Why Is Hari Chasing A Lizard In The Andamans?

Deepika Sarma
Grist Media

It's Monday, 12 November 2012, and it's rained nonstop for at least two days here at Wandoor, Great Andaman. With thick darkness barely kept at bay by the dim lights of the open dinner hall, a bunch of young scientists, wildlife conservationists, scuba divers and visitors huddle on wooden benches around the long dining table. At the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team field station here at Wandoor (45 minutes from Port Blair by road), which several scientists use as their base for work in the islands, it's been pouring so hard that the light, clayey soil has turned to goo. But like every other day at ANET, the people staying there have arrived in the dining hall in search of food and company.

Some evenings see sessions at which the researchers give presentations on their work, which covers a range of organisms from corals to cobras. But today's subject - proposed in Douglas Adams-loving jest but made real by popular demand - is 'The answer to life, the universe and everything.'

Meanwhile, I'm growing antsy because a young herpetologist I'd like to speak to is a silent, amiable spectator enthralled by the discussion that goes on for hours. I'm ashamed of myself for being such a killjoy, but my flight home is early the next morning. I slouch in my seat a little, defeated, certain that this isn't the right time to bring up work, even if said work is discovering a new species.

In the few days that I've been at ANET, I've heard that Harikrishnan S. - a scientist here on fieldwork - is part of a team that just discovered a new species of lizard in the Andamans, and it's something I can't wait to ask him about. So far, I've only seen Hari in passing or at mealtimes. He is working towards a PhD from the Wildlife Institute of India. He's a slim, curly-haired figure dressed like everyone else in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, and moves around after dark with a torch strapped to his head.

When it seems like the lively debate at the dining table is beginning to wind down, Hari remembers our interview. He puts on his serious face. All is well.

We step behind the kitchen to a table used for chopping vegetables, trying to talk over the din of heavy raindrops falling onto the metal roof above. It's only 9pm but it's been dark for hours; here in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are closer to Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia than they are to India but follow Indian Standard Time, the sun rises around 5.30am and sets around 5pm. Under the watchful eye of ANET's resident ginger cat, which constantly returns to check on us, Hari tells me how the Coryphophylax brevicaudus was found.

* * *

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are rich in wildlife species, and with interest in the region on the upswing in recent years, the islands have seen visits from an increasing number of researchers. European expeditions to the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the mid-1800s on the Danish ship Galathea and the Austro-Hungarian SMS Novara made some of the first attempts to document the region's flora and fauna. Since then, the presence of over 90 species of herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) has been recorded. On the two clusters comprised of nearly 600 islands, herpetofauna form a significant chunk of the wildlife found here.

Unfortunately, any herpetologist will tell you that herpetofauna are fairly low on the world's list of priorities. "They're not as sexy as the mammalian megafauna [that get all the attention], the tigers and pandas and elephants," Romulus Whitaker - founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, of which ANET is a division - once said in an interview. But there's been a slight shift on this front over the years, with growing awareness about herpetofauna being indicators of a healthy environment.

Wild pigs and macaques were once the only large mammals on the islands until deer and elephants - 'invasives' - were introduced to the island, the former as game, the latter for logging. Today dogs, goats, cats; birds such as mynas and house crows and plants such as lantana and prickly pear have found their way onto the islands, stowaways on ships from the mainland or brought there deliberately. Their presence on the islands has threatened the existence of several plant and animal species, increasing the pressure on scientists and conservationists to understand the forces at play on the island before they are altered forever. Sometimes it doesn't take scientific studies to understand the impact of invasives here at ANET. The large ginger cat that hangs about the dining hall will soon be banished to Chidiya Tapu, another location on the island of Great Andaman; since she's been here, the snake and lizard population has dropped noticeably.

Hari tells me that the actual discovery of the lizard happened a few years ago, while he was studying the macroecology of herpetofauna. But the process of verifying that it was a different species took time. "This is what we call a cryptic species, okay?" he says. A cryptic species is one that closely resembles another species, making it difficult to spot the difference. "We were doing baseline surveys initially, and at least for this one lizard species we knew immediately when we came across it that it was different, because we had some information on what species already existed in the Andamans."

For years, it had been mistaken for the Coryphophylax subcristatus, the common  Bay Island forest lizard. But the new lizard that the group credited with its discovery  had been observing was slightly smaller, had different colourations, and among various other differences from its cousin the C. subcristatus, it had a shorter tail.

