Rachunliu G. Kamei discovers new species of swamp eel

Rachunliu G. Kamei discovers new species of swamp eel

Dr. Rachunliu G. Kamei (TOP) digging at the site where she discovered the Monopterus rongsaw (BELOW) in 2018. (Photos courtesy: Dr. Rachunliu G. Kamei)

Found near the living roots bridges of Meghalaya, named Monopterus rongsaw

Morung Express News

Dimapur | December 16

Naga Herpetologist and Researcher at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, Dr. Rachunliu G. Kamei, has yet another discovery to her credit.

During fieldwork aimed at collecting soil dwelling caecilian amphibians, near the living roots bridge in Nongriat Village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, Dr. Kamei dug out a blind eel, or “single synbranchid eel,” from the swamp.

She named it Monopterus rongsaw.

“The species name is derived from the Khasi word rongsaw, meaning red, alluding to the blood red colour of the species,” she wrote in a paper co-authored by Ralf Britz, Dan Sykes and David J. Gower.Titled ‘Monopterus rongsaw, a new species of hypogean swamp eel from the Khasi Hills in NortheastIndia (Teleostei: Synbranchiformes: Synbranchidae)’, the paper was published in August this year in the Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, an international journal for field-orientated ichthyology (branch of zoology that deals with fishes).

Special discovery

The discovery is special because “it is the first swamp eel of this whip-like body type and soil-dwelling lifestyle from North India,” explained Dr. Ralf Britz, a fish specialist (ichthyologist)at the NHM who co-authored the paper, responding to The Morung Express. “The most special feature is its seemingly complete independence from water, which leads us to ask questions about its anatomical and physiological adaptations, its reproductive behaviour and all other life history features.”

Till date,in India, swamp eels have only been found in parts of Kerala, “encountered almost exclusively in deep, (hu)man-made wells,” stated the paper. 

The importance of this discovery for ichthyology is immense. “Fish people conventionally go fishing with nets so burrowing eels are overlooked,” noted Dr. Kamei in an interview with The Morung Express.

A total of 179 mm in length, the Monopterus rongsaw has “tiny eyes covered by skin that are barely visible externally, and by absence of skin pigmentation.” Its red colour comes from a “dense network of capillaries that enable it to breathe underground.” So distinct is the specimen discovered, a single individual convinced the team of researchers that this is a new species.

“With the discovery of Monopterus rongsaw, North East India is home to three endemic species of hypogean swamp eels, all from elevations greater than 400 m above sea level,” affirmed the paper.

In 2012, Dr. Rachunliu G. Kamei and her team did pioneering field research leading to the description of a new family(Chikilidae) of caecilians endemic to the North East.

“This discovery challenged the long held theory that North East India is a biogeographic “gateway” rather than a distinct biogeographic region with endemic lineages,” held the scientific paper.

Process of digging & naming

How does one know where to dig for creatures under the ground?

“There are no cues where one can dig for caecilians,” said Dr. Kamei. “Since caecilian species in North East need water for reproduction, field work is generally done during the monsoon season. I generally choose sites that are close to a water source in a given locality (can be in forest, or agricultural areas), best generally is damp soil. And of course, these are sites you encounter swamp eels as well!”

Strong as a spade herself, she digs with a spade at a general depth of 20-40 cm. “One powerful strike into the soil,yank the spade towards you to immediately pull back a chunk of soil, check if there’s anything,” she instructed.

And the naming ceremony?

“When I first found the specimen while digging for caecilians I knew it was something interesting. I consulted with my colleague, Dr. Ralf Britz. A detailed morphological (external morphology, and internal—the bones) comparison with other species already known in the genus Monopterus showed that it was different from the rest already described so we gave it a name following the nomenclatural rules of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature,” elucidated the tireless Dr. Rachunliu Kamei.

The identification of species never named before provides hope for their preservation. Thus, “A discovery such as this shows,” affirmed the Herpetologist, “the need for more surveys in the rapidly vanishing habitats.”

The discovery has been publicized worldwide through a cartoon by Green Humourist, Rohan Chakravarty.  Click here for more…