Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Scorpions: A glowing mystery

For a long time, I hear about the fact that "Scorpions glow under UV light", but I could never visualise that. Later, I saw some images from internet and got amazed seeing the glowing bluish-green scorpions. Finally, I got a chance to see the miracle in Goa last year. 
It was a monsoon time in July '14. After the evening snacks & tea, we chatted for a while waiting for the dark to fall. As light was eaten slowly by darkness, the calls of the frogs started rising gradually louder and louder. We said, its time to search for the night life, and headed to the field with our torches and cameras looking for subjects. 

While enjoying the sightings of frogs & geckos, we saw some scorpion holes in the mud walls on both sides of the pathway we were walking. The forest scorpions are usually found inside horizontal shaped holes in the vertical or slanting mud walls. We could hardly spot them, as they were shy against direct light. The moment we put the torch light on it, the scorpion moves inside the hole. 
Luckily this time, my friend had a UV torch and we thought we could see them if they glow or not. When we saw the mud walls with UV torch, we were shocked to see there were plenty of scorpions. They were everywhere - on the compound walls, on the electric poll pits, and on the mud walls. Their entire body was glowing in an unnatural neon blue colour, like a magic. With naked eyes (using normal torch), you cant even see them, but with UV torch, they were all glowing everywhere. We could see scorpions of all sizes - around 10-12 cm as well as many tiny young ones. 

A Scorpion glowing in UV light
An adult Scorpion with many tiny scorpions glowing in UV light

I was searching Internet to find the reason why scorpions glow under UV light. I didn't get any convincing answers though. Actually the answer for now is "no one knows the exact reason, why they glow under UV light". As per Internet, these could be the reasons, is what great scientists and biologists think.


Their glowing bodies might serve as one big eye, helping scorpions find shelter under rocks, logs or grasses on moonlit nights, according to a 2012 study published in "Animal Behaviour." Led by Douglas Gaffin from the University of Oklahoma, this study showed that scorpions would scurry around in the dark until part of their bodies fell under the shadow of shelter. When shelter was scarce, scorpions preferred even a single blade of grass that cast just a small shadow to sitting completely exposed in the moonlight. This might be because the glowing exoskeleton helps the scorpions see by passing information to the brain on the amount of glow; when the exoskeleton glows more, the scorpion is in greater danger of predation. When there's no glow, the scorpion is sheltered from predators.

Scorpions don't have the best eyesight. They see mostly in the blue-green spectrum. In 2011, Carl Kloock of California State University began leading research on why scorpions glow. His research leads scientists to believe the glow might be an adaptation that allows scorpions to know when they've found safe shelter. Kloock studied the behavior of scorpions who could glow and those who had lost the ability. The glowing ones found shelter in the dark quickly, while those who couldn't glow tended to roam more.


California State University arachnologist Carl Kloock thinks otherwise. Over the past few months, Kloock and his colleagues have started unraveling the mystery of why scorpions glow.

"They may be using UV as a way to determine whether or not to come to the surface to look for prey, based on the light levels," Kloock told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Scorpions are nocturnal creatures. They abhor the heat and evaporative effects of sunlight, and it turns out they specifically avoid UV light too. In a recent issue of the Journal of Arachnology, the Cal State team reported that the arachnids adjust their activity level depending on the amount of UV shining on them. When flooded in UV, they are less active than when lights are dim.

"My thinking at this point for why they would respond to UV is that there is a UV component in moonlight," Kloock wrote in an email. If scorpions are hungry, he explained, they'll come out and hunt regardless of light levels. But if they're satiated, research shows they tend to lie low on moonlit nights, especially around the time of the full moon. "[Fluorescence] may be part of the mechanism by which the scorpions respond to moonlight," Kloock wrote. 

So the answer is yet to be discovered!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Agumbe - my experience @KCRE

The popular Agumbe Sunset


This word has been in my thoughts since my childhood for 3 reasons:

1. King Cobras - BBC Wildlife documentaries and newspapers talks about this place for the highest concentration of King Cobras in South India. The King Cobra is my favourite snake as it is the largest venomous snake in the world, for its noble look and the only snake to build a nest, etc.