Ahead of the team - including Hari, Karthikeyan Vasudevan, who was Hari's supervisor at the Wildlife Institute of India, S.R. Chandramouli, BC Choudhury, Sushil Kumar Datta and Indraneil Das - lay the long process of proving that this was a new species. In the course of their studies on the islands, more new species were found - "a couple of frogs and lizards and snakes" - but the process of describing a new species is "so tedious", Hari says, that they decided to get this one out of the way first, as it seemed the easiest one to finish. As it turned out, it took two years for the new species, Coryphophylax brevicaudus, to be described.

* * *

I'm here at ANET to learn how to scuba dive. ANET partners with Lacadives, a dive operator, to train researchers as well as 'lay people' (a phrase thrown at me fairly often here) like me to dive in open waters, introducing us to the mysteries of the ocean. But despite the sheer number of organisms I encounter at the reefs I've been diving at, it's the creatures I've been running into on land that overwhelm me.

My day begins with slapping on insect repellant to keep away the enormous mosquitos whose bites sting. I stay in a room on stilts, with a framework built of wood and woven mats for walls.  The windows are perennially open to the world beyond; things I cannot identify fly in all the time, and slender lizards with long forearms and raised heads and torsos - as if they were caught doing a push-up, or heaving themselves up out of curiosity to get a better look - stare at me glassily from the window sills.

I am constantly sticky and sweaty. I cannot stop drinking water. It's so humid that the clothes I washed and hung out to dry two days ago are still wet, and show no sign of drying. With no cellphone signal and extremely limited access to the Internet, in the days that I've been here, the outside world has ceased to matter.

In the dining hall, where I've wandered hoping to find company, a tiny green snake slowly and tentatively pokes its head out from behind a picture hung high on the wall. How it got there is a mystery, but it appears to look in our direction and when we laugh, it freezes in fright. It stays this way for a good few minutes before retreating back to its hiding place. Meanwhile, Tweepa, a stray dog recovering from wounds sustained in a fight, curls under a bench for a long nap.

In the evening, I'm part of a guided walk through the mangroves less than a kilometer away from ANET. After a while, we leave our footwear under a tree scared we'd lose them to the sticky mud we are bound to encounter on the way. Nearly a decade on from the terrible 2004 tsunami, enormous trees now lie facedown along this stretch of coast, bleached in the sun and brine, their large roots sprawled in the air. But the sheer number of creatures pointed out to us on the walk weighs me down a little. There are two tiny dog-faced snakes staring at us from inside a little pond. There are birds. There are little alien mudskippers dragging themselves along. There are cone snails who move if you watch them long enough, and there are the comical blue fiddler crabs who wave a cartoonishly large red claw to attract the lady crabs. In this landscape, I stick out like a sore thumb. I feel no right to be here.

* * *

Now, in December 2013, it's been a little over a year since I saw Hari, who is back at ANET while he waits for a permit from the authorities to continue his fieldwork in the Nicobar islands. In an email, he tells me that mobile phone networks have been worse than ever since Cyclone Phailin, and suggests that I try reaching him in the evenings on ANET's landline. It takes a week before I finally get through. Murmurs and laughter in the background tell me that a few people have already begun to hang around the dining hall, where the landline is connected.

Hari tells me that in the last three years that he's been working in the Andaman and Nicobar region, he has spent roughly 18 months on research that has taken him to 16 islands. A square plot, selected at random, is marked out on the island under study and the various species found within the plot are enumerated. This helps understand the presence or absence of organisms, and ultimately, how biodiversity is organized.

Getting to these locations with his field assistants takes advance planning - permits have to be applied for, and bad weather can cause delays. They carry tents and basic provisions such as rice, dal, masalas, salt. When I press him for more details, the voices in the background grow louder. "We buy things from shops along the way. We carry the usual things - torches, insect repellant, umbrellas. I have a tool to help me catch snakes, a scale to weigh them, and I keep my laptop and camera." 

I remind Hari of our conversation on taxonomy a year ago, and ask if he still thinks the process is tedious. He laughs. "There is no getting around the work that it takes to describe a new species. You have to make sure it's been compared with types already preserved, whether they're in a museum in Kolkata or in Europe."

European visitors to the islands were generous with the specimens they collected, and sent them to museums around the world.  When describing a new species, it has to be compared related ones, wherever in the world the specimens may be. Hari's supervisor Karthik, who now heads the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species under the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, says cutting corners is impossible. "You won't believe this: I had to go to Paris to see some specimens in a museum. We had to compare the new species with specimens in Malaysia, Singapore, Kolkata, Berkeley and Vienna," he says.  That's one of the reasons describing a new species takes so long.

