Why I love Frogs And Why You Should Too!

A beautiful froglet of endangered Rhacophorus lateralis. (Clicked by Shrikanth Nayak; naturalist in Bagh Villas, Kanha.)
A beautiful froglet of endangered Rhacophorus lateralis. (Clicked by Shrikanth Nayak; naturalist in Bagh Villas, Kanha)

Often when I tell people that I love frogs, one the most important question that they ask me is “Why do these ugly frogs fascinate you? What’s in them?” So to answer this FAQ, I have made a list of fascinating facts about these croaking knights.

I am sure these will not fail to impress even the most unexcitable amongst you:

1. Bioindicators- The word ‘bioindicator’ literally means a creature that tells you something about the environment. Did you know that frogs breathe through their skin? Fascinating- ain’t it! Scientists over the years have explained that frogs and amphibians are good bioindicators because they are affected by the natural environment. Their skin is highly permeable and any change in the quality of air or water will directly or indirectly affect their existence. Sudden increase or decrease in the population of frogs can speak a lot about the environment that we live in.

Watch this video to know more –

2. Hate creepy crawlies? Love frogs- Most frogs feed on little invertebrates on the land and in the water. They play a major role in controlling the population of pests. Frogs will feed on mosquito larvae thus keeping the environment clean and preventing many deadly diseases. This could be most people’s personal favorite reason to love frogs 😀

Take a look at this mind-boggling poster released by Vancouver Aquarium to show you what the world without frogs would look like –

iffrogsgoextinct

 

3. Two lives specialist- Amphibians are specialized creatures that live in the water and on the land. Alfred Sherwood Romer quotes- “The amphibian is.. in many respects, little more than a peculiar type of fish which is capable of walking on land.” Frogs spend one-half of their life in water being tadpoles and other half on land or trees. There are indeed frogs that are fully aquatic but would still spend time at the edges of the pools (half immersed) instead of fully being in the water, unlike any fish.

An adult frog with a tail!
Almost adult night frog (with a tail) chills on a wet rock surface by a small puddle in Coorg, India!

4. Breathing through the largest organ- Just like human beings, frogs have skin, bones, muscles and in-cavity organs. In the early nineteenth century, a number of scientists studied the frog’s respiratory system and found out that frogs could stay alive in the absence of lungs for more than a month! Skin is the largest organ in the body and frogs rely to a great extent on cutaneous (through skin) respiration. This explains why the frog’s skin is highly permeable to water and air, although the only constraint being it must be kept moist at all times.

Such beautiful and photogenic creatures clicked by Dr Gururaja
A group of Rhacophorus lateralis clicked by Dr Gururaja. Aren’t they innocently photogenic?

5. Clean drinking water- Excessive algae blooms have been a major cause for the destruction of fresh water bodies. Most tadpoles and frogs feed on algae that grow in the water bodies. Thus they help in maintaining the oxygen levels of the water. They form a part of natural filtration system in the freshwater ponds. You might also like to know that they are never found in salty water or in the sea!

This tiny rests on the rock overflowing a stream
This tiny croaker (Micrixalus Saxicola) rests on the rock adjoining an overflowing water stream in the Western Ghats of India

6. Eggs so weird- Frogs lay their eggs in water or on very damp surfaces. Their eggs are unlike any other reptile or bird eggs – they are not covered by hard shells. Frog eggs are little squishy bundles made of a jelly like matter that protects the growing embryo. Most amphibians use external fertilization (the female lays eggs first and the male fertilizes it later). This again explains the need for damp surfaces and requirement of fresh water for their survival.

A male Nyctibatrachus grandis guards it's eggs
This male night frog (Nyctibatrachus grandis) sits alert to guard his egg clutch!