2. Gowrishankar - In the documentary films of my ever-favourite Herpetologist & Conservationist Romulus Whitaker about King Cobras, I used to admire the snake handling skills of Gowrishankar. Gowri's knowledge and his way of handling snakes with respect made me admire him and he became my hero. 

3. Malgudi Days - I used to love watching Malgudi days by RK Narayan. When I came to know that most of this popular series was shot in Agumbe, I wanted to see those places one day - especially the young boy Swami's house.

It was in May 2012, when I came to know about "Darter" who was organising a trip to Agumbe in June'12. My God! to AGUMBE?! It was a 3-day trip, with Gowri Shankar as the herpetologist for the trip. The tour itinerary was perfect - I can meet Gowri Shankar and learn about snakes, I can visit Doddamane where Malgudi days was shot, and if I am lucky, I can see a King Cobra also. WOW, or so I thought.

Till then, I was a person who hesitated to visit unknown places after 6 PM, even in the cities I had stayed. I was always worried about 2 things - my short sightedness (without my spectacles I am almost blind) and my navigational challenge (am one of those who gets confused between left and right, asks for detailed directions  and still gets lost). So I stay away from unknown places. Roaming around in a forest by foot was out of question.

As I somehow wanted to go on this Agumbe trip, I thought I will be much more comfortable with one of my friends or colleagues with me. But Alas! No one was ready.

I met Shreeram MV, a Co-founder of Darter and the skipper for the Agumbe trip in a coffee shop. He gave me some confidence and informed that it will be not too adventurous and that there will be people around to watch each other. Really nothing to worry too much!

That's how I visited Agumbe! My first wildlife trip, new to a forest, new to a DSLR camera, new to a tour with unknown people. I was excited to the core.

Kalinga Center for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE)

I have visited Agumbe around 7-8 times now with Darter as well as Birdwing. We used to stay in a place called Kalinga Center for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) managed by Prashanth and run by Gowrishankar himself. The KCRE's main focus is to enable Education, Research and Conservation of rainforest species, for anyone who's interested - they can be students, weekend naturalists, photographers, etc.

The place KCRE is around 5 Km from Guddekere bus stop, on the way to Agumbe town which is around 8 Km away. There is a single KSRTC bus from Bangalore to Agumbe every night at 10 PM. The return bus starts from Agumbe every night at 8 PM. For the return journey only 5 seats are allocated for online reservation, to make it easier for the localists in Agumbe.

This place ensures you to get to live in the real forest - no connectivity to anywhere. You reach this place by a four-wheel drive from the bus stop, which is the last place you get BSNL mobile connectivity. In KCRE, there is no mobile connectivity, no 3G, no luxurious rooms, and not even electricity. There is one platform with wooden roof, where we usually assemble, dine and discuss. There is another small concrete structure, which is a restroom. 

There are 3 toilets and 2 bathrooms. They are as neat and clean as your home. I have stayed in properties run by big tourist organizers & resorts managed by at least 8-10 house keeping staffs, where I have experienced "no water in the tap, when u need" problems. Here in KCRE, we have never faced any issue with house keeping, irrespective of the fact that it is maintained by very minimal manpower. You get hot water everyday.

You get a basic malnad style food - rice-bowls/chow-chow-bath/semiya-upma for breakfast, sambhar,rasam,papad,curd,pickle,rice for lunch and dinner. Chicken/Egg/Dal with chapatis also will be served in the night. Tasty, yummy, simple food.

There is a library with amazing collection of books on nature by renowned authors. Light source is solar lamps and there are battery packs to charge our camera/torch batteries.

We have to stay in tents, which we pitch in the evening - tents are twin sharing. Initially I thought tents are not safe. But from by experience of staying in rooms in other rainforests, I realized tents are the safest option. In tents, you just have four corners to watch out for any crawly creepy stuff. And once you zip it, nothing enters in, even mosquitos. Whereas, if you stay in concrete rooms during monsoons, you will have more corners, which you cannot inspect and in my experience, you have more and more crawly subjects inside the room than outside in the forest.

