians

October 14, 2012

Researchers worry that the only known population of new endemic tree frogs Polypedates ranwellai, named in honour of Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella, could soon become extinct. 

Sri Lanka, already known as an Amphibian hotspot, reveals another new frog at the Gilimale Forest of Peak Wilderness. Leading researcher Mendis Wickramasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka, who, together with the late Dr. Amith Munindadasa and Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, published a scientific paper in a world’s leading journal, recently updated Sri Lanka’s Amphibians to 112.

The new frog has been named Polypedates ranwellai or Ranwella’s spined tree frog. Mr Wickramasinghe said the frog was named after the late Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella in honour of his exceptional dedication towards wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. Dr Ranwella was an active member and an instructor at the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) who met with an untimely death at a young age in a boat accident in 2003. Dr. Ranwella and Mr Wickramasinghe were colleagues at YZA and had conducted many field excursions together. Mr Mendis said the new species had been first observed in 2000 during a field visit to the Gilimale forest reserve with Dr. Ranwella. The research team later collected specimens and subjected them to a rigorous scientific process to establish that the species is unique and endemic to Sri Lanka.

Although the new species tentatively categorised under the genus Polypedates, the researchers pointed out that this species shows extreme deviations, especially in the skull, from other specimens of the same group, indicating that the new frog could belong to a new genus. Its specialty is the 6 spines located on the sides of its jaws and on the parietal area on the back of the head. Mr Wickramasinghe said that tree frogs with these kinds of spines were found in Brazil and Ghana. The female of this species is about 6 cm, so it is a comparatively large frog.

However, the habitat of this endemic frog is already threatened. Forest fragmentation has become the major threat in this area due to accelerated deforestation. The Induruwa mukalana and Guruluwana regions have become separated by deforestation in the past 10 years, and are now two separate islands according to Mr Mendis. Researchers point out that the many pot holes in its gravel road, which filled with water during the monsoons and served as breeding grounds for these species, has now been concreted, while the existing pot holes quickly run dry when vehicle go over them. Concreting of the road attracts more visitors, and hence more vehicles visit the forest reserve, and consequently, large amounts of garbage is being left behind in the forest.

Apart from logging and encroachment by tea plantations, hazardous activities such as gem mining, sand mining, use of agro chemicals, cutting down and setting fires in the forest edge are also posing threats. All these continued harmful anthropogenic activities consequently, pose other harmful effects such as drying out of water bodies and soil erosion.
Researchers also worry that the proposed construction of a dam across the Kalu Ganga will flood a large area including the Gilimale reserve, completely wiping out the only known population of Polypedates ranwellai from the island – hence a loss to the whole world.

Mr Mendis also dedicates this research paper to the memory of Dr. Amith Munindradasa, one of the co-authors of the publication, whose untimely death was a great loss to the country. An electronic engineer by profession, Dr. Munindradasa was a man of many talents. He had discovered many species new to science, and worked together with the research team till his death.

International meeting on Biodiversity opens in Hyderabad India

Representatives from over 170 countries including Sri Lanka, meet in Hyderabad, India, this week, to discuss the way forward to protect the earth’s biodiversity. This meeting – 11th Conference of Parties of United Nation’s Convention of Biological Diversity will focus on adopting a new Strategic Plan to halt biodiversity loss by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including experts on biodiversity too, has held its congress in South Korea. Scientists highlight that the rate of species extinction has doubled and that, many known species as well as species new to science, will soon become extinct, if the current level of threats continue. Their decline have been mainly caused by humans, but, in almost all cases, scientists believe their extinction can still be avoided, if conservation efforts are specifically focused. They also point out that species extinction will even indirectly affect humans.

Published on 14.10.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/121014/news/a-tree-frog-leaps-into-list-of-endemic-amphibians-16391.html

‘Lost’ shrub frog turns up after 100 years

April 1, 2012

Pseudophilautus semiruber (Tiny-Red Shrub-Frog) is one of the smallest frog species in the world. So far, out of the total of 5000 plus species of frogs in the world, only 46 species   smaller than 15 mm are known; these are referred to as diminutive species. These species are so small that they can rest on the tip of your small finger, comfortably. With the new discovery, Sri Lanka has three such species (P. simba and P. tanu, in addition to P. semiruber).

A scientist called N. Annandale in 1911, found a 12 mm long individual, with a nondescript sex, from Pattipola, at an elevation of 1850 m above sea level. It was formerly described in 1913, using only this single specimen. For the next 95 years nobody ever saw this species again. But in 2005, a single female was discovered by Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura and Mohomed Bahir, from amongst the wet leaf litter, under the cover of a misty montane forest canopy, close to the Horton Plains National Park.