7. Psychedelic calls- ‘The sound, which the scientific books describe as “croaking,” floats far and wide, and produces a beautiful, mysterious effect on a still evening’ – W. H. Hudson (1919). You might have heard continuous trrrr-trrrr-trrrr during damp, dark nights in your backyard. Have you ever wondered how these little beasts call all night? Well, the answer lies in their wonderful and functional three-unit “noise-production-system” inside their body cavities. This system consists of trunk muscles, larynx and vocal sacs. Trunk muscles give power, larynx helps in the production of the sound, and the buccal cavity and vocal sacs together transmit the sound to long distances. Sounds are either produced for attracting mates or for dominating other males in the area.

This clip by Ramit Singal tells you how interesting the music can get –

8. Highly intelligent- These tiny wonders are extremely intelligent. They are smart enough to manipulate their sounds and signals according to different needs. Some frog species, considering the habitat they live in (torrential streams), call at different pitches and manipulate their frequencies.
The ones living near heavy flowing rivers might give “click” sounds with long breaks to stand apart from the continuous background sounds. And there are frogs that have evolved to give ‘visual signals’ to convey their message. Foot-flagging is one such visual signal. The genus Micrixalus (endemic to India) is popular for their foot-flagging signals. They are popularly nicknamed Dancing Frogs. There are about twenty-four known species of Dancing Frogs in India.

This video by Dr Gururaja shows how a frog dances –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwUIjAlWcqk

These are only but a few facts that I have listed due to time and space constraints. If I sit back and start to mention each hard-to-believe fact of these slimy creatures, I could write an entire 100-page magazine dedicated to frogs. Now I’m sure you understand – why I’m crazily in love with frogs <3

I would also like to tell you, that I am starting Part 1 of my campaign #NotJustFrogs in India. All you have to do is click pictures of frogs (add date and location) and share them with me using the hashtag on Instagram and Twitter.

You could also join this facebook group!

Also, if you would like to take one more step towards saving frogs then click on the link below. You will be asked to make your profile and then you can show your support towards my project with Roots&Shoots by Dr Jane Goodall.

https://www.rootsandshoots.org/project/notjustfrogs-part-l

Don’t forget to tell me your reasons to love (or hate?) frogs in the comments below 🙂 

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On a Snow-Hooded Himalayan Trail: The Story of Serken

There are only 3000 to 6000 Snow Leopards estimated to be alive today- they are an endangered species. By some conservative estimates, you would be 10 times more likely to be struck by a lightning, than having the absolute luck of seeing the majestic Snow Leopard. Serken (in local name) is considered to be a symbol of God. With these thoughts in mind, five layers of warm clothing and strong, sturdy shoes I set out on a journey to feel the Himalayas. A lot of effort was put into bringing together all necessary life belongings into one rucksack. The aim was to keep it as light as possible. I was going to climb steep rocky mountains in -10 degrees celsius (it was late October), explore the frozen valleys and live with the locals of the Spiti-Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh, India.

When I arrived at Chandigarh in the morning, three free souls and one self-driven car welcomed me at the airport. We hopped in and shortly hit the highway to Manali. A night spent well and an energy packed breakfast filled me with thrill and enthusiasm to drive further. Through the snow peaks and huge rocks we paced our SUV to stop right at our next destination- Chatru. Unlike the usual tar or cement roads, the roads here were made only of gravel. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a landslide right beside me. Mother Earth pulled down everything from big boulders to minute sand particles and threw them at us puny humans! Everything was grey, hidden under the vast dust cloud that rose in the sky. Gravity showed its aggression to us. It looked like a trailer. Earth- like an angry goddess; trying to tell man that she is far more powerful than any human being could ever aspire to be!

A big speed breaker and a bumpy bridge, got me back to the present and I saw that we had by now passed the landslide. The grey had disappeared and I had reached Chatru, just before dusk! The stars shimmered and glittered, as only the stars under the grand Himalayan sky can. There were only two huts where we could ask for food. The temperature fell rapidly but the small hut, the family we met, the fried eggs and noodles they cooked for us brought much needed warmth and love! After setting up the tent I watched stars change position for about two hours and discussed how enlightened our life was to be experiencing pure nature first hand. We also discussed struggles of life while talking to the only family we had met. They had no permanent address- they lived six months in Chatru and the other six in a village at a lower elevation. They were filled with joy to meet us, to share their dinner with us and allow us to spend a night on their land- it wasn’t often that they had visitors this late into the year. They told me people like us, make their life beautiful. I strongly believe the struggles you choose determine the level of carefree and happy life you lead!

