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An English vicar and the frog with no lungs

Tony Whitten's picture

Priests and vicars have long demonstrated a penchant for biodiversity. There have been missionaries in remote places who have built up and preserved beautiful collections of butterflies, plants etc. which eventually found their way into the great natural history museums of the world.  The Rev. Gilbert White (1720-93) was the classic 18th century English clergyman-naturalist. Over many years he made observations of the plants and creatures he saw and he pulled the strands together in a widely-read book, 'The Natural History of Selborne'.  In a reflective letter to a colleague in 1768 he wrote, "It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: All nature is so full that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined"

It is in this context that I read the news earlier this month that a small frog, Barbourula kalimantanensis, from Indonesian Borneo, previously known from just a few specimens, had been found to have no lungs.  It is the first frog known to respire solely through its skin but not the first amphibian.  This is a great discovery but maybe not so surprising.  To paraphrase Rev. White, 'the more you look the more you find'.  Nature is so rich, so varied, so surprising, that the existence such an animal would not be totally unexpected. 

Barbourula kalimantanensis is believed to absorb oxygen through its skin.
It is for this reason that a biodiversity specialist finds the current rapid loss of wild nature so acutely painful.  There are species going extinct even before they can be collected, let alone named and examined. The frog in question at least has a name (and so can be formally protected), but its crystal clear torrents are becoming clogged with constant flows of silt from illegal gold mines in the rivers' headwaters. 

During the preparation work for the Bank-financed Nam Theun 2 dam, the hydropower company hired the famous Swiss ichthyologist, Dr. Maurice Kottelat, to survey the fishes in and around the proposed reservoir.  What he found was remarkable and he was able to write descriptive papers which sounded like something from the 18th century:  'Fishes of the Nam Theun and Xe Bangfai basins, Laos, with diagnoses of 22 new species' was followed not long afterwards by 'Diagnosis of a new genus and 64 new species of fishes from Laos'!  This work led to detailed examination of those species which would be affected by the dam and management plans could be put in place to help safeguard them.

Over the last 10 years or so I have been able to collect the shells of land snails (in an earlier life I co-wrote a not-so-popular fieldguide to the snails of Bali), a group for which I have a great fondness.  From those collections there are about 100 unknown to science and only a few of those have been formally described and named - none is known as a living part of its ecosystem. 

There was recently some coverage of a most unlikely snail which curls every which way but failed to hit the headlines the way the frog did. This also reminds me that some years ago I discovered a new species of crab from a holy cave in Bali.  Latterly the colleague with whom I wrote the formal description found that our one species was in fact two species.  But how on earth there would be enough ecological space in the single cave on the island is a mystery.  I have no time to go and find out.  And there is no local priest or vicar who can go and find out. 

Comments

Submitted by H. Müller on
What a delightful article. For a moment it seemed I was reading one of the essays that Stephen Jay Gould used to write for Natural History. The World Bank deserves much praise for this kind of blogging. Wunderbar!

Submitted by Whitten, Tony on
I have become aware of an interesting piece on the frog by a colleague, Tan Heok Hui of the Raffles Museum at the University of Singapore, which includes photos of the animal and its habitat - see http://rafflesmuseum.wordpress.com/2008/04/11/the-enigmatic-bornean-lungless-frog-%e2%80%93-barbourula-kalimantanensis-anura-bombinatoridae-a-first-hand-encounter/

Submitted by K.C. on
Well done. I should add that Selbourne is the most published scientific book so far. It has been described as “a literary classic rivalled only by works such as the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress” (P. Foster, 1993, Select Bibliography, in White’s Selbourne).

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