This specimen was subjected to rigorous scrutiny, both using morphology and molecular techniques to determine its systematic relationships. Its morphology was compared to asimilar species, Ps. simba, from Rakwana Hills (Morningside Estate) and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, and to the 1913 description of Annandale. This specimen had been deposited in the collection of the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata. However, this specimen was later found lost. Due to the unprecedented lack of data, the IUCN Redlist considers this endemic frog to be Data Deficient. The rediscovery was announced and a new description was presented in the March 2012 issue of the journal ZOOTAXA clearing the doubts.

This tiny red frog is at the edge of extinction, so immediate conservation measures should be taken, calls the researchers. Sri Lanka is already named as an Amphibian Hotspot with many species new to science, but 21 species of them are already categorized as extinct. This background makes the new re-discovery an important finding as otherwise it could eventually be listed into the list of Extinct Amphibians.

Sri Lanka has a wide diversity of Shrub frogs. Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura (University of Peradeniya) who has been the leading researcher of this discovery has also discovered many other Shrub Frogs, and even an endemic genus Taruga that are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently he is involved in another research in Knuckles region together with another young scientist from the University of Peradeniya, Ruchira Somaweera, to study the ecological correlates of Horned Lizards, so that these highly forest adapted lizards can be better conserved in the face of impending climate change resulting in continued habitat degradation.

However some elements have recently misinterpreted this work as  an act of biopiracy, which discourages the students and the conservation biologists conducting the work. The  researcher takes this as an example to emphasize the importance of all elements, including the public, in supporting legitimate research in the country so that Sri Lanka’s endemic fauna can be better understood and conserved.

Sri Lanka’s Shrub frogs are a special group of amphibians that are different from other frogs. Frogs usually have a tadpole stage and also needs water for their survival. But these shrub frogs are known as ‘Direct Developers’ that gets baby frogs directly from eggs that they lay on soil after digging a hole or on leaf surfaces. They do not need water or a pond to survive, however they require moisture in the ecosystem such as the cloud forests in Sri Lanka’s central highland.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.04.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/120401/News/nws_034.html

Nature tourism a threat to Marble Rock frog..?

October 16, 2011

Sri Lanka has been promoted as a wildlife spectacle of the world. But unregulated tourism threatens to spoil this nature-based tourism industry, even before its true potential is tapped. Over-visitation and visitor-misbehaviour have already put stress on leopards in Yala, elephants in Minneriya and even the Giant Blue Whales off Mirissa.

These large animals may survive, but there are smaller species found only in limited sites and disturbance to these habitats means the extinction of these species. The Marble Rock frog or Kirthisinghe’s Rock Frog that is found only in a few sites in the Knuckles range tops the list of these threatened species.

This endemic amphibian was scientifically classified by Prakrama Kirthisinghe in 1946 as Nannophrys mamorata. Known as the Dumbara Galpara Madiya in Sinhala, Kirthisinghe’s Marble Frog is already listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is a small 25mm amphibian. It is a stream-dwelling frog found on cracks on the rocks, under boulders and on other flat wet surfaces in rocky hill streams. Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is found only in the Pitawala Pathana and suburban area of the Knuckles range, making it vulnerable to extinction, if these sites are disturbed.

Marble Rock frog – dumbara galpara madiya

However, Pitawala Pathana is a scenic area that also boasts of a drop popularly known as the Mini-world’s End attracting thousands of tourists. These tourists often do not respect the habitats in this area, jumping into streams engaging in fun and frolic. Some of them who know about this unique frog look out for it by lifting rocks in the stream inadvertently destroying its habitat.

The Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) claims that many of this frog’s micro habitats in Pitawala Pathana have already been destroyed. ECT activist Sajeewa Chamikara said before an environmental sensitive site is promoted for tourism, there has to be a plan to manage the critical habitats and its unique species from over-exploitation.

He said in the Pitawala Pathana area tourists are only supposed to stick to paths demarcated by white stones, but people pay little attention to them.

Sajeewa said local tourists were largely ignorant about the protection of the environment and wildlife authorities and media should be conscious of this factor when promoting environmentally sensitive sites as tourist destinations. He feared that the new visitor centre coming near Pitawala Pathana may bring more tourists to the site.

However, a Forest Department source said the visitor centre would help to make people aware of the importance of not disturbing the natural habitats of Pitawala Pathana. He said most of the tourists behaved in an irresponsible manner because they were unaware of the site’s unique ecosystem.
Dr. Anslem De Silva, Co-Chair of the Amphibian Specialists Group IUCN/SSC Sri Lanka said the micro habitats of these dumbara galpara madiyas can be demarcated to protect them from being disturbed by visitors. He also suggested the creation of new micro habitats for those already destroyed.

