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Consider: the Indian Purple Frog

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Lots of factors can cause a species’ population to decline in the human-centered world. Some species find themselves directly in the way of human progress, living near precious resources or close to developing human settlements. Some species simply live lifestyles so goddamn weird that humans don’t think to even look for them, not realizing the damage that we’ve caused until it’s far too late. Some species are, quite frankly, just so butt-ugly that humans do their best to ignore them and pay no attention to their plight. This week’s animal finds itself critically-endangered for all of these reasons; it inhabits one of the most-populous countries in the world, lives in a specific habitat threatened by a multitude of factors, has a lifestyle so weird that western scientists only recently discovered that it even exists, and has a face that only a mother frog could love. Consider: the Indian Purple Frog. Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis.


Image Credit: Sandeep Das

Look, I take no pride or joy in making fun of an endangered species, but when you look like that, I really can’t help it. This frog looks like a bagpipe fucked the Mucinex mascot. It looks like what you'd pull out of a clogged drain at the Play Doh factory. It looks like a ballsack that wished to be a real boy. It looks like everybody’s first creation in SPORE. Everybody likes to take the piss out of the blobfish for getting soggy after it’s hauled up from the abyssal depths of the ocean, but if the Indian Purple Frog isn’t the absolutely most homely-looking creature that has ever walked the Earth, I don’t know what is. Nonetheless, I love this frog, and in the next few paragraphs, I hope to convince you that it has more redeeming qualities than just looking like a wet booger.

These freaky-looking fellas live in the Western Ghats of India, a mountain range that stretches across India’s western coast and contains a truly staggering amount of biodiversity. The range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the eight biggest hotspots of biodiversity on the planet, and plays host to over 16,000 species, many of which live only in that one mountain range. Of these species, 325 are endangered or vulnerable, and the purple frog is one of the most endangered of all. Evolutionarily, purple frogs are extremely unique, having split off from the rest of the frogs over 100 million years ago (probably because no other frogs wanted to get near it for fear that they’d catch...whatever they have). This means that purple frogs as a species have existed for nearly twice as long as primates have, and over thirty times longer than humans have.

They have an incredibly unique lifestyle, too; these frogs are fossorial, meaning that they burrow and spend most of their lives underground. Their strange-looking noses act as powerful burrowing tools, allowing them to dig much like moles or snakes. What exactly they do underground is largely a mystery, though we know they subsist on invertebrates such as termites. How purple frogs spend their days deep beneath the soil of their mountain homes is completely unknown. In fact, purple frogs emerge only one day each year at the start of the monsoon season, when they mate and lays their eggs.

During the monsoon, these frogs exhibit a behavior known as explosive breeding (which isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds). Essentially, when the monsoon rains begin to fall and streams begin to swell, the frogs, still underground, being to sing. Males form choruses and females flock to the area, attracted by those sexy, sexy frog calls. Once a female has chosen a male to mate with, the male climbs onto her back, forming a sort of two-frog mech known as “amplexus”. Amplexus serves two main purposes: it stimulates the female to begin releasing eggs and helps to align the lovers’ reproductive tracts. Unlike us mammals, where a male fertilizes a female internally during sex, frogs fertilize their eggs externally, which is just as messy as it sounds. Amplexus essentially helps to make this process mildly less messy.


A Purple Frog couple performing amplexus. Hang on, little buddy, hang on. Image Credit: Sandeep Das

Finally, after forming their amplexues, the frogs rise to the surface to breed and lay their eggs. After a one-day rave that makes Burning Man look like a middle school talent show, the females lay their eggs and the tadpoles hatch six to seven days later. These tadpoles live in seasonal flood waters, which can often be very fast-flowing and unpredictable. As such, they do not swim freely and instead have developed a specialized mouthpart that acts like a suction cup, sticking them to the undersides of rocks within streams. Locked in place, the tadpoles subsist on algae, though they will also come to shallow, slower-moving water at night to feed. After 100 days or so, the tadpoles have developed enough to burrow and they disappear into the soil to finish their metamorphosis, to be seen ag

