A moth

Found this pretty moth laying still at my balcony door after a night of revelry.

The Forest Spirit: moth

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An Unexpected Visitor

I heard a sudden outburst of outraged screeches, squawks and squeals one evening and quickly opened my door to see what it was all about. My neighbour was standing outside a house and beckoning to me urgently. I quickly walked to where she was and looked in the direction she pointed.

There, next to the wheels of a Maruti 800, was a beautiful barn owl looking mildly disgruntled. My neighbour told me it was being chased by the rowdy crows in our colony and had flown in to the garage. I gawked at it. So this was the creature that screeched through the night! I had never seen one before. It looked outlandish with its flat heart-shaped face and downward-pointing nose. It didn’t seem to mind us looking at it and after a while, closed its eyes.

The forest spirit: barn owl

Tip-toeing up to the barn owl(In my excitement I could only take a very bad phone picture)

“It can’t see in the day time. It’s blind when there is too much light,” my neighbour was telling me sagely, about the owl.

This is far from the truth. Owls have excellent eyesight, especially in dim light and use their sight and keen hearing to hunt at night. I told my neighbour this but she did not seem very convinced.

A small knot of people had formed outside the gate and were looking at the owl with wonder. Another old aunty and a little girl immediately and with authority, pronounced the owl afflicted with the strange day time blindness. They were convinced that the owl was biding its time till dusk fell so that it could safely fly away. I can’t say why they all came to this conclusion, but it probably had something to do with owls being active mostly at night and sleeping during the day. During this whole proceeding, the owl was serenely standing in the same spot it landed, its eyes shut.

The neighbour whose garage the barn owl had appropriated was not too keen about this new guest. She asked if I could make it go away. Reluctantly, but with a twinge of excitement as I had not performed a rescue operation before, I went home to find a big sheet. I remember reading that when rescuing birds, it’s best to throw a sheet or large towel over them before picking them up. Since this will prevent them from seeing what is happening, it will reduce its shock.

I thought about the barn owl that Gerald Durrell brought to his house on his arm and for a happy minute I imagined doing the same.

Slowly and stealthily, I opened the gate and inched forward, holding my breath. The owl still had its eyes closed. As I got closer, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful black and brown speckles on its wings which were a wonderful blend of ochre and brown. I paused, mesmerised. I was within arm’s reach of it.

The barn owl opened one eye and studied me.

I blinked at it. A few seconds passed.

I put one tentative foot forward and spread the sheet wide. Something told me my movements were too deliberate. Before I knew it, the owl spread its large wings open and took flight, out of the garage, past the Champaka trees, out of sight. I heard a few caws of the opportunistic crows, but the owl had flown away to safety. Dusk had fallen by this time. When I told the aunty who showed me the owl about it, she nodded and said, “That’s what I said. It would fly away when it became dark”. Maybe I should have waited.

 

The Forest spirit :Tip-toeing up to the barn owl

Barn owls are increasing in number in the cities because their prey, the rodents are burgeoning in number here. Apart from being a rather noisy nocturnal neighbour to have, they do no harm and are beneficial to the cities as they keep the rodent population in check.

Owls probably evolved to be nocturnal so as to not compete with other raptors like kestrels and kites which also feed on rodents. This is common among species that depend on the same resources- be it food or territory. One species will change to occupy a different area- like how some lizard species occupy different strata of a tree- or evolve to feed at different times or seasons. An amazing example of this is how different bumblebee species have evolved proboscis (a mouthpart used for feeding) of different lengths to suck nectar from flowers of different lengths so as to not compete with each other for nectar.

The forest spirit: Bees prefer flowers with corollas that match the length of their proboscis

On some nights, a familiar screech interrupts my thoughts. On some other nights, it is one of the last sounds I hear before I fall asleep. I smile to myself and remember the barn owl watching me with one calculating eye, the patterns on its wings still vivid in my mind.

(An edited version of this post was published on The Alternative)

An Animal Puzzle

I found some wooden blocks lying around at home some time back and thought ‘puzzle!’ So I got to work, dropped some paint on my bedsheets, got my hands sticky with varnish and painted away happily.

 

The Forest Spirit: Animal Puzzle

 

They are all animals, most of which Limpet and I have been lusting after.

 

The Forest Spirit: Animal Puzzle: amazonian frog

A Technicolor Frog from the Amazon

 

Crabs always make me laugh. On a recent field trip to Kerala I noticed how beautiful and glassy their eyes were.