The next morning I woke up to numb feet, ice in my hair and chirping birds. There were a pair of singing River Chats flying all over the place. The tributary of Spiti river flowed freely by the side. After waving goodbye to the family who provided us shelter we moved ahead to Dhankar Village. On the way we spent another night at a pristine lake that we bumped into after our not so perfect google search. We took a narrow, winding road that led us to Chandra tal lake- the Lake of the Moon- one of the highest lakes in the world. We spent the night under the starry galaxy and woke up to clear blue water which literally turned the Himalayas upside down.

When the Himalayas turned upside down
When the Himalayas turned upside down

Dhankar Village was 8 hours away from the Lake of the Moon. After a great bumpy make-your-own-way ride on gravel, the stars twinkled their smiles upon us one by one. The night fell dark- we were about to reach Dhankar Monastery. It was 9 PM at night. To my ecstasy, the monastery lights shared the space with twinkling stars at the horizon. I shouted with joy “Yay, we found a home”. All of us got really excited to see civilization again! Faint with hunger, we decided to distract ourselves by turning our attention to our daily “wildlife talks” and discussed how we were 4000 meters above the sea level. My friends curiously asked me about the wildlife found here! I told them about the Short-toed Larks that we had seen flying in flocks at the lake, the majestic Himalayan Griffon that perched on the rock, the Ibex which we couldn’t see and then we discussed the mighty and elusive Snow-Leopard.

Himalayan Griffon in all its glory!
Himalayan Griffon in all its glory!

“The Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), lives in high altitudes about 3,000-4,500 meters from the sea level. It can walk on the rocky steep slopes of the Himalayas and is usually seen only above the tree level. Sources say that there are only 6000 of these individuals left in the wild. They have been facing major threats like climate change and habitat destruction owing to the greed of homo sapiens. They can hunt prey three times their size. They are about 125 cms long- not counting their tail length. They have an extremely useful tail which can sometimes be used to protect them from the harsh snow.” Can we come across a Snow-Leopard here? Asked a friend who was currently concentrating on driving and reaching the horizon with lights. “Yes”, I said, “If only fate is on our side! It is an extremely rare and elusive animal, and finding one is like finding an angel falling from the sky” My friends laughed as we continued making our way.

After about thirty minutes, while we were still driving and I was lost in the stars that followed us, my friend who had never seen even a Snow-Leopard photograph, shouted out- “Snow-leopard!” as he brought the car to a grinding halt. Wait, what, that isn’t possible- I thought. “No, it can’t be”, I said still lost in the stars. “It is, there is no other creature this size with that long a tail. Her eyes are shining in the car’s headlights, at least take a look, you girlgonebirdzz!” He exclaimed. I got up from my recumbent position and to my surprise an adult solitary “Serken” as the locals would call it was sitting comfortably on the cold, very steep mountain beside me. I hurriedly got my torch and focused straight on the animal, keeping a safe distance. “Yes, a female Snow-Leopard!”

Yes, the elusive and rare- Snow Leopard!
Yes, the elusive and rare- Snow Leopard!

We stopped the car to get a better look. I tried photographing it but it was too dark. It stared at us as we stared back. I tried to climb up to get a better picture, careful not to make any sudden movements and scare it away. The result was this shot that I managed to capture after 30 minutes of slowly and painfully inching forward. By then I had closely monitored her behavior towards me- she looked calm and peaceful, she just wanted to relax on the mountain! We stayed like this for another 30 minutes, staring at each other before my friends dragged me away and I went to the car reluctantly. That night we holed up at the monastery, where the monks told us that yes indeed a Sow Leopard had been dragging away their livestock over the last few weeks. They mentioned that spotting a Snow Leopard is very rare and that we were one of the luckiest travelers that year! I slept fitfully, dreaming of the leopard, chasing it through the mountain crags.