Sleeping in the tents with the dense forest around us, listening to the nightlife of the forest, waking up in the morning with birds’ calls, is like being in heaven. One should experience it to realise it. In Agumbe, you get misty mornings even in the peak of summer.

The property is adjacent to an arecunut plantation. Mornings will be fun filled in watching the active bird life and flying lizards. Birds like woodpeckers, flycatchers, minivets, mynahs, nuthatches, imperial pigeons, etc., are all around the place. While having your morning tea/coffee, you can watch Southern Flyinglizards gliding from tree to tree, after a good bask.

The morning raaga at Agumbe

The main activity there used to be finding life under foot. There are flowers, beautiful fungi, colourful beetles & bugs, snails, caterpillars, plenty of butterflies, varieties of spiders, frogs, etc. We also find snakes here. Nothing to get scared too about snakes, most of the snakes are non-venomous, and we also are accompanied by herpetologists. Its actually safer to walk here than in the bushes of cities, where you might encounter the "big4".

Life under foot

Monsooon is the best time to visit Agumbe, however other seasons will have its own surprises. As Agumbe is rightly called the Chirapunji of South India, it will be raining almost 12-15 hours a day in monsoon (mid-June to mid-Sep), forming small beautiful waterfalls and streams in the forest.

Monsoon and streams

Apart from walks, there will be knowledge sharing sessions - about rainforest, about life in rainforest, snakes, snake bites, what to do in snake bite situation, etc., by Gowri Shankar as well as the skipper.

Activities in Agumbe

There is a beautiful stream near by the property and for a medium trek there are 2 hillocks as well. Our schedule usually will be walks up to these points and find life on the way. One should visit this place to see the various species of life - be it fungi or a frog or a bug or a snake. There are so many different species, and there is no doubt that you will be amazed.

Varieties of life

The highlight of the schedule is the night trails. After dinner, we take the torches and start our night walk. Night walks are the most productive sessions here. We get many many different species like colorful frogs, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes, etc. It is a good to time to observe frogs and know about their life - the mating calls with their vocal sacks ballooned, combat fight among males, mating, fertilising & guarding eggs, etc. Also this is the good time to spot some of the nocturnal snakes like pit vipers. Pit vipers are venomous, but usually not fatal to humans. They are ambush predators - stay at a place in attacking position and wait for the prey to come closer. They will wait for even 10 days at the same place. They have heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils, which helps them to understand the presence of the prey or predator. Believe it or not - one of them, the malabar pit viper comes in almost 4 - 5 different colour morphs - yellow, green, orange, brown and a mix of green & purple. Find one, that matches your dress... just kidding! We have also seen some of the rare species like civet cats in the night trails.

Night life

King Cobras - these are diurnal snakes and are usually found active in day. We have seen king cobras in the property as well. As I said, there will be experts all the time to watch for and nothing to worry. Apart from King Cobras, we used to see malabar pit vipers, hump-nosed pit vipers, beddome's keelback, checkered keelbacks, beddome's & collared cat snakes, many green vine snakes, bronze back tree snakes, etc. 

Snakes of Agumbe

One cannot avoid leeches in rainforest, and Agumbe is the best place to prove it. During monsoon - June-Sep, there will be bloodthirsty leeches all over. But the best part is, leeches don’t spread any infections/diseases. Their bites are not painful. Once they suck enough blood, they drop off themselves. How sweet! right? At least better than mosquitos and bed bugs - which spreads life-threatening diseases & delivers irritating bites.
Still if you have to avoid leeches, there are lotions and creams available. Also KCRE provides leech socks during the walks.

Apart from this creepy crawly stuff, we also get an opportunity to explore the life style of Agumbe town. We visit Doddamane, which is where the popular series Malgudi days was shot. This is a now a very old house run by Kasthuri akka and her mother.
Also we visit an old Jain Temple in the peak of Kundadhri hills, for a spectacular sunset or a view of the Agumbe forest. Other places we used to visit are Agumbe ghats, Jogi gundi waterfalls, and Honagappe waterfalls.

