Extinct lizard rediscovered after 135 years
This species was recently rediscovered in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the results of which have been published in journal 'Hamadryad', the product of two years of collaborative work between scientists from Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai and Villanova University, USA.
This gecko, a lizard of the family Gekkonidae, is morphologically unique and was known only from a single male specimen collected in 1877 by British Colonel, R H Beddome, from the Jeypore Hills (in Orissa).
Though subsequent efforts were made by researchers, scientists and nature enthusiasts, this species was not seen in the intervening 130 plus years, naturalist Varad Giri told PTI.
The story of the rediscovery began in 2008-2009, when a PhD student at CES, Ishan Agarwal, began working on the genus Geckoella. Ishan was desperate to find this lost species in order to understand more about its evolutionary history, he said.
The first steps toward rediscovering the species involved a lot of homework, poring over the scanty published information on the species, in an effort to retrace the journey Colonel Beddome made in the Eastern Ghats over a century ago, Giri said.
The only clues on the whereabouts of this species were from its original description, which said that this species was collected under a rock in a forest at 4,200 ft on 'Patinghe Hill, Jeypore' in the Eastern Ghats, he said.
Finally, in 2010, a team from CES embarked on a field trip to try and locate this species. The team included two members of Karanth Lab, CES, Ishan Agarwal and Aniruddha Datta-Roy and their field assistant, Tarun Khichi.
The team wasn't very optimistic about finding the species, as it hadn't been seen for so many years and they had searched various places in Koraput district for this species with no luck.
As Ishan later put it, "it takes persistence and just a little bit of luck," and so it was that one day of hard work by four people paid off with the rediscovery of 'Geckoella jeyporensis' (the lizard).
The team reassembled in 2011 with Praveen Karanth, V Deepak and Prudhviraj, for another field trip through high elevations of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha and against all odds were able to find the species again from a different locality in Andhra Pradesh, Giri said.
While Ishan and Aniruddha were the main people involved in fieldwork, Varad Giri of the Bombay Natural History Society and Aaron Bauer of Villanova University studied the taxonomy of the species.
Giri stated "this species is unique among Indian Geckos as it has enlarged, hexagonal, plate like scales across the back." This is one of the most beautiful Indian Geckos, with an orangey-brown dorsum with a series of large, chocolate brown dorsal blotches."
Interestingly, besides being morphologically unique and endemic to a region not traditionally known to harbour many endemics, this species appears restricted to a very specialised habitat in the Eastern Ghats, semi-evergreen forests above 1000m elevation.
The authors of the study conclude that the Eastern Ghats are more biodiverse than previously thought.
While this is doubtlessly a notable discovery, the study by them says, "In many ways, the rediscovery of Geckoella jeyporensis is symptomatic of herpetological research in India. There are a number of species that have not been recorded since their original descriptions or are known from few localities."
"While some of these species may be intrinsically rare, range-restricted or infrequently encountered due to ecological traits such as seasonality, fossoriality or arboreality (high canopy species); many so-called lost species have simply not been searched for by trained field biologists."
This underscores the need for basic biodiversity inventory across India, especially in areas that have been relatively less studied such as the Eastern Ghats.
Additionally, the areas this Gecko was found in are under severe anthropogenic pressures and are not formally protected. There has been severe deforestation, conversion of forest to coffee plantations and for agriculture, and there are imminent threats of mining in the region, it said.
"From this it is clear that even basic data on Indian biodiversity is lacking, we do not even know what species we have in India or where they are found; and time is running out for many species in the wake of immense changes in the natural system triggered by the human species."
"There is an urgent need for trained biologists to undertake country-wide surveys on a number of groups," says Giri.