Next day morning, at the break of dawn, I jumped out of my bed and drove towards the place where we had spotted the Serken. Alas, it was gone! I jumped into the narrow gap between the mountains and started pulling myself up. Although the Serken was gone, I was fortunate enough to collect her hair and a few droppings. I secured these valuable samples up in air- tight zip-lock bag to get them tested at a lab once we returned to civilization. The Serken was a majestic sight, one that crowned our entire trip. It was more than the icing on the cake, for me personally, the Serken took the cake itself! 🙂

PS: This article was first published on Travelettes – an online platform for women travelers to share inspiring stories. Read it here. Don’t forget to show your love- comment, like and share! Any help with my Travel Funds will be highly appreciated. Thanks!

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How To Avoid Leeches?

In the simplest definition- a Leech is a parasite that sucks blood. If you happen to wander around during the monsoons in the Himalayas or the Western Ghats of India you will encounter them in large numbers. They live off another organism and suck the blood (literally) of their host. Usually it is vertebrates that play hosts to these leeches. During my endeavors in the forests I have seen them attack a slug, a toad, many dogs and most commonly human beings. They usually make their way up from the host’s foot and crawl up till they find an area to suck on. They are capable of attacking any part of the human body including eyes, nose, mouth, vagina, penis, ears and breasts.

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Kodagu District lies in the Western Ghats of southwestern Karnataka. The district’s elevation is roughly 900 meters above the sea level. Most of the land is covered with coffee plantations and the rest is evergreen forest. In my quiet and peaceful hamlet within the coffee plantations, I lied down on a bench in my veranda watching rain and birds. They say an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. The devil had taken over my mind. I impulsively decided to venture out in the forests barefoot. I wanted to feel the clean, moist earth and moss that covered the rocks. I had been warned not to go out without gum-boots for the fear of stepping on snakes, dangerous invertebrates and of course thousands of leeches that would attack me in no time. But often, I do as I like, and went to take a walk barefoot. When I returned I had at least ten leeches clinging on to me in a short span of ten minutes. Most had grown from a mere 2 cms to over 12 cms in length. They had sucked my blood and grown ten times their original circumference. Some had fallen off leaving a profusely bleeding wound while others still hung around my legs, upper arms and neck. 

The point is, leeches are harmless to human beings. But they do send a shiver down the spines of most people who are not accustomed to them. Also, once attacked, each one’s body reacts to it differently causing irritation and inflammation. Most leech wounds would heal in a period of a week. Sometimes the wound leaves a small, itchy scar behind. The tiny dark scars most often go away in the second week. I’d like to say, if you plan to get attacked by leeches like I did or are wandering around in moist forests, you must keep in mind your sugar levels or any other coagulation disorders that you may be suffering from. In no case should a person diagnosed with Diabetes Mellitus (DM) come in contact with leeches. The wounds of people with DM do not heal easily. Having DM may cause unnecessary complications, like infections.

(On a side note- I’d like to point out to those of you who think that DM only hits the elderly, that’s a myth! DM can affect anyone at any age. It is also important that you do not have any suspicions of increased sugar levels. In my case I was sure of not having elevated sugar levels in my blood, thanks to knowledge gained in my 7 years of medical schooling)

For people who are still grossed out by the idea of getting leeches on themselves, and as a general precautionary care- I have got easy ways to stay away from these blood suckers just for you:  

  1. Pluck it out: In an unfortunate incidence of watching a leech crawl up on you or feeling it in an unwanted area on your skin, you could simply pluck it out. That being said, there’s a specific way of doing it. You can’t just flick it off like a mosquito or a fly. With dry hands, tightly grasp the leech in between your fingers and pull it out. Now roll it using the pads of your thumb and index finger and flick it like you would the striker in the famous eastern origin game of Carrom. On most occasions you will have a bleeding wound. Use a bandage or dettol to prevent any infections.
  2. Use Salt: Salt has been popularly used by people who go to leech infested areas. The benefits of common salt against leeches are well known to the indigenous tribes of India. Salt can be sprinkled directly over the leech to kill it almost immediately. I have seen locals carry a special stick. Before getting into the forests they wrap salt in a piece of cloth and tie the ball at the end of a stick, like shown in the picture below. It is super easy to use, carry, store and it lasts long. Just slightly wet the ball at the end of stick and apply to wherever the leech attacks. Interesting isn’t it?

