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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

See also:

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


David Gower and Mark Wilkinson, NHM Zoology

It is well known that global diversity is generally under threat from factors such as habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, hunting, invasive species and disease. It takes very large collaborative efforts in order to be able to quantify an accurate overview of the latest situation, but this is needed because donors, policy makers and managers want to know to what extent conservation efforts can make a positive impact.

As part of just such an effort we contributed to an article published in the journal Science (Hoffman, M. et al. (2010) Science 330: 1503-1509).The article reported that although an increasing number of the World’s vertebrate species are threatened by extinction, the deterioration would have been at least one-fifth again as much in the absence of conservation efforts.

The Science study analysed up-to-date conservation assessments for nearly 26,000 of the World’s approximately 63,000 named species of vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). The assessments are in the form of formal categorizations on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” ( - the widely accepted 'standard’ for determining species’ risk of extinction.

zoology Annual report 2010-2011 final.jpg

Balebreviceps hillmani, a threatened amphibian from the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. [photo by DJ Gower]

Analyses of the Red List data revealed that 20% of vertebrates are classified as Threatened, with this percentage increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction every year (there are eight categories in all). However, of the 1,000 or so species that had undergone a change in their categorization in recent years, about 7% underwent an improvement in status, and almost all of these are part of conservation projects. Thus, in the absence of conservation effort, many more vertebrates would have slipped closer to extinction. Most of these improving vertebrate species are birds and mammals – those groups most often targeted by conservation projects. Only four species of amphibians have improved in status, and more than 40% of this group is threatened; so much remains to be done.

Vertebrates are generally very visible, often charismatic (and vital) components of ecosystems, and they commonly comprise conservation ‘flagship’ species, frequently with high cultural value. However, vertebrates comprise only 3% or so of known organismal species. The conservation status of many non-vertebrates has yet to be determined based on Red List criteria.

The Science paper was authored by a whopping 174 scientists. Like many of these researchers, we played a primary coordinating role that facilitated completion of the dataset. In particular, we finalized Red List assessments for all species of caecilian amphibians (in a workshop held at the NHM), and for some burrowing snakes. Museum science is essential for understanding species’ conservation status because its core business is the taxonomic and ecological work that underpins all other studies of life.

The Science paper was announced in a press release to coincide with the release of the latest Red List update at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Nagoya, Japan, October 2010. The paper ends with the following statements: “The 2010 biodiversity target may not have been met, but conservation efforts have not been a failure. The challenge is to remedy the current shortfall in conservation action to halt the attrition of global biodiversity.”

David Gower and Mark Wilkinson are Researchers in the Herpetology Research Group, NHM Department of Zoology


In November 2010, Drs David Gower and Mark Wilkinson (Zoology) represented the NHM at the formal launch of the International project LAI: Lost Amphibians of India at the University of Delhi, India.

This project aims to “rediscover” Indian amphibian species in the wild that have not been recorded scientifically for anywhere between 18 and 169 years. The concern is that some of the 50 or so species on the wanted list might have become extinct, given that amphibian declines and extinctions have been reported worldwide in recent years.

Many of the “lost” Indian species are known only from their museum type specimens, often historical material held only in the NHM, having been collected during the colonial period.

The NHM is an official Institutional Partner in the LAI project along with several international conservation NGOs. The project is organised by the University  of Delhi and supported by the Indian government Department of Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Both David and Mark have worked in India and other countries with local collaborators over many years, focusing in particular on the diversity, evolution and biogeography of the burrowing, legless caecilian amphibians.  Two South American examples of these animals can be seen among the species of the day for 2010: Rhinatrema bivittatum; and Atretochoana eiselti.