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DU prof discovers legless amphibians in NE

Delhi University scientist and his team of dedicated researchers have made an extraordinary discovery, a finding that has rejoiced environmentalists and natural science historians across the world — and it is also a finding that connects parts of eastern India to Africa.

Professor S.D. Biju's finding has been heralded by the American Museum of Natural History as the "discovery of the year" and revolves around the location of legless amphibians commonly known as caecilians but which are critical to understanding the evolution of life on earth because they separated from other tailless burrowing caecilian species 140 million years back. Or more simply, this discovery is of a titanic level for it connects a new existing species to a time commonly known as a period when dinosaurs and other great species roamed the earth.

The closest relatives, the scientists say, are located in Africa and connect it to the eastern segment of the subcontinent, part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland before continental drift separated the existing African landmass from India.

Professor Biju's findings are part of a joint effort by Delhi University, the Natural History Museum of London and Vrije University in Brussels. What is also significant about their work is that it is the sustained work of years of research involving methodical and arduous digging to locate the species over five years in 250 locations in not less than eight states of the North-east although the species has also been located in West Bengal.

The name given to the species is Chikilidae, derived from the Garo language of Meghalaya, which is spoken by the tribe of the same name (Purno Sangma, the former Lok Sabha speaker, and his daughter Agatha, Minsiter of State for Rural Development in the Centre are prominent Garo leaders).

This is a significant finding and is expected to spur conservation efforts in the larger field of environmental protection as the extensive and rich biodiversity of the North-east has been extensively threatened and harmed by vast illegal logging and mining as well as haphazard "development" such as proliferating urban settlements, major extension of roads and blocking of ecosystems such as wetlands and streams. Yet despite the pressures on space andspecies in the North-east, new species of frogs and other wildlife have been discovered the past years and the latest by Dr. Biju's team is another assertion of how secretive and resilient nature can be, despite the depredation of the human race.

Other human activities that harm ecosystems including the caecilians are habitat destruction also caused by community activities such as jhum or shifting cultivation and local myths that this species are snakes. They are simply burrowers and eaters and are harmless.

Another way of assessing the significance of this discovery is to put a couple of other facts on the table: that most of the world's amphibian groups were defined nearly 150 years back; that 60% of Indian amphibians face extinction as does a similar level of the globe's amphibian species.

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