While the older generation seems to struggle with Smartphones, gen Y seems to be born with the love for gizmos. Ask any parent, children these days seem to be demanding more and more screen time. This is a major worry amongst parents – ‘my child is missing out on the unadulterated joys of childhood and the underlying learning that comes with it, like chasing frogs in the rain?’ What if there was an app that helped not just your child, but you, too, chase frogs all over again?!
The accidental interest
In 1989, Gururaja, a young boy was recovering from a bout of rheumatism, after having been in bed for three months. To keep him company and make sure he moved around, his elder brother and sisters engaged him in activities that finally got him out of his room. On Sundays, his brother used to take him to a nearby lake on a bicycle. He used to show him birds, taught him how to watch birds, to make their sketches, and how to identify the birds. This sparked young Gururaja’s interest in biology.
His journey with frogs started in 1998 during his Master’s dissertation programme – about the feeding habits of a particular night frog called Nyctibatrachus aff.major. Since then, Gururaja has been doing pioneering work in the field of Batrachology. And that’s not all; he’s part of the team at Gubbi Labs that launched FrogFind on April 28, 2013, on ‘Save the Frogs’ day.
Birds to Frogs
Earlier, Gururaja’s dissertation supervisor had asked him to work on ‘birds of the university campus’. To the supervisor’s surprise, Gururaja had already listed the birds during his time at the university. He then asked him to work on frogs; on which his supervisor was working as well. Gururaja adds, “My inquisitive nature made me switch from birds to frogs and that was the turning point in my life – to work for the rest of my life on frogs! I noticed that this particular frog (N. aff.major) feeds on other species of frogs in its neighbourhood, along with insects. Soon I found myself doing a PhD on amphibian ecology.”
Finding a new species of frogs – Nyctibatrachus karnatakaensis
It was in the first field visit to Kudremukh National Park (Karnataka), that Gururaja encountered a species of ‘night frog’ with his team. “It was a huge night frog (almost the size of my palm); I’d not seen such a night frog earlier. This night frog was hiding below the boulders in a fast running stream, making it difficult for us to even observe the frog.” Gururaja managed to catch one in his hand – his gut feeling was that this frog was not one that had been recorded. The team took all the data they needed, and it matched none of the existing records! And so, N. karnatakaensis was discovered in 2007.
Frog Find – marrying nature with mobile
Frog Find, the mobile app, won the India Geospatial Excellence award for Biodiversity Conservation in 2014. Gururaja tells us about how it came about: “Credit should go to Mr. Harish Shanthi Kumar and Mr. Ashwin Murugesh for designing such an impressive app! We met in our lab as they had come to collect a pictorial guide to frogs and toads that had just been published, in June, 2012. Flipping through the pages, Harish asked me, ‘based on this guide can we build an app on frogs?’ It was quite a surprise for me – on one hand I had just got my book published, and on the other hand, I thought, if there is an app, that can change the way we look at frogs. I took a couple of days to do a SWOT analysis to arrive at a decision.”
Watch more about Frog Find here:
The app captures high quality pictures, has an intuitive user interface, static and real time maps for past and current observation, high quality audio records, and a feature for interacting with scientists about sightings and observations.
A researcher’s life
We assumed that camping for research must be a minimalistic way of life but Gururaja says that these days, camps are as comfortable as ‘the city life’. He says, “We carry almost all field gear, along with tents, sleeping bags, temporary rest rooms, shoes, leech socks and above all, food packets. This is quite unlike a few years ago, when it was too difficult to procure items and carry them to field.” He misses those days, though. “I miss the greenness, the tranquillity of forest, the symphony of frogs, birds and cicadas; and the anxious moments in the night when I sit and watch frogs and what they do. I miss very much the streams and their varied sounds (roaring in the monsoons; and as gentle as possible in summer) near the places where I find my frogs. Each moment inside a forest, more so in the night, is a great experience for me and it conveys a lot to me in terms of science.”
Frogs have swag!
Out of curiosity, we ask Gururaja about some frogs that usually make people jump out of their seats. He tells us about the ‘mud packing frog’ – Nyctibatrachus kumbara. It is the first ever frog species to stand on its hind limbs to plaster mud on to its eggs.
The ‘Kottigehara dancing frog’ – Micrixalus kottigeharensis – is a diurnal frog that stretches its legs to maintain its territory. Gururaja adds, “The male individuals do kung-fu! Female individuals, after laying eggs, dance over the egg clutch to hide them in the stream.”
Watch the dancing frog here:
The ‘frog walks’
At Gubbi Labs, they have a long term monitoring programme on ecology across several places, both in the Western Ghats, as well as outside of it. Part of such long term ecological monitoring is – ‘frog walks’. A group of not more than ’20’ at a time go to a particular place (Bisle Ghat, Kathalekan, Honeyvalley, Karkala, or Bengaluru) for a frog walk. Daytime is for deliberations, and field work starts at night!
Environmental conservationist Bahar Dutt swears by the frog walks Gururaja conducts. He adds, “We share our experience (experiential learning) with eco-tourists about the forest, vegetation, geology, streams and various ecosystems. We explain how to handle frogs, how to identify them, and how to ethically photograph them. All these are hands-on, so that irrespective of gender, profession, and age, all will learn about the ecology of frogs in the field. They carry back the memories and ecological lessons that they had experienced and try to apply them in daily life; again, irrespective of gender, profession, and age.”
Bridging the gap
We ask if Gururaja thinks that city folks have forgotten about blessed nature and live in their own bubble. “I see that the youth is better equipped and informed than ever before. They have interest in nature and the environment, and they are equally concerned about conservation and the future.” However, he believes that there needs to be a connect between a youth’s day to day routine, and learning about nature and the environment. He adds, “If that is provided, we will have a fantastic society with people from diverse backgrounds showing concern towards both nature and environment.”
We can’t help but wonder if frogs have overtaken his life? He says, “I think so, they must have overtaken it! My wife, Priti, is also into frog research, although she looks at conservation genetics and tadpole life. So, any discussion that happens at home invariably move towards frogs, or ends up with frogs. If I am watching a movie, I think of how a frog can be brought into the scene or how a frog can be a protagonist in that scene. That’s a bit too much, but I enjoy it that way. I have a good collection of frog ‘arts and artefacts’ and still collect them.”
Next time the pang of an adventure strikes, remember the ‘frog walks’ and Frog Find; who knows, you might even shake a leg with the dancing frog.