A Quest to Find an Elusive Snail

I will remember the smell of fishing harbours for a long time to come.

It threatens to overwhelm at first. Then, it jostles for competition with other sensory assaults: shouts of fishermen auctioning their fish and people declaring their bids; loud colours of saris, lungis and fishing trawlers; the cries of fishermen on their boats passing crates of fish to each other and the ‘thud!’ as the crate lands on the floor of the harbour, hundreds of people busily doing things. My thoughts are interrupted, suddenly- a group of fishermen obscure my view and hastily tell me to move out of the way as they haul a large yellow-fin tuna away from their boats. The floor of the harbour is wet, parts of it speckled with fish-scales that glimmer dimly. The wetness clings to my sandals.

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Hauling a yellow-fin tuna

I am with Bharti DK, a PhD student of the Indian Institute of Science and Sajan John, a researcher with nuggets of wisdom about everything under the sun and the sea. Bharti’s quest to find an elusive, unassuming marine animal has brought us to the fishing harbours of Kerala. She wants to find out how this animal disperses and how such dispersal might shape its populations.

Bharti holds a shell in her hand, a conical shell with spirals and a delicate minaret. It is the former home to a snail called Conus, one of the species that she is interested in. Conus is usually found ten metres into the sea and sometimes caught as by-catch by the fishermen.

“Have you seen this shell?” we ask the fishermen.

Some of them peer curiously at us from their boats and ask us what we are there for.

They point us in the direction of heaps of fish and other marine life they are not interested in. There are people sorting these heaps. Fish that can be sold go in one pile, the rest go in another. A few of these people enthusiastically look for Conus, throwing us any shell that vaguely resembles it. For a short while, our quest becomes their quest.

I am easily distracted. Above us, the sky is a blur. There are crows, brahminy kites and egrets circling the boats. Every now and again, one of them swoops and steals a fish from the boats. Sometimes a fight breaks out between the birds as they pilfer each other’s catch.

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We prod the heaps of marine refuse with a stick, looking for Conus. Some of the heaps still writhe with life. Hermit crabs stumble out in a daze. Sajan points out some beautiful creatures called sand dollars. They are flat and round and fit in the palm of my hand. I look closer and notice patterns of petals etched on them. I quickly pocket them to add to the growing hoard of nature’s treasures in my room, little knowing that the pretty creatures would gently fill my bag with a putrid odour and metamorphose into a brown, unrecognisable slush.

In one of the harbours, a big, burly fisherman followed by an entourage of his colleagues, towers over us and asks us what we want. Sajan explains at length. The fisherman disappears into his cabin and comes out holding a shell. It is a species of Conus called Textile Cone which looks like porcelain etched with fine zigzag lines. However, like most other shells we found, its inhabitant is absent.

Back in her laboratory in Bangalore, Bharti will extract DNA from Conus snails from different locations. From its DNA, she will be able to understand the genetics of each population, and find out how related populations are to each other. Some Conus species travel long distances as larva, while others are sedentary. Bharti wants to find out why this is so, what it is about each species that determines how far its young travel. She will use the genetic relatedness of populations to estimate how far a species’ larva travels. The logic is simple: the further the larvae travel, the more will be the genetic relatedness of separated populations.

The fishermen sometimes ask us to come aboard their boats where fish are still being sorted. Picking our way across boats, we see fishermen lolling on their sides, tired from their sojourn at sea. Some of these boats have spent many days at sea, going as far as Pakistan. Not bothering to get up or shift from their reclining positions, the fishermen ask us what we want, and pass around the Conus shell that we show them. Often they make us run in circles: fishermen of the smaller fishing boats tell us to go to trawlers; the men of the trawlers send us back to the small fishing boats.

This has been the general routine in the six fishing harbours we have gone to from Thiruvanathapuram to Kozhikode. Each time we near the harbour our driver announces, “The smell has come!” We don our hats, roll up our pants and let ourselves be enveloped by the bustling masses of people.

The harbours are intriguing with all their activity, but it is sad that my first introduction to many beautiful creatures of the sea is when they are lying lifeless on the harbour floor. Here are marlins with their enormous, jagged fins which look like they jumped straight out of someone’s imagination; here lie eagle rays with little heart-shaped depressions on their bellies; sharks that look sinister even in death; pearly-white, translucent squid oozing out their black ink; plump yellow-fin tunas- their tiny yellow fins contrasting sharply with the grey of their bodies.

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Sharks at the Cochin harbour

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Marlins that seemed to have leaped out of a mythical tale

Before the fishermen return in their technicolor boats when the sun’s rays are still only an hour old, the harbour is in a lull.

