In the fairy tales of days of yore, it was the frog prince who went in search of a princess, to receive the much anticipated kiss, to turn back into a prince. Today the tables have turned. It is humans who go in search of frogs, and the intention is quite different.
This well-known amphibian is considered an
environmental indicator, due to the sensitivity of their semi-permeable skin, to pollution and other environmental changes. Thus, monitoring frog and toad population is a sure way of accessing the health of their natural habitat. They are studied for academic reasons or people simply watch them. That’s right, frog watching! This actually exists at Jetwing St. Andrew’s in Nuwara Eliya.
“Sri Lanka has the highest richness diversity of
amphibians,” says Resident naturalist, Ishanda Seneviratna. “We could promote Sri Lanka through eco tours. Such species could be marketed as ‘tiny five’ to complement the ‘big five’ and ‘little five’ animals of Africa.” The tour departs at 7 pm; this is the primetime to go frog watching as it’s easiest to spot them after sun set, when temperature drops.
The tour began with a stroll across the hotel’s well manicured lawn, which gave off a tranquil aura. The path to the artificial wetland created by the hotel lies through the herb garden. The refreshing smell of peppermint and rosemary wafting through the air greeted the passerby, along with the first calls of the frogs that broke the stillness of the night. It was a charming walk to the wetland, with the cold night breeze brushing our cheeks and fresh mountain air filling our lungs. The wetland had an enchanting quality of its own at night, and this was enhanced by the exotic creatures spied with the light from a flashlight.
In the murky water of the pond was the common house toad (Duttaphrynus melonostictus), flaunting its excellent adaptation at camouflage. This species is wide spread all over the country and in India and display the same morphological characteristics. The female of this species is bigger than the male and its eggs resemble a long transparent rope in the water. The males are dark, with a conical front and back. “Frogs could breathe two ways: either through their nose or through the skin. Toads always do nasal breathing,” explained Ishanda. Once a frog was spotted, the flash light was switched off and the red light was used to observe the nocturnal creature in its natural habitat. This ensures the frogs skin does not dry off due to the strong light and interrupt its oxygen absorption. Also, white light could damage the frogs’ eyes.
At this point the footpath was abandoned and we entered a part of the wetland with thick undergrowth. We had to gently brush back branches that stooped low over our path and step gingerly. The next species observed was a male mountain hour glass tree frog (Taruga eques), in shrubs closer to water. With its luminous yellow belly and the hour glass mark on the back, it is one of the most beautiful species of frog, endemic to Sri Lanka. During the mating season, the mountain hour glass female frog lays its eggs, resembling a sponge, on leaves that overhang water. These eggs are then fertilized by the male by dropping sperm on top. Once fertilized, the eggs fall to the water.
One of the most difficult species to be spotted is the mountain frog, (Fejevarya greenii), due to shyness and swiftness of speed. This evasive creature was spotted next to a lilly pad in the pond. It moved to the border between land and water and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. The endemic mountain frog is brown with a characteristic orange-yellow line on its back. When swimming, only its eyes and nostrils shone above water, a characteristic common to crocodiles. Female members are bigger than the male members of the species and the eggs are similar in appearance those of common house toad , a long, transparent rope in the water.
The highlight of the tour was spotting the small eared shrub frog Pseudophilautus microtumpanum, one of the smallest genus in the world, endemic to Sri Lanka. It was first seen perched on the leaves of shrubs and later in the woody surroundings at higher altitude. This genus has the ability to change colour from light to dark. It could be identified by the single black line between the eyes and the two lines present on either side of the body. Humans can only hear the call of the male shrub frog, as that of the female is beyond the frequency of human hearing. The female is three times bigger than the male.
During the mating season the male climb onto a higher branch and calls out. The female climbs up to the male and carries the male down on its back. Then it digs a hole, to lay eggs, while the male is still on its back. After the eggs are laid, the male fertilizes the eggs with sperm and moves on. The female closes the pit and safeguards it. This genus lacks tadpoles. They need neither water nor moisture to lay eggs. Eggs of this genus could also be found inside holes in the rocks.
The next species was spotted in an adjoining woodland. It took quite a bit of hiking and climbing to find them. To the despair of the frog-watchers, whose teeth were chattering from the cold, these species favored the high grounds. The first species to be found was the (Pseudophilautus schmarda) shrub frog, the first recorded frog in Sri Lanka. It was spotted on the walls and strobilanthes shrubs. It displays a characteristic spiky body and like the small eared shrub frog, has no tadpoles in its life cycle.
Then, the leaf nesting shurb frog (Pseudophilautus femoralis) was seen on some ferns, looking as green as the leaves that surrounded it. It lays eggs on the underside of the leaves and after hatching, the juvenile falls to the ground beneath.
The tour concluded with the spotting of the Horton Plains shrub frog (Pseudophilautus alto). It is beige in colour with sharp edges and no marks in the body. It has a distinctively pointed nose, and the eyes shone red to the light. Behind the eye, there is a single black patch. Then it was the walk back to the hotel, through the wetland and the gardens. Frog watching offers that rare combination, where the sense of adventure tantalizes and one could savor the fresh mountain air, bask in nature and tone the muscles, simultaneously.