Amphibians of Sikkim

By Barkha Subba

Marbled Cascade frog (Amolops marmoratus), foul and loathsome?

These foul and loathsome animals . . . are abhorrent because
of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy
skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice,
squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their creator
has not exerted His powers to make many of them.

— Carl von Linne (Linnaeus), Systema Naturae (1758)

Carl Von Linne (Linnaeus), the ‘Father of Taxonomy’, thus expressed his disgust of amphibians and reptiles in his seminal book on taxonomy. Being the main ingredient in the witches’ brew also added to the infamy of toads, frogs, and salamanders.

In recent times, with advancement in research and the global decline of amphibians due to climate change and diseases, there has been a major shift in attitude towards amphibians. As opposed to what Linnaeus said about “their creator” not making many of them, there are currently more than 6,000 known species of amphibians, and more are being described every year. Except the open oceans, distant oceanic islands, and the frozen reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic, amphibians occupy every habitat on Earth— from the burning deserts of the Sahara to the snow-clad Himalayas.

Sikkim, a small state in Northeast India, situated in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, has a rich history of natural history exploration. With expeditions as early as the 1840s, it was a hub for British natural explorers like Campbell and Hooker. An exhaustive review of literature from 1864 to 2015 revealed 44 amphibian species. However, three years of fieldwork in the state by ATREE’s researchers yielded only 23 species, with three new records. Twenty- four species reported by the earlier authors were missing!

The 2016 paper “Amphibians of Sikkim Himalaya, India: an annotated checklist” by ATREE’s Barkha Subba, N A Aravind and G Ravikanth is an attempt to clear up the murky state of the amphibian species numbers in Sikkim.

Further investigation and literature reviews revealed that the missing amphibians were the result of misidentification, synonymy, second-hand reporting by the authors, and the history of the state of Sikkim. For example, the Himalayan Salamander which was a widely reported species from the state, has never been sighted or collected from the state. But according to reports, sightings and specimen collections, large numbers of this species are found in the adjacent Darjeeling hill district of West Bengal. Historically, Darjeeling was once part of the independent kingdom of Sikkim and in 1835 was annexed to British India. Even after the annexure, the natural history explorers of that time considered
Sikkim and Darjeeling as a single region due to geographic similarity. The Darjeeling hills are separated from Sikkim by the river Teesta and it may be that this
river acts as a natural barrier for the Himalayan Salamander. The presence of Himalayan Salamander in Sikkim remains doubtful.

The three new records of amphibians for the state are, Duttaphrynus stuartii, Fejerverya nepalensis and Scutiger boulengeri. Found at an altitude of 3000m to 4500m asl, Scutiger boulengeri holds the record for being the highest elevation frog in the world.

With new species of amphibians being discovered each year from all over the world, the list for amphibians in Sikkim will also certainly grow.