Roots and Rise of a 'Frogman'- Interview with S.D. Biju

Joseph Antony

13 min read
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Prof. S. D. Biju. Photo: Sonali Garg

Sathyabhama Das Biju (S. D. Biju) was born in village Kadakkal in the Kollam district of Kerala state, India. He is a leading and globally renowned amphibian biologist. To date, Biju has formally described 116 new amphibian taxa (2 families, 10 genera, 104 species) from India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, making him one of the only few living herpetologists in the world to do so. His discoveries alone represent nearly 25% of India's amphibian diversity.

Biju is a Senior Professor at University of Delhi. He is also an Associate of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and has recently been awarded the prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship for the year 2023- 2024 to work full-time at Harvard in close collaboration with the department and the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Biju's research focuses on amphibian systematics, evolution, behaviour, biogeography, and contributes to conservation through discovery and documentation of species.

Biju earned his first PhD in Botany from University of Calicut, India, and contributed to knowledge on plants through several scientific publications and books. He obtained his second PhD in animal science from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and shifted his focus to amphibians.

He has published over 100 research articles in top scientific journals like Nature, Science and PNAS. His findings have widely appeared in popular international press like Associated Press, BBC, CNN, Forbes, National Geographic, New York Times, Times, The Economist and The Guardian, to name a few. Popular media has celebrated him as the Frogman of India. Biju's contributions to amphibian research and conservation have received numerous prestigious recognitions such as the IUCN/ASG SABIN award for 2008 and more recently, the Indian State Government's highest civilian award Kerala Sree for 2022.

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Dr. Biju spoke to Joseph Antony.

Joseph Antony (JA): Don't you feel scared exploring forests in the night, looking for frogs and other amphibians?

S. D. Biju (SDB): In the early days, yes, I was terrified! But probably my childhood in a village helped to overcome the fear. Like most village children, I was familiar with snakes - throwing stones at them or catching frogs with hooks. With age I developed more love and respect for these animals. And who ever knew that my life would one day revolve around them. Usually, I would be in the field well into midnight, like until one o'clock. Then after returning from the forest what I saw and learnt needs to be documented. It'd be three in the morning when I go to sleep. An indigenous person from the Northeast once remarked that I am like a frog- both are nocturnal! There are many constraints during field studies; you must manage work with many limitations - sometimes one has to go without food! No stranger to starvation as a child, I could easily go without a meal or manage in any adverse circumstance during tough field trips. This has all now become part of my life.

JA: Could you tell us something about the pathfinders, the guides who assisted you during fieldwork?

SDB: It is always the local people of each particular region who have been of great help in my fieldwork. Like the late Bhagavan Kani, his son Mallan Kani and Vijayan Kani in the Kerala part of the Western Ghats. They are from the Chathankode Kani tribal settlement near Bonancaud Estate in the Agasthyamalai Valley. They taught me how to walk in the forests. I had a previous life as a botanist. Bhagavan Kani took me around then. When I returned looking for frogs, again it was him who showed me where to go. Bhagavan Kani would teach us about forests. Sometimes he'd say: "Sir, we have to move from here, now, immediately!". No questions asked. Only when we moved, we'd realize that there was a wild elephant close by! Later Mallan and Vijayan became my guides. They have been with me not only in Kerala but also in the other parts of Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. In fact, they are better than me at identifying frogs! No point in flexing your 'scientist muscle' with them; the indigenous people are experts. They know where the frogs are, when and how they call. They even have their own names for many frogs that relate to their specific traits; that always surprises me!

Mallan, Vijayan and Biju preparing a meal at Mallan's home in the Chathankodu tribal settlement of Agasthyamalai Hills. Photo: Gopinath Sricandane, 2016.

JA: What do you read, other than what is related to your studies?