 

The Forest Spirit: Animal Puzzle: Happy crab

A Happy Crab

 

I absolutely *have* to swim in the ocean with sea turtles.

 

The Forest Spirit: Animal Puzzle: Sea Turtle

A Humungous Sea Turtle

And watch a lazy leopard.

The Forest Spirit: Animal Puzzle: Dreaming Leopard

A Dreaming Leopard

I really like owls. I like looking at them and being given rude stares in return. The patterns of a barn owl I got to see from just a few feet away are still vivid in my mind.

The Forest Spirit: An Animal Puzzle: Snowy Owl

A Snowy Owl

A Master of Deception

The natural world sometimes seems like one big costume party. In it, animals pretend to be someone they are not, blend in with their surroundings or employ some element of disguise which enables them to escape detection when they are in danger of being hunted. As many predators like birds hunt mainly by sight, disguises go a long way in avoiding being made a meal of. These masters of disguise have perfected their art through generations, with species that are better at being elusive increasing in numbers and those that were unsuccessful in hoodwinking their predators declining.

One such trickster is a family of butterflies called Lycaenidae. Many of these butterflies have evolved brightly coloured spots on the underside of their hind wings, with two tails extending from the tips of the wings- fake eyes and fake antennae. The spots on the hind wings are usually so brightly coloured that they can easily be mistaken for the real head of the butterfly.

Why would having a fake head help these butterflies? You might ask.

The answer is that it helps them narrowly avoid death. Birds and lizards like to eat butterflies head first (some say this is in anticipation of the direction that the prey will fly off in). With their showy “heads” on the rear of their wings, Lycaenid butterflies can fly away to safety with just a portion of their hind wings clipped off by the birds.

I found this pretty Pea Blue (Lampides boeticus) butterfly in Bangalore and exclaimed excitedly since it was the first time I had come across a fake head after reading about it.

 

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A Pea Blue butterfly

The fake eyes of this butterfly have a beautiful, metallic blue dot on the corner. It meditated on my finger for a little while before flying away, possibly disgruntled that I was subjecting it to so much scrutiny.

As if a fake head were not crafty enough, Lycaenid butterflies have evolved various behavioural adaptations to add further believability to the heads on their rears. Some turn around 180 degrees on landing and walk backwards, to further confound their predators regarding its real head. Others raise the rear end of their wings and lower their real heads- making them even more inconspicuous, and some scissor their hind wings to draw more attention to their posterior.

Some scientists proposed that fake heads in butterflies may also serve to deter predators when looked at in three dimensions- when sensing danger, some Lycaenid butterflies turn around so that their rear faces the predator, and opens and closes a portion of their wings. This creates the illusion of an ominous mouth opening and closing, as though contemplating a tasty meal.

Butterflies in general are excellent illusionists. Some species have large ‘eye-spots’ on the upper parts of their hind wings which they suddenly open when they feel threatened, to alarm a predator. The eye-spots are also thought to give the illusion of the butterfly being a much larger animal.

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The eyespots of a Peacock Pansy

 

Another example of great cunning is in butterflies that have evolved to resemble distasteful butterflies. One such example is the female Great Eggfly, which resembles the foul-tasting Common Crow (a butterfly). Birds remember butterflies that did not make a tasty meal. By mimicking the Common Crow, the female Great Eggfly escapes being caught.

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A Great Eggfly hypnotizes a drongo into thinking it is a Common Crow (also a butterfly)

You might wonder why all butterflies do not employ some cunning feat that helps them survive. It is because there are several contending forces in play during natural selection- such as traits that make an individual more attractive and helps them find a mate. Finally it is only those characteristics that help a species survive and sustain itself that are passed on to the next generation.

What of the birds- those predators of butterflies? Are they to be made a fool of, time and again? Ol’ natural selection kicks in here too. Just as butterflies which evolve ways to escape detection, birds may evolve a sharper sense of discrimination in a case of co-evolution.

So the natural world is not only just a big costume party, but also a never-ending race between predators and prey to get the upper hand.

(An edited version of this post was published on The Alternative)

KV Gururaja and his World of Frogs

I was having the most interesting conversation with a man called KV Gururaja. We were talking about frogs.  There were times during the conversation when I listened agape, like when he told me about frogs that engage in combat and one- the bull frog- that even strangles other frogs to defend their territory. At other times he surprised me with tales of their fascinating behaviour and unique habitats. I learnt quite a lot about frogs in the one hour that I interacted with him- enough to pique my interest and make me want to go frog hunting so I could watch some of their behaviour first hand.

