A team of scientists has spent the last five years digging through drenched soil in northeast India — during monsoon season — with garden spades. A few blisters, 250 soil-digging expeditions and 2,600 hours later, they found what they were looking for.
Is it a worm? A miniature snake? A tadpole? Nope. It’s a chikilidae, a legless amphibian that’s been hiding out underground in the rainy jungles of northeast India since dinosaurs roamed the earth, according to the Associated Press. Named in the region’s Garo language, the word chikilidae also includes frogs and salamanders in the caecilian family. So far, scientists have discovered 10 caecilian families in the world, mostly spread across the tropics.
Though the 4-inch long squirmers evaded science for centuries, a team of professors from the University of Delhi and London’s Natural History Museum and Vrije University in Brussels recently discovered the new family of amphibians, the AP reports. Worrying they were teeny tiny, poisonous snakes, farmers and villagers commonly found the creatures living underground and chopped them in half. But researchers say there’s no need for terror. The animal is harmless, actually aiding farmers by churning soil and eating harmful insects.
Led by professor Sathyabhama Das Biju, the team published their findings in Proceedings B, a journal of the Royal Society of London, on Wednesday. Biju, nicknamed “the frog man” in India, has made a life out of finding new species. He says he is trying to overcome cases of “nameless extinction,” in which animals vanish before they’re ever found.
The findings also highlight the environmental impact of fast-paced development in the region. “India’s biodiversity is fast depleting. We are destroying these habitats without mercy.” Biju told the AP.
Amphibians, especially, have taken a hit in the past few years. Thanks to sensitivity to climate and water quality, the animals are easily thrown off when their environment is upended. With about 40% of species on the internationally-recognized Red List, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals in the world, according to the BBC.
But thanks to scientists like Biju, the species has new hope. The scientist, who estimates 30-40% of the country’s amphibians are yet to be found, has discovered 76 new species of plants, caecilians and frogs since 2001.
Earlier this year, Das and a team of scientists uncovered 12 new species of frogs including one with a unique evening “catcall” sounding like a meow, National Geographic reports. “This is a major hotspot of biological diversity, but one of the least explored,” Biju told the AP. “We hope this new family will show the importance of funding research in the area. We need to know what we have, so we can know what to save.”