FOR any city-slicker, the noise of the jungle is just that — noise. To herpetologist Dr Indraneil Das, each sound is as unique as its owner.
DWARF SPECIES: Measuring between 10.6 and 12.8mm, the Microhyla nepenthicola is the smallest frog in the world.— Photos courtesy of Dr Indraniel Das, Unimas
It’s this extensive knowledge of frog-calls that brought him and his co-discoverer Dr Alexander Haas face to face with what has been hailed around the world as the tiniest frog ever found — the Microhyla nepenthicola.
Much like the small Whoville community in Dr Seuss, the M. nepenthicola calls the simple Nepenthes Ampullaria pitcher plant home — which is where part of its name derives from.
It feeds on the leaf litter collected in the pitcher, lays its eggs, hatches and completes its life cycle there.
Its unique call was what attracted Dr Das and Dr Haas when they went to Kubah National Park in Matang, on Sept 4, 2004 on a field trip with his students.
“I’d never heard that call before. At first, I thought it was a different frog entirely,” Dr Das told thesundaypost.
Where scientists had previously mistaken the call for that of a juvenile, the fact that it was making ‘advertisement’ calls, told Dr Das this was an adult.
“Only adult males make mating calls. Of course, there are other kinds of calls to mark their territory or distress calls to alert other frogs of a predator nearby.”
This kind of call, according to Dr Das, shows that some species of frogs are capable of altruistic behavior.
“Even if they may die, at least, they save other frogs in the area.”
It takes about 10 days for the tadpoles to morph into adults. Even though they can be seen with the naked eye, they only measure 3-31/2 mm and bury themselves in the sediments at the bottom of the pitcher to hide from predators.
When they’re adults, they measure between a diminutive 10.6 to 12.8 mm, hardly bigger than a teardrop. But what they lack in size, they make up for in volume.
Adult males have a harsh rasping call that can be heard as early as dusk all year around, except on the driest of nights. And much like its call, it has a huge jump which makes it all the harder to catch.
“We had to make several trips. Since it has cryptic camouflage, it was almost invisible to spot where it landed,” Dr Das said.
So he and Dr Haas worked with what they had in hand. Laying diapers in a patch around the pitcher plants, they disturbed the nearby foliage and flushed the frogs onto it, catching several of them.
While the microhylid may be newly discovered, it’s not in danger of extinction yet. Nepenthes Ampullaria grow profusely in Bornean heath or Kerangas forests where the soil is moist.
“You can probably find the Ampullaria along slopes or patchy and dense forest edges where there is nutrient-poor soil,” Dr Das explained.
Between studying its habitat and growth pattern, and comparing it with other species, including a 100-year-old specimen collected previously, it may have taken a number of years for co-discoverers Dr Das and Dr Haas to verify that it is a unique species but the rest of the world has fallen in love with it overnight. It has certainly put Borneo on the map. The first three days after they announced their discovery to the world, Dr Das’ phone was ringing off the hook. So much so he had to turn it off.
“I have also been receiving a lot of crazy emails, one of which was from a guy who hates automobiles,” he said, explaining that since his research was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, a lot of people mistook the Foundation for the car manufacturer.
Despite its name, the Volkswagen Foundation is a non-profit organisation that funds projects from all disciplines.
“When it comes to ‘fans’, you can never predict what’s going to happen,” he added.
After the discovery of the tiniest ‘Old World Frog’, Dr Das isn’t sitting on his laurels. His ongoing project is Conservation International’s ‘Search for Lost Frogs’ expedition which spans 20 countries over five continents.
Over the years, a number of environmental factors, including loss of habitat, climate change and illness have caused some frog species to decline or go extinct, making the expedition all the more crucial. Dr Das is now with the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) while Dr Haas is with the Biozentrum Grindel und Zoologisches Museum in Hamburg.