SDB: I am at the threshold of 60. I work for 16 hours every day. Frog study may seem absurd to some, but this is a realm of research which is highly vibrant. You'll be obsolete if you do not update yourself then and there. So, my extra reading, outside of my research interests, is limited. Not only that, one cannot but avoid many occasions like family get-togethers, attending weddings, etc. On the once-in-a-blue-moon visits to my native place, my friends would make fun of me saying that I am busier than the Prime Minister! I am like a kid when it comes to publishing my studies. I am crazy about it! Nothing can beat the sheer joy of seeing my research article published, not even what you may write about me! When my paper appears in a journal, I would read it five or six times, on the very first day of publication! In a way, the kind of work people like me do is boring. Turning 60, I do the same, repetitious work every day. But the secret of success, be it for a nuclear scientist or a taxonomist, lies in how to overcome the monotony.

JA: Why are frogs important?

SDB: Simple question, but complex to answer. This is the most common question I get asked at gatherings and it provokes me. Nobody asks why tigers are important. Nobody asks what is the use of humans? Not in retort, but I always ask - isn't this reflective of our human-centric attitude that believes that humans were created by a super being in order to lord over all other life forms? Look at the Indian scenario. There are no conservation programs, nor any mention about the so-called lower and non-charismatic species like frogs anywhere in the conservation agenda of the government. There are conservation programs for elephants and tigers. Isn't this an alarming trend? Conservation would be pointless when it is focused on a few species instead of conservation of species in its entirety. Homo sapiens is also a species, and we are a part of nature's intricate web. This mindset has to be strengthened. If we need to survive, we must survive together. Our species cannot survive by itself. It should be realized that conservation is a condition necessary for our survival too.

Frogs are also a small, yet significant, part of the wide spectrum of an ecosystem. Our survival is dependent on such billions of life forms. If frog populations in a particular habitat are healthy, we may safely assume that the health of other species in the habitat too is likely intact. The highly permeable skin in frogs is sensitive to even the slightest of change in the environment. So, a decrease in the number of frogs in a locality or an observable change in their breeding patterns is a sign of critical change in their habitat. As the number of frogs decrease, so would that of other species coinhabiting such waterbodies and wetlands. As an environmental indicator, frogs are the herald of ecological balance. That's why they are also called 'Environmental Barometers'.

Biju and his co-researchers have discovered 14 new species of dancing frogs, a family exclusively found in the Western Ghats mountain range of India. Photo: S. D. Biju

In an ecological pyramid, there is a fine balance in prey-predator relationships. If that breaks, the entire ecological food web gets disturbed. At the same time, we need to understand that every species requires a specific kind of habitat for its survival. Take the case of tigers (many might relate with a tiger rather than a frog!). Tigers are not found in all kinds of forest types. They need a certain kind of natural prey base to survive. But if we conserve tiger habitats, that does not mean we are necessarily conserving every form of life, in every other forest type. The concept of an umbrella species would apply only to a small number of co-existing species in tiger habitats, which are not always the most diverse habitats of them all. That is why, conservation cannot be centered around a handful of mammal species. Such approaches especially neglect the lower forms of life and overlook their specific conservation requirements. Now look at frogs. In the food chain, frogs form an important part of the diet of many other animals such as birds and snakes. If their populations decline, the entire ecological pyramid will collapse. That is why they are called the 'conveyor belts of life'. Such is the ecological function of frogs.

The ancestors of modern frogs and other amphibians were the first creatures who transitioned from aquatic to terrestrial life. This shift was critical to the booming biodiversity of animal species that evolved on land. Then came the reptiles, the birds, a surge in vertebrates. Later evolved the mammals including humans. Amphibians represent this important evolutionary link between life in water and land. The relevance of frog studies does not end here. Birds can fly from one island to another, snake can swim over. But frogs are the only vertebrates that cannot tolerate or cross the salty sea water to reach other islands or continents. Thus, frogs offer us the best opportunity to study the diversification and distribution patterns of animal life across various biogeographical barriers, both in the present and the past.