Agumbe attractions

Agumbe - This place enables you to connect with nature; understand what is an eco-system; realize the importance of maintaining eco-balance; realize that we are just a part of this nature and that none of this is created by us.

Many of us don't realize that rainforests are the key source of our basic living. To live, we need oxygen, drinking water, food, medicine & shelter. Rainforests provide all these for free. The Moss creates the maximum amount of oxygen. Many rivers like Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Thunga, Bhadra, etc., are originated from rainforests which are the source of drinking water. Many of the vegetables and fruits like figs, bananas, mangos, cinnamon, coconuts, cocoas, turmeric, ginger, etc., are from rainforests. Rainforests are known to be the largest pharmacy in the world, with immense medicinal plants.

Statistics say that around 80000 acres of rainforests are destroyed per day in the world today. Which means, we will not have any rainforests in next 50-70 years. We may be the last generation to witness these forests, which give everything we need for a basic living.

It is important to understand what is a rainforest, what is the importance of it in our life and how to protect it for our next generation. KCRE helps in understanding a rainforest. It is just an over-night journey from Bangalore.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fairy Tale Creatures - Dragon, the flying lizard!

Western ghats! Somewhere in Karnataka, in an arecanut plantation.

A bright sunny morning...! 

Something flew silently between the tree trunks, and disappeared. That's a little dragon!

Many of us who lives in or visits areas around western ghats (Kerala / Karnataka) wouldn't have noticed a lizard that flies or actually glides between the tree trunks. 

These may look like fairy tale creatures. These are the Southern Flying Lizards (Draco dussumieri), which are small reptiles that lives in tree trunks. They don't fly, but glide between tree trunks using a wing like membrane on its sides of the body. 

These dragons, fly by means of their ribs. Their first six pairs of false ribs, instead of being attached to the sternum, are drawn out and prolonged, so as to constitute the framework of a kind of umbrella, the covering of which is formed of a wide membrane making a fold in the skin of the flanks. This membrane is independent of the limbs. When at rest, it is folded up along each flank; but it can be quickly un-folded and spread out in case of need. 

Sometimes, they can even glide through the canopy, just like a bird, changing directions may be using its tail.

They regulate enough body heat after a good bask and climb the tree trunks to start the day. Once the lizard reaches a particular height and done with that tree, it spreads its membrane and glides through to the near by tree. It is completely silent and unpredictable. 

These lizards are found in Western Ghats and associated hill forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa in southern India. It is also reported from some parts of Eastern Ghats (Talakona RF) in Andhra Pradesh.

They live exclusively on insects (mostly ants), which they hunt with extreme agility of pursuit along the trunks and among the branches of trees. 

These reptiles are well-known for its extreme camouflage and it is really difficult to find a motionless lizard in a tree trunk even from a foot's distance, though the lizard is around 10-12 cm long. 

They blend completely with the texture of the tree-trunk, and makes it difficult for the prey or the predator to find them. 

Also, these lizards have a bright yellow flap like structure below it's throat, using which it flips to either show the territorial presence or to attract the mate.

These harmless little flying lizards which inhabit the forests and garden trees, have learnt a new adaptation method and go extra mile to escape from the predators, which usually being medium sized birds like mynahs or hawks, and snakes, etc. 

Next time, when you spot a lizard that climbs fast a tree trunk in any plantation in western ghats, that could be a Southern Flying Lizard. Wait and watch for sometime to witness the wonderful glide of this magnificent creature.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Favourite bird of Nilgiris

It was a long time, I was waiting for a trip to Ooty for birding, after seeing the great images of birds made by my co-clickers. Ooty is an area of colourful birds, and almost all the birds are among the charismatic class, in other words, most celebrated by bird photographers.

So, I planned a trip to Ooty in the beginning of March, for a sat/sun. The summer vacation crowd was just starting. The main two areas to cover were - Botanical garden and Doddabetta, as per an expert's advise.