Because they spend so much time underground, Purple Frogs are extremely difficult to study. They’re only seen above the ground for a few days each year and dig so deeply that it is difficult to find them even if you know where to look. In one case, a purple frog was found by a team excavating an irrigation ditch over three feet beneath the surface, far deeper into the ground than oxygen penetrates. In fact, the frog is so rare that western scientists only described it in 2003, though indigenous people of the region have known about it for far longer. Because of its rarity, though, purple frogs have been unintentionally left out of a lot of conservation efforts in the Ghats region. No accurate population assessment has been done of the species and their exact conservation status is difficult to determine. While the Western Ghats has over a dozen protected wildlife reserves, most of the frogs’ breeding grounds lie outside of these areas, meaning that human development, especially agriculture, has encroached on the frogs’ territory. These frogs have very specific and well-conserved breeding sites, so developing one for housing or farming would cause the species’ population to tank. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists the frog as endangered, and it is one of the top focal species of the Zoological Society of London’s Evolutionarily Diverse and Globally Endangered (EDGE) program, which is designed to protect unique animals threatened with extinction.

Another contribution to the purple frogs' declining population is the encroachment of agriculture, both to feed the Indian people and to satisfy the needs of the outside world. Much of the Ghats has been demolished to create grazing areas for livestock, in eerie symmetry to similar practices done to the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. In addition, the Ghats lie within a region of the world between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, known as the Coffee Belt. Coffee, tea, rubber, palm, and many other luxury items important to the West can only be produced in this area. As such, much of the Ghats has been divided by rapidly-expanding plantations growing these crops and others. While local people may find work at these plantations, much of the crops produced are owned by Western corporations and the products are consumed in places like Europe and America, so the plantations only marginally benefit the Indian people.

Yet another threat to the frog is the construction of check dams in areas of the Ghats to control the flow of floodwaters. The seasonal flooding of the area endangers local people, and as such the dams are meant to slow down floodwaters and control erosion. Purple frog tadpoles, however, require seasonal streams to develop, and the dams often remove these same streams. Climate change, too, is now playing a role in threatening the purple frog by making the seasonal monsoon flooding less predictable. If the monsoon comes too early, purple frog eggs are washed downstream before the tadpoles can hatch and anchor themselves to the rocks. If the monsoon comes too late, the seasonal flood waters that the tadpoles rely on don’t form. The uncertainty caused by climate change puts the frogs in a really difficult position, with climate forces occasionally conspiring to wipe out a whole year’s work of breeding.

Luckily, some conservation efforts for purple frogs have been successful in increasing their populations, albeit through very hard work by conservationists and the public. Work by organizations like EDGE of Existence have raised awareness of the frog and its plight within the Indian province of Kerala, which contains most of the frog’s habitat. A major focus of conservation has been reducing the number of purple frogs hit by cars during their one-day breeding season, as more road-killed frogs are often found after the ritual than living ones. An awareness campaign drawing comparisons between the purple frog and the Hindu king Mahabali, a culture hero who is said to rise from the underworld during the festival of Onam, has made the frog more well-known amongst the people of Kerala. This, combined with many other outreach campaigns, has drastically reduced the number of road-killed frogs. The regulation of protected corridors of natural forest between coffee and tea plantations, too, can hopefully help to keep the frog populations connected, but this is really just a stopgap solution for a much larger problem.

I try not to be too earnest in my explorations of Earth’s most bizarre animals, but the purple frog’s conservation brings up some really difficult and troubling points about conservation and the future of human development. People require space to live. They require farms for food and roads for travel and dams to protect them from flooding. While we should not abandon conservation initiatives for animals like the Purple Frog, we also cannot tell people that they cannot feed their families or have homes safe from monsoon flooding in order to protect a frog. To truly succeed in making this planet a better place, conservationists, politicians, and regular citizens need to strike a really delicate balance between what’s best for the environment and what’s best for human society.

I don’t pretend to have any answers to this problem; there are thousands of brilliant, hard-working environmental scientists and conservation biologists who try to solve these kinds of issues every day. But, I do think that all of us can learn to better appreciate the complexity that goes into conservation work. In a world where human interest feels more and more diametrically-opposed to environmental sustainability every day, easy answers don’t happen, and getting to a place where society and nature can coexist will require hard work and sacrifices from all of us.

Ultimately, animals like the purple frog are beautiful in their uniqueness, even if their aesthetics aren't going to be winning them any human beauty pageants. This species has persisted in its strange, subterranean habitat since well before there were even monkeys on Earth, much less humans. These animals deserve to continue to exist on this planet, even if they look bizarre, but their species can only persist if humans step up and protect them from the consequences of our actions.


Okay, I'm done being earnest. Let's go back to looking at this frog's funny face:



This is the ideal male body. You may not like it, but this is perfection. Image Credit: Sandeep Das

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