Thursday, 9 July 2009

Missing the Purple Frog

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Nasikabatrachus, more commonly known as the Purple Frog, is the most peculiar individual of what I consider to be the most peculiar group of animals. The Amphibians.

Awesome amphibians
Maybe It's no surprise that I find the amphibians so fascinating - for more than two years I looked into their most bizarre and extraordinary talents for the series 'Life in Cold Blood'. My quest for the most televisual and enchanting stories took me almost immediately to the hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum in London. I had arranged to meet Mark Wilkinson, a herpetologist with a rather unhealthy obsession for the forgotton cousin of the frog - the legless, elongated, worm-like Caecilians. He and his team had recently discovered behaviour in these elusive subterranean animals that was to knock the socks of biologists around the world - and he had given me the scoop.

Some mothers do 'av 'em
The intimate lives of Caecilians remain mysterious, mostly hidden from view, deep beneath the soil. Although often called the sharks of the underworld they rarely provide enough excitement to sustain more than a fleeting appearance in any natural history film, and yet there we were about to make a full feature of them.
The scoop eventually led us to a Brazilian rainforest where we filmed the behavior for the very first time. You might remember the moment when the baby Caecilians yawned to reveal their shark-like dentition, a subtle clue to the tour-de-force of gastronomic proportions that followed. Like something from the mind of Tim Burton these adorable youngsters tucked into the flesh of their doting mother - squirming around her as they tore strips from her flanks much as one would slice a tender juicy kebab.
A caecilian with her young, photograph by Hilary Jeffkins

It turned out, that it wasn't quite as morbid and savage as it looked. Unique to the animal kingdom the mother purposefully prepares this cuticular cuisine by enriching and thickening her skin with fats, providing nutrition for her fast growing young - it was simply the caecilian equivalent to breast feeding. The caecilians had finally found their limelight and had experienced their long awaited Attenborough moment. Amazing as it was the Caecilian is not however the amphibian that I am most fascinated by, but this deviation does conveniently lead me straight to it.
Screenshot from Life in Cold Blood - showing the sharp teeth of a Juvenile

Discovering the Purple Frog
While I was sniffing around the Natural History Museum for other interesting leads I was introduced to Dr Biju, a bespectacled gentleman visiting from India. His turban was as neat and tidy as his beard and he was buzzing by his latest discovery - the discovery of the Purple frog. It was an immediate Indian national treasure and an overnight celebrity - I could see why. He showed me some of the first pictures taken of this odd shaped creature and immediately I was enthralled. The strangest looking animal I had ever seen. Its body, an amorpheous blobby sac like a purple stress relieving ball. Four rigid limbs, not disimilar to the feet of a seal, protruded from it's side. But the most unusual feature was it's tiny head with beady black and gold eyes and a pointy pig-like nose that wouldn't seem out of place on the Muppet show.

Digging it
It's weird expression may have simply been enough to hook me but the Purple Frog, like most amphibians, also has a peculiar life history. It spends almost all of its life buried up to 10 feet in the soil. Truth be known, this isn't necessarily anything to write home about. The Caecilians hardly ever come to the surface either, and the 'waterholding frogs' in Australia, Southern Africa and the American deserts have made underground dwelling an art form. Swollen with water, like balloons ready to burst, they dig deep into the desert sands where they hang-on in a stupor slowly deflating and awaiting the rains. One species (Notaden) buries itself with a smaller toxic frog - the small frog providing defence against any predator which might be looking to dig up a quick snack, and the fat 'waterholding frog' sharing some of it's moisture. This same 'water holding' frog also has the charming talent for capturing flies with it's sticky 'fly paper' back so that upon eating its shedded skin it has an extra layer of nutrition for desert.
Notaden cohabiting with the smaller and toxic Uperoleia. A handful of frogs dug up by an aboriginee (photos from a National Geographic article by Rachel Paltridge)

One of the most amusing examples of frog promiscuity involves the similarly sticky back of the large female Breviceps who fervently sticks diminutive males, less than half her size, to it before dragging them down to a subterranean orgy. Aboriginee people had used the various Auzzie 'water-holding' frogs as emergency thirst-quenching stations and when European naturalists started exploring the continent this local knowledge was readily shared and the frogs were discovered for science. These frogs are so eager for every drop of water that a sprinkle from a watering can is usually enough to draw them out.
Breviceps - The South African Rain Frog