The Forest Spirti: KV Gururaja and His World of Frogs

Dr. KV Gururaja

Dr. KV Gururaja has been studying frogs for fifteen years. His fascination for them was brought about, curiously, by his love for birds. During his master’s, his professor had suggested that he study the birds of the university campus. Having already listed them, he wanted to do something else. He was then introduced to the world of amphibians and has not looked back since. Even now, he is constantly spellbound by them.

Frogs in India: Then and Now

The British, Dr. Gururaja was telling me, were quite systematic in describing frogs and it was they who started doing so in India. Later, between the 1920s and 1940s, a man from Coimbatore called CRN Rao, contributed most to the field of amphibians, by describing over 19 species of frogs. But after this, very few new frog species were discovered. There were a lot of reasons behind this. Amphibian study requires people to spend long hours in the forest at night and there were very few people- mostly researchers, who did this then. Another important reason was that people rarely looked at a species of frog as if it could be one that was not discovered before. It was only after the peculiar-looking pignose frog was described in 2003 that more people became interested in frogs. There are currently 345 species of frogs and toads, salamanders and caecilians (together called amphibians) in India. Some species are found exclusively in the Western Ghats in very specific habitats. More species are being discovered every year now, as interest in the field of amphibians is growing.

Where They are Found and What They Do

As our conversation progresses, I start to understand why Dr. Gururaja is so passionate about anurans. Frogs, like all amphibians, are cold-blooded creatures that have to bask in the sun to maintain body temperature. They start becoming active only towards night, when the temperature becomes cooler.  This is when Dr. Gururaja sets out to study them, torch in hand. His day begins at 9 in the night and goes on till the early hours of the morning. He tells me how there is so much to study about frogs as there is so much variation in their behaviour and habitat. They have four broad habitats: aquatic, terrestrial, fossorial (living underground) and arboreal (tree-dwelling). Some frogs occupy extremely specialized habitats. Like the Ochlandra shrub frog found exclusively in hollow reeds of a species of bamboo called Ochlandra, which is used to make flutes.  Or the pignose frog  which lives 8 metres underground and surfaces for only fifteen days in a year.

Their behaviour is intriguing too. In an environment where there is a lot of ambient noise, male frogs have a tough job signalling to others by croaking. Some frogs (Species of torrent frogs Micrixalus saxicola)complement these auditory signals with visual ones- they extend their limbs outward, repeatedly in an act called foot-flagging. This behaviour is thought to signal to other frogs that they are ready to defend their territory.

The Forest Spirit: KV Gururaja and His World of Frogs: Micrixalus saxicola

Micrixalus saxicola, a species of torrent frog found in streams of the Western Ghats. Photo Credit: Bamboo Rustles

Dr. Gururaja’s favourite behaviour presently, is of a frog found in a specialized habitat called Myristica swamp. Once monsoon is over, the female of this species carries her mate on her back to a stream, where she makes a cavity to lay her eggs. She then carefully covers it up and goes away. Dr. Gururaja wants to get to the bottom of questions like why they wait till the monsoon ends and why they cover up their eggs.

A Book and a Mobile Application

Last year, Dr. Gururaja wrote a book called Pictorial Guide to Frogs and Toads of Western Ghats. It covers 73 of the 156 species of frogs and toads found in the Western Ghats. Soon after the book was published, two software developers approached him, wanting to develop an android app based on the book. After many lengthy conversations and emails sent back and forth, FrogFind was born. It is India’s first ever mobile application to identify frogs and is a delight to use. It contains information about the habitat, distribution, key identifying features, time of activity and ecological status of frogs and toads in a visual and intuitive manner. The next version will allow users to find frogs in a 10 kilometre radius around them and will be released on the iOS platform. The team will also be working with India Biodiversity Portal to enable the app to identify frogs based on their call, which is unique to each species.

The Forest Spirit: KV Gururaja and His World of Frogs: Frog Find

FrogFind showing the key identifying features of a Ponmudi Bush Frog

Version 2 of the app will be used as a citizen science project. In such projects, wildlife enthusiasts and the lay-person identify frogs and capture the location of where they were found. This helps scientists to monitor and build distribution maps of different species, over large areas.