First place I visited was the Botanical garden. I was invited by few Oriental White-eyes which had just started their day, collecting honey from the Bottle Brush flowers. Soon after that, I could see the Nilgiri Flycatcher - the 2nd most popular bird locally. 
After a while walking, I could only see couple of Indian Pond herons, Sparrows and Red-whiskered Bulbuls. I was told, the Kashmiri Flycatcher has not visited Ooty this year. Then after sometime, I saw the most popular bird of Ooty - Black and Orange Flycatcher. I fell in love with the bird, the first time I saw it. It was a curious little bird, with black and orange colours in its plumage as its name say.

In Ooty, I could feel that the birds are very much used to humans and are not as shy as the birds I have seen in western ghats. In the botanical garden, I saw Black and Orange Flycatcher, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Grey headed Canary Flycatcher, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Plenty of Indian Black Birds collecting nesting materials, Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Great tits, Common Moorhen, Indian Pond Herons, Spotted Dove and lots & lots of House Sparrows. 

Then I started to Doddabetta after a quick lunch. It was around 7Km from Ooty town, and another 3 Km was reached via a four-by-four jeep drive. In Doddabetta, I found the Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, White-bellied Shortwing and Common Rosefinsh. Also I saw the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon and a Black eagle. The birds here are adapted to feed on the throw-away of fruits from the vendors.  

Out of all the birds I saw in Ooty, I liked the Black and Orange Flycatcher the most. The curious little bird is so cute to watch. The way they behave after seeing a person in its territory, the way it calls with its bright orange tail spread to show the territorial display, everything was beautiful about this bird. I saw 2 pairs of them, and a single male, in both botanical garden and at Doddabetta. 

Black-and-rufous flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa):

The main population of this bird is found in the high elevation plateaus (above 1500m) areas of the Nilgiris, Palani Hills, Biligirirangans (Bellaji and Honnametti) and Kannan Devan Hills. They prefer areas with high leaf litter and undergrowth in open shola grassland habitats. 

In the breeding season, March to May, these birds are very vocal. They feed on insects by flycatching low over the ground and also pick insects from the ground. Territories are maintained by a pair throughout the year. The threat display involves the male pointing bill up, fanning the tail, opening wings and producing "keet-keet" notes. Males are usually involved in defense but females may sometimes join in. The nest is built by the female, placed in a low bush or fern. Two greyish speckled eggs form the usual clutch. Young birds are brownish and speckled. The nest is unlike that of most flycatchers and is large, coarse, ball-like and made from sedges. The nest has a foundation of dry leaves and ferns. The nest has an external diameter of about 6 inches (15 cm) and the egg cavity which is devoid of any lining is about 2 inches (5.1 cm) in diameter and 2 inches (5.1 cm) deep. The nest is placed usually at the centre of a bush at about 1 to 3 feet (0.30 to 0.91 m) height with an entrance hole close to the top.

The peak feeding activity of the birds is early in the morning and towards dusk. During these period they capture as many as 100 insects an hour whereas at mid-day they are half as efficient.

Refer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-and-orange_Flycatcher

Other birds of Ooty...

Nilgiri Flycatcher (male)

Grey headed Canary flycatcher

Bar winged Flycatcher Shrike

White bellied Shortwing | Nilgiri Blue Robin

Nilgiri Laughing Thrush

Great Tit

Common Rosefinch (male)

Oriental White Eye

Overall, it was a great trip to Nilgiris, and I still remember the call and jumping of the cute little Black and Orange flycatcher. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Defensive Posture

It was monsoon... June end, 2013. We were in Coorg for macro photography. During a morning walk, we saw a really huge caterpillar munching a leaf. It was almost 12 Cm in length. We spent sometime there observing the beautiful green creature finishing off all the leaves in the branch, in a speed beyond we could imagine. It was an eating machine.

It was green in colour, with "S" shaped blue and yellow stripes in the body. It had a prickly horn like single projection in its tail.

By mistake, one of us touched the plant, and the caterpillar got to know that it is being watched. 
Suddenly it changed it's posture. The head freed from the munching leaf, facing upwards and folding all its tiny legs towards its face, as if like praying.