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Sunrise at Neendakara harbour

Then, in a few hours, the activity in the harbour touches fever-pitch and then lapses again into a sleepy restfulness. People from big hotels, exporters and fishmongers arrive at the scene and wait for the arrival of the fishing boats. Some of them form little knots and watch the sea. A few fishermen sit by their boats and mend their fishing nets as the sun rises over the harbour.

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People wait for the fishermen to arrive

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Scraping barnacles off from the underneath of a boat

Once the boats dock, a flurry of activity ensues. Boats are cleaned; barnacles scraped off; smaller fish sorted out; bigger fish bodily dragged out of boats, pulled through a mass of humanity and then auctioned. As soon as a new load of fish is brought to the harbour, a crowd of people surround it and an auction starts without preamble. Once done, the crowd dissolves and forms at another site.

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An auction of rays in progress

We stand out amidst the throng. The fishermen allow us to interrupt them to ask them about the shell.

“Have you seen this shell?” We ask over and over again. “Do you know where we can find it?”

After this frenzy of activity the pulse of the harbour slows. Fishermen laze in their boats, tell each other about the day’s happenings and catch a few snatches of sleep. Some gather for a game of cards in the shade of the harbour.

As we come away from the harbour, I am reminded of the fishing markets in Asterix comics, always bustling with activity and incident. We learn towards the end of our quest, that there is a separate fishing season just for Conus and other ornamental shells, and we had come at the wrong time. That may be another chapter in Bharti’s quest. As for me, I am content with the opportunity this quest allowed me, to peek into the lives of fishermen, entwined as they are with those of the fish in the ocean.

An edited version of this article was published in Current Conservation.

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Stories in the Sand

One of the first things people learn about you in Kutch- a dusty district in western India, is what your footprints look like. This is not very surprising given that in most parts of Kutch, the ground under your feet is a fine clay that retains memories of whatever passes over it.  If you look closely, it tells you stories of who or what passed by and when. The Kutchi people are very good at being able to read these stories.

“Oh, you were here yesterday!” someone or the other always tells me. “I noticed your bike tracks and footprints”.

Kabul bhai, the cook in our field station often declares that we have visitors, after glancing at a pair of footprints in the sand. To my untrained eye, these looked like any other footprints. But slowly, I start noticing little details in the footprints. Worn or cracked soles, a dip in the sand that tells you how the person walks- there is always a kink that sets them apart.

These skills come in handy in the field when I lose things and have to retrace my footprints to find them. When in need of some exceptionally good tracking, though, I call Habu bhai who is detective extraordinaire. He arrived early one morning with his forehead furrowed to investigate the theft of my rodent traps and started wandering around from where the traps were stolen. A little while later, he announced that he found one set of footprints which was joined by another smaller pair. He followed them until he reached the road. Then after some searching, he found their trail again and tracked them all the way to their village which was a kilometre away. What happened after that is another story that I will reserve for  later.

It is fitting that my work in the field involves examining footprints too, albeit a different kind- gerbil!(a kind of rodent found in arid, desert-like regions). In wildlife biology, footprints and tracks of animals are often used as an indication of their presence when they are hard to see. Every evening, I smoothen the soft clay around my experimental plots only to come back the next morning to find tiny rodent footprints waiting for me.

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Gerbil footprints

 

Sometimes it appears that they have run around in a frenzy while eating the food I had left out for them. “It looks like the rodents came and played garba last night!” Sherkhan my field assistant would tell me on these days. Sometimes there are tracks of other animals on my plots. A hedgehog was a regular customer; I always enjoy looking at its tiny, almost human-like footprints. There are also snakes, birds, jackals, goats and buffaloes that leave their tracks in the sand. A set of human footprints around the plots are common. I imagine they inquisitively walk around wondering what I am up to. And on two occasions, I am surprised to find ‘namaste’ and a phone number written in the sand I had smoothened out.

There are footprints everywhere once you start looking. I notice some sections in the sand which look like an army of gerbils had passed through- we fondly call these ‘gerbil highways’. Elsewhere are the gigantic footprints of a common crane next to maybe a wolf; a monitor lizard had waddled past here; a fox might have paused to sniff something there. On one sunny morning, a snake- maybe a saw-scaled viper which moves like a sidewinder- had slithered past sometime after me.

 

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A monitor lizard

 

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Decoding footprints

 

And then a wind blows taking away some sand with it, leaving a clean slate for a fresh set of stories.

Know Your Urban Wildlife: Snake Skink

If you see something small and snake-like slithering in the sand or the undergrowth by your feet, it just might be a snake skink! So if you were going to yelp out in fear, don’t. Skinks are long lizards with reduced limbs which move very much like a snake. There are about 50 kinds of skinks in India, but I’ve only seen the snake skink (Lygosoma punctata) or supple skink around residential areas in Bangalore.