    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
  3. Rub Vinegar: I learnt this technique from an old experienced man who had lived in the forests for more than 30 years. For him getting leeches off himself and fellow travelers was an everyday task. He tells me that rubbing vinegar all over limbs, thighs and soles of the feet can help prevent leech attacks.
  4. Tobacco: Just like common salt, tobacco has been frequently used among ancient Indian tribes. They rub a mixture of crushed tobacco and water over their limbs to protect themselves from leeches before entering the forests. I remember the old man from the forests mentioning that he uses tobacco for his pet dogs. Dogs often sniff around in the forests. As a result, leeches get inside their nose. An easy way to ease out the troubled dog would be to get him to sniff on a mixture of tobacco and water. A modern variation for trekkers and people like you and me would be to carry a cigarette along. Powdered tobacco from the cigarette can be put directly on the leech to kill it immediately. (Please don’t smoke in the forests)
  5. Eucalyptus Oil: If you have eucalyptus oil handy apply it all over your body. This does not let the leech stick to your body. Although the oil has a very peculiar smell and not everyone would like you to smell like that in the forests.
  6. Iron and lighter trick: When I was 16 I learnt about leeches. I found them very interesting and started scanning the internet. Most people were looking for ways to get them out of their body. This method is indeed a very cruel way of getting rid of this tiny animal. Warm up a small iron piece, like a safety pin or a corkscrew using the lighter flame. Now pierce it straight into the leech’s body. This will burst the animal and it will fall off immediately. Take care not to over heat the iron.
  7. Leech proof socks: This is by far the easiest way to prevent leeches from attacking you. You could buy a pair of professionally made leech socks in any of the outdoor apparel stores (I personally love Decathlon). But if you are not going to be using it often this would sound like a dead investment. In that case you could use any of the thick cotton socks/stockings or soccer socks that are long enough to cover your calf up to your thighs. This will keep you free from leeches on your trek. Thank me later 😉
  8. Alcohol: Alcohol has been proven to be very effective against leeches. Drinking alcohol is the best way to get rid of a leech that has inadvertently entered your mouth- although it is best to prevent such a thing from happening; possibly speak less when you are in the forests 🙂 If a leech has bitten you- putting an alcohol based sanitizer or drinkable alcohol on it should also work.

I was once working on a biodiversity survey in the Western Ghats when a leech entered a friend’s eye. We had to do a quick procedure to remove the leech immediately. A friend had to pull his upper lid up and lower lid down to expose the area as much as possible. Another friend pulled the leech off using her fine grip. The aftermath was not so scary, my friend’s eyes were all normal in about eight hours and his vision was also all right. In such circumstances washing the eye might help but a mild betadine solution will get the creature off. Usually it is advisable to carry betadine eye drops as part of first-aid kit. I read about this only later and confirmed with a few of my ophthalmologist friends.

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Picture by Shrikanth Nayak during his daredevil endeavours in the forests!

Leeches in general are not very deadly, they just leave you bleeding profusely (for a little while before the blood coagulates) and with an unnecessary itch. Sometimes an infection in a person with poor immunity can be triggered but most healthy individuals with protective footwear should be all right in the forests. The most natural way to get rid of them is to let them suck on your blood and fall off naturally, unless they have entered one of your body’s openings!

Don’t forget to tell me if you’ve encountered leeches in your life. I’d love to know how you got rid of them 🙂

PS: I hope you enjoyed reading this. Any help with my travel funds will be highly appreciated

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