It was looking cute, but I couldn't interpret the meaning then. I thought, it is trying to convey to us, "go away".
Later, when identifying the caterpillar, I understood that it is a Death's-head Hawkmoth's (Acherontia lachesiscaterpillar.

Death's-head Hawkmoth got its name because, this massive hawk moth has the spooky image of a skull on its thorax, and its horizontally banded body reminds us of the ribs of a human skeleton. Add to this fact that the death's head hawk moth can squeak when alarmed and that its huge caterpillar can make clicking sounds.

This is a defensive/camouflage posture to make the caterpillar looks less like food to hungry predators. When disturbed, late instar hawkmoth caterpillars puts them in a good position to employ another defensive response: clicking and puking sometimes. 

The Defensive Posture
Eating machine

For more details, refer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acherontia_lachesis

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tiger luck

Mid-May of last year, we visited Tadoba for Tigers… Lot of funny things happened throughout the trip… Some of them are shared here  

The first safari… we started as the last jeep to the park, and the Naturalist we got was not talking at all. To start a conversation and get comfortable with him, I asked "What birds do you get here?". Then I noticed that his mouth was full of pan, overflowing, which might be the reason he was quite. Still he bothered to answer - "You don't get birds here. Only tigers". I thought, "WoW! what a naturalist we have got". 

During the safaris, he asks for the tiger activities from other jeeps or village people or forest guards he meet on the way, and nods his head for whatever they say. But shockingly, he never goes to those places where they said there could be tigers. We couldn't understand his strategy. At one point, we thought he is scared of tigers. He never stops at a place to observe the activities, unless there is something he finds like Guars or Barking deer. He will be the first one to get out of the forest, at least 10-15 minutes than others. 

On a morning safari, we drove the jeep through some places, and found a tiger cub (one of Teliya female cub) somewhere far-away inside the bush. Though we were not able to photograph, we were ready to wait for it to come out. But our naturalist was not ready, and we started from that place. As usual, he didn't stop anywhere else, but just roamed around the forest, though there were 3 jeeps waiting for a tiger to come out, near a lake. He said, its time to leave and we almost reached the exit gate. All of us in the jeep were irritated and cursing our 'tiger-luck'. Forget about tigers, he is not even stopping for any birds. 

When we were just few meters away from exit gate, for all our surprise, we saw a huge male tiger resting in the shade. We were crossing a small 2 feet wide bridge that was over a tunnel. We stopped the jeep there and started clicking. All of a sudden, a female tiger came out from under the bridge. It was almost at a touching distance from the jeep. They were the mating couple the one we missed the previous day, and they were mating for the past 2 days, very close to an agriculture land. The male was called 'Leopard face' and the female was called 'P2 female'. All tigers are named and have their own star value here in Tadoba.

Then the tiger pair started doing some courtship rituals, right in front of us. I could manage to get the photos of some of the sequence. Later they vanished inside the bushes.  

The Groom
The Bride
Following her...

Courtship rituals

Tigers' Courtship

Tigers don’t have a set season for reproduction to take place. Instead they are able to engage in the activities throughout the year. However, most of the time it will occur from late November through early April. Males are ready to mate when they are approximately 5 years of age. For females it is about 3 ½ years of age.
During the courting process you may hear tigers making a variety of howls and whines for each other. The males usually start this off but the females are very likely to respond. When they do come into contact with each other a dance of smelling each other, purring, and even rubbing against each other is very common. Some couples will go as far as to lick and to groom each other as well.
When a male and a female decide they would like to mate with each other, they will engage in the act several times over the course of a couple of days. That is how long the female will remain in heat at any given period of time. It is common for a male to mate with several different females as long as he is healthy and his basic needs are being met.

It was a wonderful experience to watch the Tiger pair, at an unexpected moment, when we were exiting the park. We might have missed the pair if we had waited at the park for some more time. That's nature - we never know what happens at what place. During my recent birding trip, an expert told me - "It is nature. No predictions or expectations. We should enjoy what it gives".