But if the process of describing a new species seems laborious (Karthik describes it as "agonizingly slow"), it can be easier for those in the Andamans than doing so for ones found on India's mainland. On the mainland, he says, each species is part of a complex system and interacts in numerous ways with the ecology; on islands, you have a simple assemblage of species that can be endemic to the region. And when trying to understand the links between specimens of a species, it helps to have other scientists in different locations who can give you a hand. "The number of people involved in the process depends on how much information a scientist has at his or her disposal, but it takes personal rapport with other scientists to get the ball rolling. There's so much collaboration, perseverance and teamwork involved in the process."

When naming a species, scientists have to follow the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. A species cannot be named after the person who found it, but it can be named in honour of someone else; earlier this year, a team of researchers discovered two new genera of tree frogs in the Western Ghats. One genus was named Beddomixalus after Richard Henry Beddome, once Chief Conservator of Forests in the Madras Presidency, with the species name bijui after 'frog man' SD Biju, who is credited with the discovery of several species. The other genus was named Mercurana after the late singer Freddie Mercury.

But the Coryphophylax brevicaudus, Hari's lizard, derives its name from the Latinized version of its most obvious difference in terms of characteristics - its short tail. It wasn't named after the region it was found in, because if it was found elsewhere, say Myanmar or Narcondam, they'd look silly, says Karthik. And in his book, simplicity works best: "I think it's important to have a scientific name that translates easily to English. It's important to have a name that can easily be remembered."

Once a name is decided on and a formal paper is written, it has to be reviewed and published in a reputed journal. And then, at long last, the world of science gains a new species.

* * *

In 2004, researcher Shreyas Krishnan was studying the biogeography of the islands and their herpetofaunal diversity when he was sure he'd encountered a new species of lizard right by ANET's dining hall. The night before, there had been a celebration. "It was someone's arrival or departure - maybe mine, I can't remember exactly." In the morning, the 26-year-old woke up to a heavy downpour and a bad hangover. He made his way to the dining hall, fixed himself some tea, and while he sat down at the dining table to sip on it and watch the rain, he saw something fall into a pool that had formed on the other side of the table. "Initially, I thought it was just a frog that had fallen from a tree, so I didn't pay attention to it. But as I watched it struggle to get out of the pond, I realized it was too long to be a frog, and when I went to look at it, I found it was an animal I had never seen before."

He'd spent the last three years obsessively studying "hundreds and hundreds" of lizard specimens, acquainting himself with the lizards in Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and the only thing like the lizard he'd seen until then was a specimen in a museum. So far, the object of his research had been the Coryphophylax - the same lizard genus that Hari and his team were dealing with. The lizards under this genus were most often described as a single species with divergent populations. But when Shreyas laid eyes on the lizard in the pond by the dining hall, he knew instantly that he'd found something special.

Nearly a decade on, Shreyas, now working on a PhD at the University of Texas at Arlington, says that describing the lizard he found remains a work in progress. "I'm describing this animal from the Andamans and a related animal from the Nicobar islands, but we do not have access to specimens from further south of the Nicobar islands, in Sumatra, and that's basically the hold up." In his pleasant, polite voice - in his American accent with bits of Indian - he explains patiently on the phone from the US that access to those specimens may give them certainty.

"It's very easy to name a new organism just because it's from a new place, but that doesn't mean it's a new species - you have to be sure." The absence of records and specimens or sloppy cataloguing that doesn't indicate precisely where a specimen is from are some of the hurdles that can come with the task. And there's the sheer number of specimens you may have to look at - Shreyas says that to understand how the lizard was related to other lizards from the Agamid family, he had to examine specimens in museums in India, Europe and the US. And similar specimens in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and as far east as Vietnam and Cambodia. "Before I attempt to come to a conclusion, I try to exhaust all options."

The real limitation, he says, is time. "I'm currently doing other research, so work on this has been on the backburner. And I've been working on it alone. Maybe if I'd had a team, this would have been faster." A few years ago, he submitted the paper on the lizard he's describing for review, but it came back with comments from the editors that needed to be addressed. He didn't have the time to respond then, but when he finally got down to it, time had lapsed and the analyses required for publishing had progressed, requiring more work.

He has thought of a name for the lizard, but is cautious about revealing it: "The lizard I'm describing is not just a new species, but a new genus completely. That's why the specimens from Sumatra are so important. We know very little about the ecology of the animal, and species names very often say something about the animal you're describing; its colour, its morphology, or sometimes the location it's found in."

We chat a bit about scientific names, which can be formulated to honour personalities or make in-jokes or be downright wacky, but the lizard Shreyas is describing will have a Latinized name, he asserts, based on morphology or some aspect of its biology. "Because the name has to be informative. It can be very useful for identifying an animal. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose." But in the end, he points out, taxonomy is merely nomenclature. What's more important is the larger picture: understanding the science of evolutionary processes.