Served on a bed of leaf litter
The purple frog evaded Science for much longer - the fact that they're found in dense rainforest might help explain why they had been overlooked. New species of more extrovert frogs are constantly being discovered in Indian forests leaving plenty to distract the budding herpetologist without the need to dig around in leaf litter, where the Purple frog lurks. Even when it does appear topside it's only for one week in a year - rather predictably at the start of the monsoon, when every other frog is vying for attention. The onset of torrential rain beckons it from its earthy grave and if you should be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time you might catch a glimpse of these otherworldly-looking blobs clawing themselves out with their paddle feet, on a mindless mission to reproduce. The amusing thing is that with all the hype about its discovery the Purple Frog wasn't completely unknown afterall. While the budding herpetologists were chasing brightly coloured species around the subcontinent - it turns out that local people in the Western Ghats not only knew about the Purple frog but were roasting them as annual delicacies!

Pipped to the Post
Dr Biju had shared with me pretty much all there was to know about the Purple frog. I investigated whether it would be at all possible for us to be the first crew ever to film it and so I turned to every researchers best friend - 'Google', and this led me directly to the beautiful images taken by Wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma. Several phone calls later and I discovered that we had missed the boat, the frogs were out doing their stuff and Harry Marshall of Icon films had pipped me to the post. He was in India filming for what would be the most Beautiful tv documentation of the wildlife of the Western Ghats - The Mountains of the Monsoon. I was dissapointed that we had missed the boat this year and our schedule wouldn't permit investing in filming the following years emergence. I had no choice but to resign my aspirations and console myself with the prospect of all the other fascinating species we were still to film for 'Life in Cold Blood'. I printed one of Kalyans photos and spent the remainder of the project with the gorky grin of the Purple Frog staring down at me - one of the few natural wonders to have missed out on their Attenborough moment.

A Second Chance
And that was that, at least until 2008 when at the Wildscreen Natural History Film festival in Bristol, Sandesh Kadur, presenter of 'Mountains of the Monsoon' introduced me to the other half of the Indian delegation - none other than photographer Kalyan Varma. A week of socialising, parties and awards ceremonies (in which Life in Cold Blood won the much coveted 'Golden Panda') and Kalyan and I hatched our plan - a plan to chase the monsoon and for me to finally meet the Purple Frog. Over four weeks we were going to explore the wildlife and habitats of the Western Ghats, meet fascinating people and produce stories for a Multiplatform audience.
Chasing the monsoon
So here we are half way through our adventure. We've certainly experienced the monsoon, Its rained non-stop since we got to the mountains, I've met four species of primate, searched for and located a pair of frogmouths, watched beautiful kingfishers hunt, I've seen wild Sloth Bears, and watched a leopard as it disappeared into the night, I've had close encounters with leeches, the largest wild cattle in the world - the Guar, an 8ft mugger croc and a troop of Elephants, and I've sat amongst a herd of the rarest goat in the world, but I am yet to meet the Purple Frog.

The last croak
Things are not looking good - our friends at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Valparai, where the frog was first discovered, told us that they had heard the frogs calling only a week ago but not a croak since. Yesterday our fate was sealed - one of the foundations staff discovered a pool of Purple Frog Tadpoles - a sure sign that the buisiness was over and the frogs had returned to their cozy underworlds until next year. The last bastion of seeing anything Purple frogish might have been the tadpoles themselves but alas they are pretty much indistinguishable from most other tadpoles and won't develop any hint of their perculiar morphology for at least another month.

I may not have seen the Purple Frog but searching for it has taken me to some incredible places. I consider myself lucky to have had an awesome adventure with my good friends Kalyan, Dave and Mandana.

Sent from my iPhone


  1. Crazy Frog eat your heart out. Zing Zing Ping.

  2. Fab. Didnt no frogs cud b so cool. 8oD

  3. Cool Frog. Like something from Seseme Street.