 

The Forest Spirit: snake skink

Juvenile snake skinks have a bright red tail, leading some to mistakenly think these skinks are poisonous. I quite like looking at their red tails wriggle and writhe as they move-it makes it
seem as though they leave a trail of flame as they move. The juveniles (of the snake skinks) have streaks on its body, unlike the adult which has spots and no red tail. Snake skinks are semi-fossorial(which means they live underground) and have developed a particularly neat adaptation to prevent their eyes getting scratched- a transparent visor they can slide over their eyes.

Skinks press their feet against their body to flee from a predator all the more faster. Interestingly, some skinks in Australia were found to have lost their limbs completely due to lack of use. 

 

(This post is part of an article published on Caleidoscope)

Sea-side Treasures

 I could spend hours poking around intertidal areas and discovering fascinating creatures. Intertidal rocks and pools are exposed during low tide and submerged in high tide. They teem with natural life. 

The Forest Spirit: limpets

Limpets on intertidal rocks

I love limpets, not least because they make such a hilarious endearment(I went around saying ‘you silly little limpet!’ after I saw them for the first time).

What I love about the natural world is how unassuming creatures can reveal so much about their ecology. Limpets, for example, disperse using ocean currents in their larval stage, affecting the structure of their populations along different parts of the coast. 

The Forest Spirit: intertidal zonation

Intertidal zonation

Intertidal rocks are particularly interesting because they are hugged by different kinds of marine life depending on how often parts of it are submerged in water. If you look at the big rock in the picture above, you will notice zones of different colours- which are really different algae and seaweed that are adapted to the different zones on the rock. The lowest zone is almost always submerged in water and the highest is often exposed.

Elephants in Masinagudi

We saw elephants on our way back from Kerala in Masinagudi!

The  Forest Spirit: elephants in masinagudi

The mom and aunt(I think they were the mom and aunt) were being so protective of the calf and always flanked it on either side.

It was wonderful watching them twirl grass around their trunks like spaghetti and fork it up into their mouths.

I think they had just been to a waterhole, because their limbs looked like biscuits partly dipped in tea.

Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

If Shakespeare ever needed inspiration for a new romantic novel and took to pottering about in the garden, it is not unlikely that he would come away with his mind brimming with new ideas. For in the garden, he would find Romeos with a string of belles, Juliets who are hard to please, jilted lovers and Casanovas, and connivers who find underhand ways of getting themselves noticed.

On the subject of wooing, there is no dearth of examples in nature. It is quite common for males to be the ones who woo females and for females to be the picky ones. During the breeding season, males of many species sport bright ornamental colours or engage in elaborate mating displays. I find it all quite hilarious. Still, the processes that control these behaviours are fascinating.

Courtship displays, ornaments and gifts presented to females evolved as a way for males to signal their quality to females and to score a mate. Sometimes, these traits or behaviours act in a way that is detrimental to their survival- for example the long tail of the male peacock is a hindrance while flying- but still stay on, for the sole reason that it makes the owner more attractive and increases their reproductive success.

The male Bengal bush lark dos a funny mating ritual where he flies up to a height of about ten metres and then float or swoops down. He does this repeatedly till his calculating female audience decides he is good enough for her.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

Mating display of a Bengal bush lark

 

It is usually the females that are selective because they have only a limited number of eggs on which they must expend a lot of energy. So by choosing the best male, she is guaranteed to have healthier offspring.

By being choosy and mating with select males, females stand to gain a helping hand in raising her offspring, protection from other attention-seeking males, and better nourishment. An example is a species of spider in which the male presents the female a gift of prey wrapped in silk prior to mating. The gift increases the chance of mating for the male and provides the female with better nutrition.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

In a few species of spiders, males court females by presenting them with a gift of prey wrapped in silk

 

Females also gain indirect benefits of mating with certain males- her offspring are healthier.

There are many interesting theories about what females look for in males before choosing them and why. Some say that males with traits of the highest quality are the fittest because there are costs involved in maintaining such traits. Traits like loud croaks or red bellies are sometimes reliable indicators of how healthy the owner of the trait is. In peacocks, females inspect the iridescent eye-spots of the male peacocks’ brilliant tail. The brighter they are, the more likely the owner of the spots is to be the chosen one. One study even went a little further to show that females only inspect eyespots on the lower parts of the tail.

Breeding season for many animals begins with the arrival of the monsoon. This period of time is when food and water is in abundance. Many male birds dress up, sometimes absurdly, for the breeding season. They grow long colourful feathers, and for some birds even the beaks change colour. The females, who in contrast look drab and dull, are then treated to an extravagant display as the males strut their stuff.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the natural world

A cattle egret before and after it sports its breeding plumage

In species where males have to vie for females in the game of mating, they also have to fight among themselves. Deer antlers and elephant tusks have evolved to aid in both winning over the females and competing amongst males. And when males are not healthy enough to win a female by just looks or flamboyant dances alone, they employ underhand tactics.

