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A whole new family of animals

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Photo of an amphibian of the family Chikilidae, S. D. Biju

These animals are closer to frogs than worms!

MSNBC quotes from the press release of the Proceedings of the Royal Society:

The discovery of new vertebrates is rare, especially outside of tropical rain forests, but the new caecilians come mostly from human-inhabited areas in northeastern India. They’ve escaped notice for so long because these burrowers spend their lives underground, out of sight of human eyes.

To discover the new family, researchers led by the University of Delhi’s S.D. Biju spent hundreds of hours spread over five years digging in soil at 238 locations in northeast India. They found more than 500 caecilians, and genetic testing showed that the wormlike creatures did not fit into the known family groupings of these animals. In fact, they seem to have split off from their closest relatives in Africa more than 140 million years ago.

Biju and his colleagues, who report their findings Tuesday (Feb. 21) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, dubbed the new family Chikilidae.

Females of this family build nests for their young underground, laying eggs and coiling around them for the two to three months it takes the embryos to hatch. Unlike frogs and other amphibians that develop through a tadpole or larva stage, these babies emerge as miniature adults. Although not seen in the new species, some types of caecilians get an extra nutritional boost from mom when they hatch: They literally eat the skin off her back.

The habitat of these bizarre animals is under threat, as farming takes over forest land in northeast India, according to the University of Delhi. Although caecilians are harmless, local lore has it that they are incredibly venomous snakes, another factor that threatens these mysterious, secretive creatures.

In a first ever, the usually unmovable TOI takes the trouble to research the story and come out with a very good report:

Most of the world’s 61 amphibian families were described by the mid-1800s and any new discovery is extremely rare. Biju’s team has achieved it twice in less than a decade.

“I am so glad because I am fortunate to have discovered two new families of amphibians, one in 2003 after a gap of 100 years, then the famous purple frog [Nasikabatrachus] and today, Chikilidae,” said Biju.

Rachunliu G. Kamei

The research that lead to the discovery is part of Biju’s PhD scholar Rachunliu G Kamei‘s thesis.

“That an amphibian in northeastern India has African roots – and ancient roots at that – in one sense fits our knowledge that India has moved physically through time and varied its continental connections, but this discovery makes rich predictions about other similar patterns to be looked for,” Frost said.

Biju’s group has also discovered 57 new species and 6 genera. The majority of new discoveries come from remote tropical rainforests. However, the new family described here is mainly from human-inhabited areas. “This makes the conservation of species more challenging,” said Biju, who led a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum, London and Vrije University, Brussels.

According to Biju, the present description of new family underscores India’s remarkable position as the country with the highest number of endemic amphibian families in the world. The work is a significant contribution to understanding of vertebrate evolution and biogeography.

Good work from the Systematics Lab of the University of Delhi. But shouldn’t that be Systemics?

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 22, 2012 at 4:26 am

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