Ramachandran Kotharambath is leading the search for the long-headed caecilian (Ichthyophis longicephalus)—an unusual kind of amphibian last seen in India’s Western Ghats in 1979. This is the latest report from field researchers participating in CI’s Search for the Lost Frogs campaign; read previous blog posts here.
Eventually our hunt for the long-headed caecilian (Ichthyophis longicephalus) will take us to the forest locality where it was originally discovered in 1979—still its only verified sighting. However, first we are off on a three-day trip to another more developed locality in Kerala to follow up on some reports of striped Ichthyophis.
As we drove past the coastal towns popping up as we headed eastward, our minds were anxious. But the time was good for a caecilian hunt—the awesome south Indian monsoon. The air cooled as the vehicle ascended the hairpin bends. It was evening when we reached the forest-fringed village, a settlement just four or five decades old that was built after rainforests were cleared for plantations.
Raindrops were quite welcome and soothing. We were sitting on the verandah of our friend’s house—our base camp—watching the quick, beautiful transition of drizzle into mist and light into darkness. I suspected that caecilians could be found just outside the courtyard, for the conditions were perfect for them. Huge rainforest-blanketed mountains lay on both sides of this narrow strip of village that ends less than a kilometer eastward. At night the temperature dropped and frogs seemed to be enjoying it. Their calls flooded the air.
The next morning after a nice icy bath and hot tea, we started digging in litter and soil. While we were digging, my friend’s neighbor came over, curious to know what on earth we were searching for under the soil in the early morning. I told him that we were searching for some snake-like amphibians, and showed him the photos. With overflowing confidence he took us near his cowshed, where he has a pit for dumping dung and vegetable matter. I went inside the pit, and after a few digs I found a caecilian! It was a Uraeotyphlus species. We kept on digging at different places in the nearby plantations.
It was almost evening when we thought to call it a day and then headed for the nearby mountain river for a break. On the way back, I found a few fallen areca nut tree trunks rotting by the side of the lane. Out of curiosity, I rolled one over—and there it was. One beautiful striped Ichthyophis was exposed in all its vibrancy. Coffee brown back with a lighter abdomen separated by a bright yellow stripe. Beautiful—snakes should be envious!
Hoping to find more, my field assistant and I dug up the place. We found one more caecilian, not inside the rotting trunk but in the soil beneath. This was an unstriped long-tailed Ichthyophis, in the same genus but seemingly not a close relative. Interesting—sympatric burrowing carnivores. In one day we had found three different caecilian species living close together.
Third day, as planned, we tried our luck in the nearby forest. It was raining all day, but it was fun and thrilling to dig in the rain. We found one more striped Ichthyophis, similar to the previous one. While digging, we also found five Uraeotyphlus. A very nice place for these subterranean predators. I hope this habitat can be secured for these ‘snaky frogs’ as well as other species.
Now it is time to continue our searches elsewhere, and to work in the lab to study the exact identity of the striped Ichthyophis we have found here. Based on head shape and colour pattern, they are not tricolor, beddomei or kodaguensis (the only other striped Ichthyophis known from peninsular India). If it is the ‘lost’ longicephalus, then we can heave a sigh of relief that they are not extinct—but simply hidden in the dark tunnels, away from our sight.