In a significant discovery, a team of researchers have stumbled upon two lizard species in northern Kerala, one of which has been documented in a hilly region prone to persistent illegal mining. The discovery underlines the importance of protecting such regions in the already-vulnerable Western Ghats from unplanned developmental activities.
The Cnemaspis chengodumalaensis is named after the Chengodumala region in Kozhikode district, where it is naturally found within crevices of rocks. It is a nocturnal gecko endemic to the Western Ghats. The Chengodumala hills has been prone to indiscriminate granite mining over several decades and has the local villagers and activists demanding a reassessment of the environment impact study of the quarry.
With the discovery, their concerns about the lack of a proper biodiversity survey have been justified, indicating the need for a change in policies before permits are handed out to quarry developers.
The other species, Cnemaspis zacharyi, has been found in the hills of neighbouring Wayanad district, which has also been prone to adverse effects of climate change arising out of activities like deforestation, propping of plantations and illegal mining. The lizard species is named after Dr Anil Zachariah, a renowned batrachologist who has contributed immensely to new amphibian species being discovered in the Western Ghats.
Researchers say both species can be differentiated from all other Indian congeners by a suite of distinct morphological and genetic characters. The findings by the team of researchers have been published in the latest edition of the Germany-based International Journal of Vertebrate Zoology.
“We first found these species sometime in 2013. At that time, we weren’t seriously looking at it. These geckos look very similar to another species, so we needed a lot more data to establish whether this is in fact a different species. We visited some museums to look at specimens that have been deposited here. We checked around 50 different specimens from such museums and were able to conclude that it’s a new species,” said Vivek Philip Cyriac, the lead author of the paper.
“Most of the surveys so far have been in protected areas and deep jungles. But turns out, there’s a lot of diversity outside protected areas which we have overlooked so far. This study gives a push to look at diversity outside protected areas. These are regions which face severe threat of mining and unplanned development,” he added.
Both the lizard species, though referred to as day geckos, are actually nocturnal in nature. They are terrestrial creatures and live in crevices of rocks. They are classified as ‘critically endangered’ by IUCN.
“We have observed Cnemaspis zacharyi feeding on cave crickets. We have found a lot of individuals of this species living in cave systems in areas like Vythiri, Lakkidi and so on. We don’t know a lot about their ecology and their behaviour. We need dedicated systematic research to know a lot more about the ecology of these species,” said Cyriac.
Future studies and research, hopes Cyriac, will shine light on the ‘cryptic diversity’ within the Western Ghats where a large number of reptile species, though physically similar to each other, are waiting to be discovered and documented.
“The actual diversity within the Western Ghats is extremely underestimated at the moment. We need dedicated work on a broader scale to understand how developmental activities are having an impact on such diversity,” said Cyriac.
Apart from Cyriac, the team of researchers included Muhamed Jafer Palot, Koushik Deuti and Umesh Pavukandy.