David Gower, Mark Wilkinson, Diego San Mauro (Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow), Emma Sherratt (NERC-funded PhD student) and NHM Scientific Associate S. D. Biju (University of Delhi) collaborated in the discovery and description of a new family of amphibians.
Chiklidae is a small radiation of caecilian amphibians endemic to northeast India, previously known only from a single poorly preserved specimen collected in 1904. More than a century later this species was rediscoved (and some closely related undescribed species discovered) by the team as a result of the most extensive dedicated field surveys of caecilians that have ever been attempted.
The animals were scanned using Micro CT, and phylogenetic analysis of the relationships of the family within the wider group of caeclians was based on a combination of nuclear genes and complete mitochondrial genomes. The CT scanning revealed a distinctive cranial morphology which with the phylogenetic analysis showed the closest relatives to be an endemic African family.
The discovery reveals an ancient Gondwanan biogeographical link between Africa and northeast India. Gondwana was a landmass that combined South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Antarctica and Australia - the separation of India from Africa began around 120 million years ago during the Jurassic. The breakup of the supercontinent separated populations that diverged in evolutionary terms over time, resulting in new groups of species. (As a parallel example: Humans and the great apes are in the family Hominidae; gibbons are in the closely related family Hylobatidae, although the split between these families is thought to have occurred only 18 million years ago)
This work identifies the first family of vertebrates that are endemic to northeast India and highlights the possibility that northeast India could be a Biodiversity Hotspot - an area of particularly high diversity for many groups of organisms.
The work was part funded as an International Joint Project (Gower & Biju) of the Royal Society and Indian Department of Science and Technology and has attracted substantial worldwide news media attention. A video on the discovery posted on YouTube has attracted more than 100,000 hits.
A good slideshow on the Huffington Post
RG Kamei, D San Mauro, DJ Gower, I Van Bocxlaer, E Sherratt, A Thomas, S Babu, F Bossuyt, M Wilkinson and S. D. Biju. Discovery of a new family of amphibians from northeast India with ancient links to Africa Proc. R. Soc. B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0150