This amphibian expert along with his research team had kept some small rocks in the streams of Pitawala Pathana and the following day they discovered Kirthisinghe’s rock frogs hiding under them. Citing this experiment as an example he said micro habitats can be created to provide artificial habitats for these threatened amphibians.

The Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is also unique because it is an evolutionarily distinct species. It is one of the two Sri Lankan amphibians listed under the global conservation initiative called EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species. This programme http://www.edgeofexistence.org aims at conserving threatened species that represent a significant amount of unique evolutionary history.

In addition to tourist behaviour, Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is also being threatened by water that has been polluted by chemicals used in tea and cardamom estates in the surrounding Knuckles range.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.10.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/111016/News/nws_19.html

Micro habitat of the Endangered Frog

Now, Sinharaja under ‘road-threat’

July 31, 2011

The proposed road adjacent to this World Heritage Site, may bring relief to people but it could destroy the rich biodiversity of the area, warn conservationistsBy Malaka Rodrigo 

Roads that are being constructed across many wildlife sanctuaries in the name of development are in the news these days. The latest among these is a road that will be constructed adjacent to the World Heritage Site of the Sinharaja Rainforest. The proposed road will connect Pothupitiya/ Illuokanda to Rakwana/Deniyaya A17 road near Suriyakanda.

Tagged as a major project to connect Kalawana and Kolonne, local politicians are promising the people of the area that the road would bring much relief to them. However, this road, work on which began on July 27, will be harmful to the rich biodiversity in the area, environmentalists warn.

The proposed road will mainly go through lands adjacent to the Morning Side of Sinharaja , say conservationists attached to the Green Movement of Sri Lanka. Most of the forest lands which are under the Land Reform Commission (LRC) will be cleared for this road and the next inevitable step would be the distribution of LRC lands in the vicinity of the road to private owners, Green Movement’s Bandu Ranga Kariyawasam said.

He claimed a considerable area of forest patch is to be cleared under this project, although the Central Environmental Authority had not carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Forest Department too seemed to be silent on the issue.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane stressed that any development even close to 100 metres was not legal. He said there was a possibility that this road would cut across protected areas too, adding that authorities should investigate the matter.

Sinharaja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB) due to its unique

There are many Amphibians such as this Colorful Frog found only in Morning Side area of Sinharaja (c) Dulan Ranga

biodiversity.

The Morning Side of Sinharaja has a unique ecosystem and is the only home for many of the threatened endemic animals and plants including several amphibian species that have been recorded only on one single location. These sites are sometimes outside the protected areas either on private lands or LRC lands. This highlights that there could be many more undiscovered species new to science on the adjacent forest patches to Sinharaja and other rainforests and clearance of a small patch of forest could make a species extinct within a few days. Even if this road results in the clearing of rainforest patches outside the boundary of the protected area it would still make a big impact.

Sri Lanka has been tagged as one of the 35 Biodiversity Hotspots of the world considering the number of species present in a unique land area, especially in tropical rainforests and cloud forests. Although these rainforests do not have charismatic species like elephant or bear, they are home to endemic lizards, amphibians, plants, freshwater fish, birds etc. The clearance of such a forest in this area is 10 times more destructive than clearing of a forest in a dry zone. But 80% of Sri Lanka’s Protected Areas are located in the dry zone and the wet zone which results in forests in the hill country being encroached for different reasons.

Environmentalists also say the conservation of these tropical rainforests is linked to the conservation of natural forest cover and this is emphasized in the 1997 report “Designing an Optimum Protected Area System for Sri Lanka” which has been collectively prepared by IUCN and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC). It recommends Sinharaja Forest Reserve be conserved as a contiguous forest. This means adding LRC forest lands too to the protected area. But even after 11 years, this has not been implemented resulting in fragmentation and deforestation of the forest.

Mr. Gunawardane also pointed out that a cabinet paper was approved in 2004 to handover LRC lands adjacent to the Sinharaja to the Forest Department when A.H.M.Fowzie was the environmental minister. The Green Movement also says that the cabinet paper instructed to value these lands Rs.0/= (Zero value) and give them to the Forest Department. But LRC has valued these lands, claiming money from the Forest Department and Forest Department apparently had no funds to get these lands back. Due to these ongoing disputes valuable rainforest patches in these LRC lands are under threat.

The cultivation of tea and vegetables is a major reason for encroachment into forest land in these areas and the proposed road will entice more people to encroach, warn environmentalists. In a move to exert pressure on authorities to take steps the Green Movement has written to UNESCO seeking that Sinharaja be named a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ which would give more protective measures.