In tree crickets for example, it is the male’s size that makes females weak at the knees. Females are drawn to a group of males by their calls and then begin to scrutinize them. Males that are small and not fit enough to chirp loudly hang around casually next to a loud male. When the female arrives, the smaller male seizes the opportunity and quickly mates with the female before she or the bigger male has any say in the matter.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

Weaker tree crickets sometimes ‘cheat’ to bag a mate

I have introduced a few Romeos, Juliets and conniving knaves here, but there are a host of other characters in the mysterious world that is nature, more complex and astonishing than any Shakespearean novel. If you ever needed a lesson in wooing, you know where to look.

 

(This post was originally published in The Alternative)

Happy Tree Friends

I have been spending a lot of my time sitting on trees the last month. They are, in my opinion, the best lazy-boys (those decadently comfortable recliner chairs) you will ever find. You can sprawl along one of its boughs and gaze at the canopy above, perch in convenient crevices, lay down tummy-first on a branch like a leopard, sit with your legs dangling, recline on your side with your head propped up like some Greek God,…your imagination is the limit, really.

The Forest Spirit: Happy tree friends

Happiness is sitting on a tree

 

It is amazing how trees are home to so much life. Sitting on a sprawling banyan tree one evening, our conversation was punctuated by the rustles of a squirrel scurrying along a branch and the merry calls of mynas, the ‘thup!’ of a half-eaten fig fruit falling to the ground and the sleepy buzz of a fly investigating squirrel dropping. Sometimes there would be a row of ants marching about, trying to find a way around our legs. I always thought they would give me a disgruntled nip for invading their space, but they seemed quite content about having a giant amidst them after the initial jitter of being upset from their regimented path.

The Forest Spirit: banyan tree

My favourite, sprawling banyan tree

 

One such being does not draw any attention to it and frequently goes unnoticed. It is the lichen. The lichen is a splotch on a tree, often dull white or dark green. What is fascinating about it is that it is not a single organism. It forms from the association of a fungus and algae, a fungus and a kind of bacteria called cyanobacteria or all three. The fungus depends on the algae for food- which it obtains through photosynthesis- and in turn gives the algae a comfortable home. Interestingly, the algae without its fungal buddy can only grow in moist places and the fungus without the help of the algae can live only in places without too much sunlight. Together, however, they can grow in both dry and sunny conditions, apart from a wide range of other environments, including the harsh climes of deserts and the arctic.

The Forest Spirit: lichen

The unassuming lichen

 

What consequence could this seemingly unobtrusive gang of bosom buddies that make up lichens possibly have to the world? I was surprised to find out. The lichen is used by birds as nesting material and even eaten by some arctic animals. In nature, even the smallest beings are interesting to study and lichens are no exception- they reveal information about the nature of the surfaces they are found on and even reflect the ecology of their surroundings.

Not all plants that are found on trees have the tree’s best interests in mind. Some of these are parasitic plants which derive nutrients from their generous hosts. Another example is the strangler fig- they first lovingly embrace the tree they began their life on and then strangle it to death. Intriguing as they are, they have no place in this article, which is about the friends of the tree.

Birds, butterflies, moths and bats have a soft spot for certain kinds of trees and plants. Sometimes they develop such a close relationship with trees that they start to depend on one another for their survival.

The majestic banyan tree I frequent depends, like other fig trees do, on a diminutive insect called the fig wasp for its pollination. The fig wasp in turn, relies on the tree for its fruit, for that is where it lays its eggs. Two other good friends of the banyan tree are mynas and starlings. A large, cackling crowd of them descend on the banyan tree to roost and eat. In return, the birds help to disperse the seeds of the tree. In addition, seeds that have passed through the gut of the myna, it has been found, have a better chance of germinating.

 

The Forest Spirit: ficus tree fruit

A fruit of the ficus tree

 

Some plants are visited by certain kinds of butterflies and moths which instinctively choose them to lay eggs on. These plants often have poisonous substances which the hatched caterpillars use to deter their predators from eating them.

One happy tree friend I have wanted to meet a long time is the bat. Short-nosed fruit bats and flying foxes (also a bat) pollinate trees like mango and banana. I see them in the evening in our neighbourhood, flying hither and thither almost as if playing a game of hide and seek and roosting in the mango trees outside my house.

I am left with a feeling of wonder when I think about the life that a tree fosters. A newly planted Singapore Cherry Tree outside my house has borne fruit and I sit and wait for the sunbirds to arrive and feast on the fruit. And on that wonderful evening atop the banyan tree, the sun set after a while and we climbed down as the mynas returned to roost.

(This post was published on The Alternative)