A New Family and Genus of Amphibian
The entirely new family of amphibian is legless and look part snake and part earthworm. The animals probably resemble relatives that lived when dinosaurs ruled the planet, according to the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“Amphibians are the pioneers of the vertebrae land animals and among amphibians this is one of the ancient lineages,” co-author S.D. Biju, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Delhi, told Discovery News.
Over 1000 Hours of Digging
The discovery came following unprecedented soil-digging surveys in over 250 localities at various regions within every Northeast India state. Biju and colleague Rachunliu Kamei, who led the study as part of her PhD thesis work, are pictured digging here.
The fieldwork, comprising over 2,000 hours of digging, may be the most extensive yet for any study. It is also the most massive caecilian-specific survey ever conducted.
The discovery underscores India’s position as the country with the highest number of endemic amphibian families in the world. Globally, however, amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group, with one of three surviving amphibian species on the verge of extinction.
The new amphibian family is named Chikilidae, derived from a Northeast Indian tribal language (Garo) word for caecilians. The new genus is called Chikila. The newly discovered animals were found in Northeast India. Besides having no legs, they also do not have tails.
They went undiscovered for so long, for one thing, since they don't live above ground.
“The animals are dedicated burrowers and probably never come above ground,” he said. Secondly, “No one made any effort to locate these animals.”
The eggs undergo what is known as direct development. As the babies grow before hatching, they feed on the yolk reserves and come out as miniature adults. This happens without an intervening free-swimming larval stage that is generally characteristic of amphibians.
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Purple Hunters of Worms
Once hatched, the young resemble their parents. They grow to a maximum size of about 8-10 inches long and are “dark greyish to purplish in color,” Biju said. While not much else is known about the behavior of these elusive underground amphibians, the researchers believe they eat what they look like: worms.
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Representing the India-African Connection
The study utilized DNA analysis, high-resolution X-ray computed tomography and other techniques to reveal the history of Chikilidae. Biju explained that the animals are “most similar to ones found in Africa and the morphological similarity is supported by DNA.”
The scientists estimate the time of the split between this lineage and the African one at 165 to 121 million years ago. During that period, India was breaking apart from what is now the African continent. The underground animals must have just continued with their burrowing lifestyle, with some going on to evolve in Africa, and others remaining in India.
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Don Church, president and director of wildlands conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation, told Discovery News that he fully agrees with the new study’s conclusions.
“I was surprised and fascinated to learn that yet another entirely new family of amphibians that crawled the earth alongside dinosaurs has only just now been discovered by scientists in the 21st century, and in an emerging superpower no less,” Church said.
“This study underscores the urgent need for increased biological exploration in places that have not previously been thought to hold major clues to the history of life on our planet,” Church said. “These explorations are needed if we are to stand a chance of saving ancient lineages, such as the one discovered by this team, while there is still time.”
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