Another significance of frogs is related to medical science that always seems more exciting to us humans. The chemical secretions found in the body of several frog species are resistant to viruses and bacteria. This is highly relevant for human healthcare. Many high-impact studies have been conducted on this topic. For example, morphine, though widely used for pain relief, has its side effects. But a chemical found in the skin of a particular frog in the Amazon forests has proven to be much more potent than morphine and without the latter's side effects. Such substitutes are already studied and available in the market now.

JA: Why are there too many species, especially undescribed species, in India?

SDB: There is a combination of several reasons behind the high levels of biodiversity and endemism in India. India has a unique geological history. Several million years ago the Indian landmass separated from the supercontinent Gondwana, specifically from the African regions. As India drifted northward, it was like a floating island, surrounded with water without any connections with other continents. Scientists have given it a term 'biotic ferry' that ferried many plants and animals from one part of the globe to another, across a vast ocean. This journey lasted several million years. During this long isolation India also experienced several geoclimatic changes. Life forms started to rapidly diversify to exploit a wide range of new habitats, especially in regions like the Western Ghats. Altogether many diverse life forms evolved that could not disperse to other regions. This is why we not only have a high number of species but also a very high number of those that are not found anywhere else in the world.

The iconic Silent Valley National Park of Kerala in the southern Western Ghats, part of a leading biodiversity hotspot and centre for global amphibian diversity and endemism. Photo: K. Jayaram

But these species have existed all through the modern times. Then comes the second part of your question about a high number of undescribed species. The simplest answer is: we didn't work hard enough or look at them closely. Many more researchers are now carrying out dedicated surveys and studies in previously unexplored regions. We also have access to modern techniques, such as those required to study and compare the DNA of species. These have churned up scores of undescribed species that remained unknown to science - and much more rapidly than we could, using traditional approaches. The number of known species in all the studied groups have gone up by several folds, especially in the last two decades. Amphibian species have more than doubled. And this is not the end. We are still discovering new life forms every day from remote parts of the country. There are still many lesser-known groups that remain overlooked. We need an army of field biologists, taxonomists, and evolutionary biologists, to fully document and understand India's unique biodiversity.

A mother caecilian coiled around and guarding her eggs. Photo: S. D. Biju

While we document our species, the scientific concept of species itself is evolving. What we called a species three centuries ago, cannot be applied to improve our understanding of life we know today and its conservation. Similarly, our concept of a species today, can transform tomorrow. Species names may or may not exist. But our discovery of these unique and distinct evolutionary lineages will always remain important and valid. That is the beauty of taxonomy, and all of science.

JA: How many research scholars have you guided? How many are there now?

SDB: My first Ph.D. student was a Belgian. She had registered under the guidance of Prof. Bossuyt and myself when I was in Belgium. Five scholars did Ph.D. under my supervision after that. It is not the number of students I have guided that matters but the quality of researchers I produce in the process. I never want my students to be unemployable. So far, all my students have done well for themselves. Two teach at Delhi University, one is a research professor in Belgium, another two are scientists at the British Museum, and one is at Harvard University. Currently seven young researchers are pursuing Ph.D. under my guidance.

JA: How did Harvard happen?

ASB: Harvard just happened to be the right opportunity, at the right time! Science is always rapidly advancing and as researchers we need to also evolve. I am always looking for ways to expand the scope of our research and the capabilities to do so. Harvard has the facilities, and most importantly, a culture of promoting basic sciences, even biodiversity research and taxonomy. To work in such an environment is refreshing and rewarding. I am fortunate to have an opportunity to work full-time at Harvard as a Radcliffe Fellow and pursue some exciting collaborations with researchers across the University. This includes departments that directly align with my research interests, such as the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, but also a much larger interdisciplinary community of scholars and professionals at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute.

JA: How do you see being conferred with the first 'Kerala Sree' Award?