In an email sent the day after our conversation, Shreyas sounds worried that I may focus more on the fact that he discovered the lizard while hung over and less on the hundreds of specimens he studied in order to be able to identify it. But his email also suggests why scientists constantly return to the islands on a thankless task in difficult conditions: the opportunity to add a new piece to the puzzle. "Discovering a new species while hung over, while true, suggests that we have so much more to learn about these islands."

* * *

Why is charting species important?

Shreyas likens a region's careful ecological balance to a Jenga tower - if each block represents a species or a group of species within an ecology and some are taken out, the tower is bound to tip over. "It's useful because if you know what you have, then you know what kind of diversity exists and in terms of conservation and development, what to protect and how to protect it. You understand the processes going on."

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Karthik on the phone from Hyderabad about the amount of time that taxonomy tends to swallow up, and if he ever worries that species will go extinct even before they are documented. Rauf Ali, the wildlife biologist known for his pioneering work on invasives in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, certainly believes so. But Karthik believes that although there is pressure to rapidly document species, it's not simply about creating a catalogue. "Taxonomy may take ages, but it's necessary for our very understanding of the environment. India has 4 biodiversity hotspots with several million species in total, but only about 5,000 taxonomists for fauna. There aren't even enough taxonomists for the smaller mammals such as rodents and bats. Species will go extinct for no fault of taxonomists."
However long it takes to document a species, Karthik believes a scientist's work has to withstand the test of time, stressing the importance of rigorous work and getting it right; it's science. "If someone finds out 100 years down the line that your description was wrong, it shows that you just didn't work hard enough."

But describing species isn't a goal, according to Shreyas. "In my experience, especially at the start of my career, finding a new species did seem exciting. Lay people and students often think the hallmark of a scientist is how many species he discovers. It's something that may happen along the way, but the real aim is to ask intelligent questions, to push the boundaries of science."

* * *

Rauf Ali's first visit to the Andaman and Nicobar islands was in 1988, when he led students there on research. In the 25 years since he first went there, some things haven't changed. The islands are less remote and more populated, but there still is no government policy on controlling invasive species. The buck-passing continues. "You won't believe the kind of insane arguments I get - 'But it's such a beautiful animal' - 'But you scientists can all be wrong about the need to control it' - 'The Andamans may be different from other islands in the world' -  'The Andamans are a part of India, so how can they be invasive there?'" There's the looming prospect that some plant species may disappear, but there's been little attempt to document this, save for ongoing studies on the impact chital have on vegetation and herpetofauna. "And now they want to open up the Nicobar islands to tourism - I completely shudder to think about what will happen there."

Earlier, the islands had the reputation of being remote with harsh conditions, and so researchers tended to avoid it. Since it's become a tourist destination, Rauf says, there's been a flood of researchers in the last decade. "Ironically, it's become far more difficult to get a permit now than it used to be 15 years back. Those days it was a small place and we took the time to build links with people in the Forest Department. I once got a permit in four-and-a-half minutes. We would sit with them in their offices, eat with them, drink with them. They knew exactly what we were doing so there were no problems at all. Now it can take six weeks, or 2 months, or 3 months. Now everyone is so busy, there are too many researchers. And you know the tendency among young researchers these days is to say 'He's an idiot, why should I go and see him?' But it doesn't help. We're all trying to work for the same cause. So there's no point in unnecessarily rubbing someone the wrong way."

I ask what it's like to live in the Andamans for long periods of time. "Well, ANET's a great place to crash at when you have work in the North Andamans or the Nicobar Islands and you need a permit. I don't have much work there now so I feel like I'm just using up everyone's space." I've stepped into dark territory.
After having been in the islands for 4 years continuously, he says he can't bear to live there all the time anymore. "It rains so much that you feel like taking a knife and slitting your throat. It just rains all the time. You know, a commonly sold item in pharmacies here is Alprax [a tranquilizer and anti-depressant]."

And there are the long bouts of illness. "I'm going through my 40th bout of malaria this time. The doctor says no, but I think otherwise." In 2010, he wrote an article for a magazine titled 'The man who got malaria 37 times'. There's not a single person he knows working in the islands who hasn't been ill for long periods of time. "But if you come here for 2 weeks as a tourist, it's fantastic."

I think of Hari, who got married last year but is currently somewhere in the Nicobar islands, probably camping by a study site with field staff as the world celebrates the new year. He once said he'd been "lucky so far" about not having faced any real emergencies. I ask Rauf why he would risk getting malaria 40 times, risk his health and happiness, to continue his research in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. There's a pause, but only a very tiny one. "Right now I'm managing to do very good science."

Deepika Sarma is Assistant Editor, Grist Media.