“Eek!” to “Ooh!”: People’s Reactions to Frogs

KV Gururaja is frequently invited, during the monsoon time, to go on nature trails conducted by different organisations. He leads people into the forest or well-wooded areas to teach them about frogs and toads. He tells me that people have been showing more interest in amphibians over the past few years. Kids especially, he says, find them fascinating and do not have any inhibitions about touching them. Wildlife photographers join in on these trails and document the anurans they see. This helps getting more people interested.

Threats Faced by Anurans

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the major threats that are faced by frogs. There are seventeen frogs that are listed as critically endangered in India by IUCN, indicating that they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Frogs legs are also a delicacy in some parts of southern India. India used to be a major exporter of frog legs, until a ban was imposed in the 1980s. There are still a few places in Kerala and Goa which sell frogs legs. Pesticides which find their way into water bodies also harm frogs as many species lay eggs in water and tadpoles are unable to grow in contaminated water.

Invite Frogs to your Garden to Bid Goodbye to Pests

Frogs are an important link in the food chain as they curb the population of pests like mosquitoes. Dr. Gururaja tells me that there are hardly any frogs found in city due to unfavourable conditions. Keeping a small pond in your garden can help to attract them.  Apart from being relieved of the mosquito population, you will also get a chance to study their behaviour.

Talking to KV Gururaja about frogs was like learning about friends that were close to his heart. There is no other animal that makes him tear his eyes away from frogs, except for the snake. They share his interest in frogs, albeit for a different purpose.

I came away that day, with an urge to forgo my night’s sleep and crouch amidst the damp undergrowth somewhere in the depths of the forests of the Western Ghats, to watch frogs.

(An edited version of this article was published in Caleidoscope)

The Dubious Relationship of the Lily and the Lily Moth

Our Lily plants were under siege. Its assailants were polka dotted black, white and orange caterpillars which I later learned were called- hold your breath- caterpillars of the lily moth.

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The caterpillars and the remains of our Lily plants

I found the strikingly-coloured caterpillars one morning when I strolled out into our garden. There were about ten of them and they were quite small. All of them were busy eating the leaves of the lilies. As I returned every morning to watch them, I noticed they seemed to be growing at an alarming rate while our poor lilies were being reduced to stubs. I also noticed some dark green blobs at the bottom of the leaves which I suspected was its excreta. The singular determination of the caterpillars to eat as much as they possibly could was admirable. For a week, they ate away at our lilies till they disappeared altogether and all that was left of it were the dark green blobs. The caterpillars looked positively obese now. I watched with interest for what they would do next. Some of them were slowly making their way away from the remains of the lilies. They seemed to be exploring. They had dispersed in different directions and would pause every now and then and raise their head and look about them. Maybe they are looking for a place to form a pupa, I thought excitedly, and resolved to follow them till they found the right place. Maybe I would finally get to see, like magic in slow motion, a moth or butterfly emerge from its pupa and fly out into the world.

As it turned out, the caterpillars were picky, infuriatingly indecisive and gave the word ‘slow’ a whole new meaning. After half an hour of crouching by their side, I grew impatient of their dithering. Their unwavering motto now seemed to be ‘Explore the World’. Three hours later, one caterpillar seemed to have found its resting place under a well hidden leaf of a plant by a wall. Impatience forgotten, I watched it like an indulgent mother. But the next time I checked on it, it had given me the slip. I sighed and resigned myself to wait for our lilies to grow back for a chance to witness the metamorphosis of the caterpillars into moths.

Even though I could not observe the actual metamorphosis, chancing upon the moths was a treat in itself. I saw the lily moths a week or so later and was surprised to find that its colours were completely different from its previous avatar of the caterpillar. This dusky beauty of the night was gently patterned with black, pink, white and yellow. The terrestrial, plant-eating caterpillar had transformed into a flying, nectar-feeding moth.

 

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The Lily Moth

Lily moths generally lay their eggs on a specific group of plants known as their host plants. For all the havoc they wreak on their hosts as caterpillars, the moths serve as pollinators for some of the same plants. Some plants have formed close-knit associations with the moths so much so that they are the plants’ sole pollinators. Still, some of plants have developed an arsenal of defences against the caterpillars that threaten to send them to the same fate as my lilies. There are plants with chemical defences that render the plant distasteful; some use physical defences like hairs and thorns while the more cunning ones attract other insects like ants or wasps to it, which will then fend off the caterpillars from the plant.  And so the arms race between the caterpillars and their host plants begins. The caterpillars in turn, evolve to quickly secrete the harmful chemical they ingest or use them to their advantage against predators like birds which learn to associate the bad taste with the colours of the caterpillar. Arms races like these are common in species which interact with each other, with one species having an inhibitory effect on the other. Just when you think that one species has come up with an impressive defence against the other, the latter will come back with a suave repartee.

