Indian Nature – Amphibians
This is an index to the amphibians found in India. The amphibians of India show a high level of endemism. This list is based largely on Frost (2006) and includes common names from older books and journals. The vast subcontinent of India is endowed with almost every type of terrain and the natural wealth that goes with it: the world’s highest mountains, long coast-lines, a variety of forests including precious rain forests, deserts and a web of great and small river systems. The flora and fauna, the medicinal systems, the distinct lifestyles, myth, legend, literature and folklore that evolved from this natural bounty are integral to Indian life.
It’s a rather odd fish, just 25 mm in length with a gaudy translucent body. Although it is found in shallow water it has many features of deep sea fish: soft non-calcareous bones, large jaw and jelly- like flesh with no real muscles. It is a voracious eater, sometimes gulping down fish longer than its body and its stomach is often distended after a feed. Bombay Duck is found on the west coast from Diu to Hirna and on the Andhra, Orissa and Bengal coasts in the east.
Doctor Fish is a fish which feeds off particles from the mouths of other larger fish. Even carnivorous, poisonous fish like the Moray eel and Scorpion fish do not harm the Doctor fish. It ‘treats’ several patients in an hour and its relationship with other fish is a perfect example of symbiosis or mutual understanding in the animal world. These fish are found off the west coast of India.
The Hilsa, Ilesha or Indian Shad is the only Anadromous Indian fish (one which migrates from the sea up rivers to breed). It breeds in July and August in the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Indus, Krishna and Narmada rivers. It was once believed that the fish return to the sea immediately after spawning but a study of the Ganga Hilsa showed that they remain in the river till the young fish mature. During spawning the fish feed only sparingly on green algae. The fertilized eggs have an globule which makes them float on the surface of the water, from where they are collected and grown in nursery ponds for their high commercial value. A single female lays between 280,000 to 1,800,000 eggs per season but the mortality rate is high. The female of the species is bigger than the male.
Common Indian Toad
The largest of the toad species found in India. With a length of about 16 mm and a dry warty skin, it lives even in altitudes of 3,048 m in damp places near streams. Al- though it is silent for the greater part of the year, toad song reaches a crescendo during the monsoon, which is mating season. Interestingly, the male of the species is smaller than the female and more numerous.
Toads come out in the evening to catch their prey and if provoked they secrete a milky fluid which irritates human skin.
It is easy to identify the Tree Frog – the tips of its digits expand into discs. Most of these frogs found mainly in hilly regions live in trees but some have become ground dwellers. The most spectacular member of this family is the Malabar Tree Frog. It has long, fully webbed digits which it extends when it jumps from tree to tree. This creates a parachute effect, as if the frog is gliding through the air.
One of the Navagrahas, Shukra or Venus rides Mandooka, the frog. Mandooka symbolizes those who dwell in perfect harmony and contentment and are above pettiness.
Despite the Monitor being the world’s largest and heaviest lizard, it is a good runner and swimmer and the smaller ones are excellent climbers. It eats birds, rodents, molluscs and carrion and relishes crocodile, bird and turtle eggs.
India has four species of Monitors but only the Common Indian Monitor is widely distributed. The Indian Water Monitor is the second largest in the world. It is found in wet, marshy forests and river banks and often swims far into the sea in search of food. Like other creatures in the wild, Monitors are also on the endangered list because of ruthless slaughter for their skin.
Of the 22 species of crocodile, three are found in India – Mugger or Marsh Crocodile, the Saltwater Crocodile and the Gharial. Equally at home on land and water, the crocodile is a superb hunter. It has a highly developed sense of smell, hearing and vision and it can detect prey by tactile and possibly chemical receptors in the jaw. Crocodiles, if left alone, live for over a hundred years. They are more active by night, spending the day basking in the sun or submerged for several hours in water without breathing.
Though trade in all three Indian species is banned, they have been ruthlessly hunted to near extinction for their skin. The Gharial with the peculiar bump at the end of its nose is the rarest Asian crocodile. It is found in the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi and Chambal rivers.
Found in evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, Orissa, Bihar, Bengal and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the King Cobra grows up to 5 m. Its venom is not very toxic but because of the large quantity, (up to 7 cc), it can kill an elephant. When threatened, it puts up a splendid defense, raising its hood and charging the attacker with open mouth. It is said to be the only snake in the world that builds a nest in which the female lays her eggs which she guards for 60 or more days till they hatch. During this period he usually does not eat. In Hindu mythology, it is said that Shesha Naga, the King Cobra, was asked to support the world on his hood by Brahma because of his righteousness. Every time he shakes his head, the earth quakes. Shesha Naga is also the ‘couch’ on which Vishnu rests during intervals of creation (Ananta Sayana). He also served as a rope with which the Ocean was churned.
Of the two species of Python found in India – the Indian Rock Python and the Reticulated Python – the latter is the longest snake in the world. Sluggish, capable of going without meal for days, pythons are found in swampy areas mainly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
These nocturnal reptiles eat warm-blooded animals like rats, birds and civets and larger specimens have been known to swallow a full-grown leopard and even a man! They rest for several days after a heavy meal and sometimes months elapse before they hunt again. Pythons are non-venomous snakes. They stalk and seize their prey but do not crush it to death as is commonly believed. Instead they squeeze the victim till it dies of suffocation. Like most snakes they are hunted for their skin and certain tribes even eat them.
Of all the species of Vipers found in India the two most venomous are the Russel’s and the Saw scaled. The Russel’s Viper, a beautiful yellow and brown snake, grows to 2 m. The Saw-scaled Viper is protected by its small size: it grows to only 50 to 80 cm. Both eat rats, small birds, frogs and scorpions. The Russel’s give birth to 20 to 40 young at a time and the Sawscaled four to eight. Ami-venom serum from Sawscaled Vipers is made in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. The Levantine Vipers of eastern Europe are found in parts of Kashmir but little is known about them. Sixteen species of Pit Vipers are also found here, so called because of the pair of pits between the eyes and nostrils which are tie at sensitive, enabling them to reach warm blooded prey even at night.
Kashmir was a major centre of serpent worship and the snake Nila was supposed to be the guardian of the valley. Her abode in Nila Kunda, the source of the river Vitasta (Jhelum) and the sacred fount in later times became known as Ver Naga. The town of Anantanag too is named after a celestial snake, Shesha-Anantanag.