Breathtaking scenery of Morning Side that is home for unique biodiversity

Another view of Morning Side of Sinharaja (c) Green Movement

Published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110731/News/nws_17.html

New leap in shrub frogs

February 5, 2011

Already famous as an Amphibian hotspot with some 106 frog species, Sri Lanka now has two more tiny shrub frog species that don’t have a tadpole stage. Malaka Rodrigo talks to the young scientist Madhava Meegaskumbura who discovered them.

The researchers were looking for frogs on a cold night at the edge of the Sinharaja rainforest. Suddenly, one picked up a rapid ticking noise he had never heard before coming from a tea bush. Listening carefully, he started combing the bushes searching for the source of the noise. Looking at the researcher through two really large eyes was a tiny frog with a long snout.

Pseudophilautus-schneideri

That was in 1999. 

“Since a call, within reason, can also be used in species identifications, I knew that we potentially had a new species,” said Madhava Meegaskumbura, who had since then worked together with Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi to introduce this frog as a new species. Their efforts bore fruit last week with this information being published as a paper in a science journal, officially updating Sri Lanka’s Amphibian list.

The tiny frog found in the tea estate is only about 2.28 cm and was named Pseudophilautus schneideri. Later studies by the team of researchers recorded them in other lowland areas like tea plantations in the Sinharaja buffer zones, Kanneliya and Elpitiya. “They prefer open areas near humid forests,” says Madhava.

Pseudophilautus hankeni

Madhava’s research also introduced a second shrub frog that is even smaller. This one lives in the cloud forests at a high elevation in Sri Lanka’s hill country. The team working on another hill country frog that inhabited Horton Plains in the late 1990s had encountered a frog similar to the Horton Plains one in the high peaks of Knuckles.

The mountain species named Pseudophilautus hankeni is only about 2.19 cm and was found in the cloud forests in the Knuckles range in Riverston and Bambaraella.

Many new species are named after the researcher, who discovers them, but these frogs are differently named – Madhava was quick to explain. Both these species are shrub frogs; hence they belong to a frog genus called Pseudophilautus and have that name as the first part of their name. (Scientists categorize a group of species with similar characteristics that are closely related into a genus.)

The second part of the name too was different. “Basically, any name can be given, but usually latinized. I named these frogs to honour my teachers at PhD level, at Boston University: Prof. Christopher Schneider and at post doctorate level at Harvard University Prof. James Hanken,” said Madhava. The last two frogs Madhava found were named Pseudophilautus singu and Pseudophilautus tanu -both names in early Sinhalese for “horned” and “petite” respectively.

Tedious scientific process

So far Madhava has discovered 14 frog species and five fish species. The researcher based at Peradeniya University together with his wife Suyama Meegaskumbura, also discovered a shrew from Sinharaja. The scientific process to describe these new species is a tedious one, he relates. Once a researcher finds a different species he suspects is a new one, he has to measure and analyze each and every tiny detail against the specimens of already found species. Explaining the process, Madhava said the analysis is usually three-pronged – Morphological Analysis, Morphometric Analysis and Molecular Analysis.

During the Morphological analysis, a researcher describes various characteristics of the animal – how the snout looks (pointed, circular etc.), if it has tubercles on its belly, the shape of the iris, if there are special folds around its eyes, etc. During the Morphometric analysis researchers try to see if the body form of one species is different from another.

The most conclusive to distinguish an animal as a separate species is the DNA test known as the Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis. Scientists take a bit of DNA from the species under consideration, and compare it with other known forms. You need to amplify a specific region of gene for this, and determine the genetic code. Once this is done, you can compare, and use statistical methods to determine relationships among various species.

“Now we are having more and more access to molecular facilities, and at Peradeniya, we have facilities to do this sort of work. For my PhD, however I did most of the work in a US university, as such facilities were not available in Sri Lanka at that time,” said Madhava.

Direct developers

With the new discovery, the number of Sri Lankan frogs from this genus goes up to 67. The common belief is that frogs always live near waterways, but water is not necessary for the survival of these shrub frogs though humidity is essential. The highest diversity and density of these frogs are found in the most humid areas of Sri Lanka in and around low country rainforests and cloud forests in the central highlands.

What we are taught is that frogs have an interesting reproductive cycle with a stage as tadpoles. But these two species do not have a tadpole stage, and hence are known as Direct Developers. They dig a little hole in the soil and deposit their eggs. All the developmental stages are spent within the egg and fully formed baby frogs emerge directly from the eggs, said Madhava. “There are plenty of such direct developers among our frogs. Already 48 such direct developers are named among existing frogs in Sri Lanka, so out of the living amphibians of Sri Lanka, a little less than half are direct developers that don’t have tadpoles.”

Madhava is thankful to Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi (of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology), his long time colleague and friend, for co-authoring the paper describing these two new species.

Published on SundayTimes on 06.02.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110206/Plus/plus_08.html