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India’s rare faunas are disappearing faster than scientists can discover them

AP Photo/Satyabhama Das Biju
Dancing Frog.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A mountain range about the size of Greece that runs down the western coast like a fleshy scar, the Western Ghats are a favorite destination for Indian taxonomists interested in discovering new species

That’s because the region manages to cram more than 30% of India’s plant, fish, bird and mammal species in just 6% of its landmass.

It is ranked among the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity. In 2012, UNESCO classed it as a World Heritage Site, noting that more than half of the amphibians, reptiles, fishes and invertebrates that crowded its tropical evergreen forests are to be found nowhere else.

“Working in the Western Ghats is like digging for gold,” says Karthikeyan Vasudevan, a taxonomist specializing in reptiles and amphibians at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. “And right now, there’s a gold rush.”

In 2013, the majority of new species discovered in India came from the Western Ghats. The taxonomic haul, some of which is listed below, includes a psychedelic spider, a handful of crickets, and a troop of “dancing frogs.”

Set against the region’s riches, however, this gold rush starts to look like a drop in the bucket.

“We have documented a fraction of what’s in it, definitely below the global average,” says Vasudevan. Only visible classes of animals have been comprehensively catalogued, he adds, while those that rove about in darkness or underwater remain understudied.

These include frogs, moths, lizards, fish, and the caelician, a limbless amphibian that resembles an oversized earthworm or a glistening snake.

Locked out

But taxonomists in India say they are hobbled in this task, most significantly by lack of funding and the inaccessibility of “legacy data” to compare new discoveries with.

Most of this data is held by natural history museums in London and Paris, which store millions of specimens and represent several hundred years of colonial expeditions. To improve access to such data and strengthen opportunities for training, Vasudevan organized a workshop this October with the French National Museum of Natural History. But such opportunities are rare, and time is running out.

Unlike the colonial-era taxonomists who first chronicled India’s biotic riches, Vasudevan and his peers in the developing world are like scholars grabbing as many papyrus scrolls as they can while fleeing the burning library of ancient Alexandria.

At the World Parks Congress in Sydney in October, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said their information on the biodiversity that the Western Ghats contained was “deficient” and cautioned that the region was under tremendous pressure from population within and without, from untrammelled resource extraction, residential and recreational development and large-scale hydroelectric projects.

“We must know all that exists there before it goes extinct,” says Vasudevan. “Not that we’re not we’re doing much to prevent that.”

Here are six new species that got discovered in the Western Ghats in the past 12 months:

Psychedelic tarantula (Thrigmopoeus psychedelicus)

The second-recorded tarantula species from India, this creature has a lustrous iridescent abdomen colored purple or blue. It’s found in deep, leaf-covered burrows in tea and rubber plantations in the southern Western Ghats. Its discoverer, Zeeshan Mishra, regrets having disclosed exactly where, because of its irresistible appeal to pet traders.

Zeeshan Mishra

Net-casting spider (genus Deinopis)

AV Sudhikumar

A spider that resembles a bundle of furry twigs, it’s one among eight weird-looking new species found lurking in the Parambikulam Tiger Sanctuary on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. It hunts by night, weaving a fine net between its four outspread legs and dropping them on unsuspecting victims that pass below.

Among the seven other remarkable new species that Indian arachnid specialist AV Sudhikumar unearthed was a lumpy arachnid that resembled a pile of bird poop, whose closest relative resided in Australia, and a long-limbed spider that skates atop gorges and streams in search of small fish to feed on.

Cricket (Pteroplistes masinagudi jaiswara)

This cricket species, which resides in the forests of the southern Western Ghats, is the first new species of cricket to be described in India in 90 years. Ranjana Jaiswara, who unearthed it, says it is “very beautiful, and very musical.” Its closest relatives live in South-east Asia.

Ranjana Jaiswara

Dancing frogs

As many as fourteen species of these tiny frogs from the ancient genus Micrixalus were discovered by prolific amphibian researcher SD Biju. These frogs, wee as flies, get their name from their bizarre mating display that has them balletically stretching out a webbed foot from their perches on wet rocks by fast-flowing streams.

SD Biju

Tiny gecko (Cnemaspis girii)

These slender, long-necked geckos are the color of leaf-litter. They reside in the spectacular Kaas plateau, grasslands and forests rising out of volcanic rock in the northern Western Ghats.

Zeeshan Mirza

Fresh-water crab (new genus Ghatiana, new species Ghatiana aurantiaca)

Livid as a freshly boiled lobster, this new freshwater crab species is found inside the crevices of laterite rocks or trees by the banks of small streams in the northern Western Ghats, and it belongs to a brand-new genus specific to the region.

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