How an underground lifestyle cost the Mahabali frog the tag of official amphibian of Kerala

The Mahabali frog, also known as the purple frog, has survived for about 120 million years since the age of dinosaurs.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 27, 2023 | 11:00 AM Updated Jan 27, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Purple frog which lost ithe race to become Kerala's official frog. Photo: David Raju.

Identified as one of the rarest frog species endemic to the Kerala stretch of the Western Ghats, the Mahabali frog or purple frog has a unique characteristic. It remains underground — literally — and makes an appearance only once or twice a year.

Scholar Sandeep Das, who has conducted extensive studies on amphibians of the Western Ghats and is currently an EDGE fellow with the Zoological Society of London, named the frog Mahabali to equate it with Kerala’s celebrated mythological Asura king.

This is the king who was banished to the underground — the netherworld, to be more precise — but has permission to come overground to meet his subjects on the occasion of the harvest festival Thiruvonam for a single day.

It is also known as Pathala Thavala, or the frog of the netherworld, because it prefers the underground.

The frog created headlines in Kerala recently when researchers approached the Forest Department seeking steps to declare it as the state’s official amphibian.

If the state’s Wildlife Board ratified the proposal, Kerala would have been the first in India to have an official frog.

On his part, Kerala’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden Surendrakumar told reporters that the department had no objection to making it the official frog of the state, and that the board would ratify the proposal.

Kerala CM objects

But when the Wildlife Board met online on 19 January, the proposal received stiff resistance from none other than Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who had a peculiar reason for not having it as the state’s official frog.

Board members contacted by South First confirmed that the chief minister told them that awarding the status to such a frog would “create a lot of interpretations” as it surfaces only once or twice a year.

Vijayan told the meeting that awarding the status to such an amphibian would invite unnecessary sarcasm against the state and its government, especially on social media.

Trolls could go to the extent of terming it an award by a lazy government to a lazy frog, which always keeps itself away from public focus.

As the chief minister remained adamant against the purple frog, the board set aside the matter for a future occasion.

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‘State frog’ status blocked

Frog

A purple frog. (Raghunathan Ganesh)

Also known as the pig-nose frog, the purple frog had all the qualities to become the state’s official amphibian, according to researchers in the area.

They now say the chief minister must have been influenced by a counter-propaganda that involved no conservation aspect.

“As the chief minister remained adamant, Forest Minister AK Saseendran and senior department officials kept mum in the meeting,” said a board member when contacted by South First.

“With the chief minister taking such a strong decision, it would be unlikely that the frog would receive such recognition in any of the board meetings in the future,” he added.

Meanwhile, experts said they wanted the state frog status for the amphibian because it was endemic to Kerala.

What is the Mahabali frog?

According to Professor SD Biju of Delhi University, who spotted the frog for the first time a few years ago in Kerala’s Idukki district, it is both a rare species and a unique amphibian of the country.

Outside Kerala, it can be seen only in a single Western Ghats location in Tamil Nadu.

Scientifically known as the Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, this frog has been listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

It is found in the forests of Kerala’s Western Ghats, which extend over 5,000 km, but in fewer than five locations.

Experts also say there is a continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat in the Cardamom Hills region of the Idukki district.

Going by the findings of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), purple frogs have been categorised by bio-geographers across the world as one of the rarest kinds and a “once-in-a-century find”.

The WWF describes the purple frog as having a bloated body with short, stout limbs and being dark purple to greyish in colour.

“Reaching about seven centimetres, it has a small head compared to the body length and an unusually pointed snout. Its short and muscular forelimbs with hard palms help it to burrow underground,” it says.

“Unlike other frogs, it has very short hind legs, which do not allow the Amphibian to leap from one spot to another. As a result, it covers any distance with long strides. It depends more on its sense of smell to hunt out soil termites underground,” explained Das, who initiated the research under Thrissur-based Kerala Forest Research Institute.

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The conservation efforts

According to Das, the purple frog was recommended for the state amphibian status as it was easy to recognise for its similarities to the mythical monarch Mahabali, who comes above ground for a single day.

He said the frog could become an ambassador for amphibian conservation in the entire Western Ghats region of Kerala.

By conserving the Mahabali frog, the whole aquatic ecosystem and the biodiversity of Western Ghats could be conserved, Das said.

Biju called it one of the world’s oddest and rarest frogs.

The nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, aka the purple frog, aka the Mahabali frog.

The nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, aka the purple frog, aka the Mahabali frog. (Wikimedia Commons)

“It is as old as the dinosaur and looks like a glob of jelly. It has a tiny head and a pointed snout like a shrew’s. And it spends most of the year buried underground, emerging for just one day to breed,” he explained.

Only a handful of filmmakers and photographers have captured this animal on camera since Biju’s discovery, and its lifecycle remains a complete mystery even to the scientific world.

A maximum of a few hundred of these individual frogs are believed to be in existence.

In 2003, Biju and Brussels-based scientist Franky Bossuyt reported the discovery of the Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis as a new family of frogs whose lineage had survived for about 120 million years from the age of dinosaurs.

The researchers highlighted the need for conservation measures to mitigate the threat faced by the species.

More than 40 percent of the amphibian fauna in the Western Ghats is facing extinction, mainly due to the conversion of their natural habitat into settlements, farms and industries.