Lest you think that these species intentionally develop defences and ways to anull these defences, let me quickly explain how this is not the case. According to natural selection, a defence such as poisonous substances used to deter caterpillars, is developed by chance mutations in the genes of the plant. Since plants armed with this defence survive better than those without it, they rapidly increase in number, with the plants of the next generation bestowed with the beneficial trait, giving them an edge over the defenceless plants which eventually lose out.

Gardens are abustle with activity and little shows of magic, if only you have a little patience and a keen eye. There may be arms races, caterpillars transforming into beautiful winged creatures and so much more happening right under your nose, waiting to be discovered and gawked at.

(An edited version of this post was published in The Alternative)

The Adventures of a Nature Sleuth

I live in a colony which is, for the most part, inhabited by the families of retired army men. Let me stop you right there before you start thinking it is something of old age home, for it is anything but. This is primarily because the retired army men and their wives refuse to think of themselves as old. They love dressing sharp. They love having fun. They love being fit. And they’re always punctual. Most colonies for the defense forces are also wonderful places to live in and explore, because they’re big, closed to the traffic outside and full of trees and hidey-holes for all sorts of interesting creatures.

My favourite residents by far are a pair of spotted owlets on an Indian Cork Tree, who sometimes look back at me with a tilted head. I chanced upon them all by accident when I was looking up at the tree and saw two plump, white forms sitting on a branch. They seemed to be fast asleep with their heads tucked into their chests. I went back to the tree every day after that for a chance to look at their faces. I was lucky one afternoon when one of them were awake and inspected me with one round eye before dismissing me as harmless. On another afternoon, it did not fancy being gawked at and gave me a glare worthy of a cross teacher and rocked threateningly back and forth. I beat a hasty retreat in case it decided to find itself a home where it would be free from ogling lasses.

There is a lot of detective work to be done while exploring nature. There are bad guys and good guys, guys who have unspoken deals with each other and slippery magicians who turn from one form to the other. Not to mention masters of disguise and impostors. For my part as a detective, I own a hand lens, a notebook and a pair of binoculars. An unsolicited trusty sidekick recently manifested itself in the form of my eternally happy and optimistic colony dog. He goes by many names, none of which do much credit to his intelligence. For this article, I will stick to the name Goofy.

As an assistant, Goofy is not very reliable. I am not entirely sure that he has understood his role as a sidekick for he seems to prefer that it were him that I was showering my attention on and not an insect or bird.  After much whining, he succeeds in getting me to bestow a pat on his head. After this, he retires to a spot close by and gives me and my subject a look of mild distaste. Even so, his company can be encouraging and comforting.

The Forest Spirit: The adventures of a nature sleuth

On some days I don’t find anything new and find solace in noticing the season’s colours splashed over some of the trees, while the colony’s resident breeze swirls around my legs. On other days, a single spot on a wall yields three to four different creatures either meditating or scurrying about. A lot of times, it is when I am least prepared that I spot something really interesting. This invariably happens when I jog. I would have just got my rhythm in order when a brightly coloured spider or a bird call would distract me and make me run back to investigate. Goofy would then materialise from nowhere and push his head against me while I tried to get a better look at what made me stop my exercise.

One evening I found a network of patterns in the soil. They looked like branches with granules of mud on them. I gently poked at one and found that it was perfectly hollow inside. I also found its inhabitant: a termite wriggling on its back. I learnt later that termites eat out the only the insides of the branches because they are sensitive to light. They help reclaiming plant matter from dead plants and trees.

Often, dots get connected only later. The glow of revelation takes a while to wear off. This happened when I finally discovered what the caterpillars that devoured our lily plants turned into. I expected a pretty butterfly with black, white and orange spots like the caterpillar. It turned out however that they had transformed into spectacularly coloured moths-called lily moths- which I had noticed, but had not suspected as being the same creature.

A case I still have to get to the bottom of is to find the owner of a small eggshell that lay still in my garden, as though waiting to be discovered.

(This post was originally published in The Deccan Herald Student Edition)