SDB: Of course, it is a great honor, and not the kind I ever imagined I would get. I am just a crazy frog scientist going about my usual business. This has come as a surprise. Not often does one get recognized at home - it is even less common in Kerala. We usually have no qualms in inviting people to institutions and committees from any place, even if they may be far removed from the desired subject expertise. But I feel there is a tendency to neglect home-grown talent. Apart from this, being recognized for work on a tiny group of animals - frogs - and that being given importance in the wide award category of science is not common. This award therefore is not only for me but is a recognition for researchers like me that represent such overlooked forms of life, and taxonomy, a basic and necessary branch of science. Given this background, Kerala Sree Award will hold a special place in my heart.

Biju receiving one of Kerala state's highest civilian honours - 'Kerala Sree' - from the Governor of Kerala, Arif Mohammad Khan, in the presence of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: PRDO

JA: How would you evaluate your contributions to the society?

SDB: My straightforward answer is: I made an impact. My work has shown that the study of smaller animals like frogs do hold significance in India. The sheer number of amphibian discoveries that have come out from India during the past two decades is remarkable. This has brought fresh fascination on frogs and attracted young researchers to the field. This impact could be made not only due to intensified research but also because the outcome of these studies could be brought to public notice through media.

The LOST! Amphibians of India (LAI) is a nation-wide citizen science and conservation initiative started in 2010 under the leadership of S. D. Biju with the support of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and Conservation International, USA, for rediscovering India's 'lost' species. This lost species (Chalazodes Bubble-nest Frog, Raorchestes chalazodes) was rediscovered in the Western Ghats after 136 years. Photo: S. D. Biju

Amphibian awareness and conservation programs like the 'Lost! Amphibians of India' were effective in awakening public interest in the subject. A crop of new frog enthusiasts came up and they could be taken to forests for frog watching in the night. The impact created 'frog watchers' of a different kind, engineers, doctors, to housewives. I think this triggered a great interest in not just frogs, but other similar overlooked forms of life, from professionals to the common people across a wide cross-section of the society in India.

JA: How do you view the contribution of the new generation of Indian researchers in field biology?

SDB: Whether in Kerala or the whole of India, a host of young researchers are now studying smaller, previously overlooked forms of life. Several are excelling in their subjects of expertise, including taxonomy, and are contributing to biodiversity research and conservation in India. They are doing better than me and my generation and this gives me hope for the future. At the same time, we need to do more to recognize these young scientists. If not, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain the brilliant researchers we are attracting to these fields.

Biju at a workshop for young amphibian researchers of Indonesia organised by the University of Indonesia in 2007.Photo: Sonali Garg.

JA: What is your response to the comment that "Dr. Biju is arrogant?"

SDB: As a little boy I used to walk to school with a broken slate board after selling milk at a shop and giving my mother a few paise. I started learning late and was like a sprinter who went off the block last. Formal education starts like a ritual for everyone early in life; it became a priority for me only after a ripe twenty. I would never catch up with the rest if I did not run much faster. I had this doggedness when I started. I have had frustrating times at the beginning. My language skill was limited to Malayalam, my mother tongue. English was alien but science was in English. It was very difficult for me to take notes while studying at University College. I could not complete a sentence on my own. The determination to succeed that flared up in me was not to beat anyone but to prove that I can achieve on my own. That shot me forward. A sense of purpose gave me sustained focus and energy. Even the political leanings I once had were dropped on the wayside. To excel in my chosen world became my mantra; I did not have time for anything else. Maybe my undivided attention to academic pursuits gave an impression of me being arrogant; my madness and struggles may have come by as rough mannerisms. I have spent neither time nor effort to change such perceptions. Those who know me understand what I truly am. I came from an ordinary rural background and worked hard to stand shoulder to shoulder with those from elite, privileged upbringings. I never had a godfather, ever! I may not be polished like others, but I am a self-made man - I am actually proud of it.

Translation:Balachandran V

Acknowledgements: Dr. A. J. Thomsa and P Venugopal.

* The Prince of Frogs - Journey of S. D. Biju, a Pathfinder

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