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Friday, August 31

New Parasitic Wasp species Neastymachus punctatiscutellum found from Western Ghats

Confirming the claims that the biodiversity hotspots still harbor more missing species, researchers at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun and Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bengaluru have reported a parasitic wasp species which is new to the science, from Western Ghats, one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world.

Neastymachus punctatiscutellum, new wasp species, wasp western ghat
Neastymachus punctatiscutellum
© Sudhir Singh
As per the finding published in the latest issue of the Journal of Threatened Taxa, the researchers have found the new wasp as part of their studies on the canopy of the tropical rain forests in the Western Ghats forest patches in the Indian state of Karnataka. The new wasp belongs to the Encyrtidae genus and was named as Neastymachus punctatiscutellum, according to the research note, “after the distinct punctate reticulate sculpture of the scutellum’ of the wasp.

The newly identified wasp has yellow or brownish yellow body with yellow antenna. The scape and club of the antenna are usually brown while the specimen’s legs are in pale yellow, says the research note.

The new species adds to the 13 member Neastymachus genus, among which 6 are found in India excluding the new comer.  The present species is so far reported only from Western Ghats in Karnataka.

Neastymachus punctatiscutellum, new wasp species, wasp western ghat
frontal view of N. punctatiscutellum head
© Sudhir Singh
According to the research note, the new species can be distinct from other known species of wasp under the same genus. The flat and ‘V’ shaped apex and the dark brown colour with lateral white strips makes it different from similarly looking members of the genus. The deep punctuate reticulate sculpture of the scutellum, flattened scape and the asetose scutellum also make it distinct from other wasps.

Conservation significance of the new species
Interestingly, the researchers stumbled on the yet unknown wasp while studying about the biodiversity in the rainforest canopies in the Western Ghats. 

Subsequently, they have found a female of the species from the canopies of Vateria Indica, a critically endangered tree endemic to the high-altitude rainforest patches of Western Ghats. It was found in Makuta near Virajpet in the Coorg district of Karnataka. The tree was approximately 40 meters tall and was located at an altitude of above 128 meters from the mean sea level. Moreover, the wasp was found at the canopy of the tree during its flowering season.

Though the relation between the new wasp species and Vateria Indica is not yet reveled, there are chances that the newly found insect had a significant role in the life of the tree. If the wasp helps in the pollination of the tree or anything like that, the conservation status of the new wasp will be a decisive factor in the survival of the critically endangered tree which is endemic to India. 

Wednesday, August 29

19 tiger-deaths in Corbett National Park since 2008 says MoEF, but NTCA disagrees

Despite being the national animal, tiger deaths have no clear records in the country
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks

According to an official replay tabled in the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of Indian Parliament by Environment and Forests Minister Jayanti Natarajan, there have been 19 tiger deaths in Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand since 2008.

NTCA Map showing tiger mortality in Uttarakhand in 2011
However, the official database of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on tiger mortality does not agree with it. The database which records instances of tiger mortality all over the country from 2009 onwards shows that there were 20 tiger deaths in and around the Corbett National Park since 2009 itself. Thus, the statistics presented by the ministry and the NTCA database are at logger heads when it comes to the number of tiger deaths in Corbett National Park.

As per the statistics given in the annexure of the replay tabled by the minster, there has been one tiger death in 2008 in the park while it was 6 in 2009, 2 in 2010, 7 in 2011 and 3 in 2012 respectively. However, NTCA database shows that there were 6 deaths in 2009, 2 in 2010, 9 in 2011 and 3 in 2012.

Moreover, according the reply from MoEF, there have been only two instances of poaching from Corbett national park during the period, on each in 2008 and 2011. However, according to NTCA database, there were no tiger deaths due to poaching in 2011.

Tiger deaths in Uttarakhand 

According to the statistics compiled by NTCA, there have been 39 tiger deaths in different parts of Uttarakhand from January 2009 to August 23rd this year. There have been 9 tiger deaths in the state in 2009 among which 6 were from Corbett National Park. The figures were 5 and 2 in 2010 and 17 and 9 in 2011. This year, there have been 8 tiger deaths from the state of Uttarakhand till August end, out of which 3 were from Corbett National Park.

Tiger Deaths in Uttarakhand from 2009
Graphics by Indian Biodiversity talks
source : Tigernet
The minister has informed the Rajya Sabha that the tiger deaths in the national park during the period have been caused by both natural and other reasons. The minster’s reply to Rajya Sabha also made it clear that the country has an estimated total tiger population of 1706, as per the data collected by the population census carried out every four years.

Though it is not immediately clear what caused the figures differ and which one is correct,  it is sad to see that the country does not have clear records on the mortality of a critically endangered animal which happens to be its national animals.

Tuesday, August 28

631 animals including 19 Rhinos killed in Kaziranga National Park due to floods, says MoEF

According to the latest information from the Ministry of Environmentand Forests in India, two more rhinos have died at the Kaziranga National Park due to the recurring floods, since the ministry assessed the animal death toll last month. Earlier the ministry has issued an official assessment on the flood situation of the protected area, reporting that the Rhino death toll in Kaziranga was at 17. Now it has reached 19, says an official replay from the ministry.
Indian rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis , kaziranga national park, kaziranga floods
An Indian one horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis

The new revelation came out when Minister for Environment and Forests, Jaynati Natarajan tabled a written reply to the Rajya Sabha as an answer to a question on the flood situation of Kaziranga National Park. According to the reply, the total animal death toll in the park has now reached 631. In last month, a MoEF press release had informed that the animal death toll at the park due to floods was 595.

The tabled replay has also informed the House that the excess water has swept away infrastructure inside the park area like roads, artificial grounds and anti-poaching facilities.

The latest estimate of the animal deaths due to floods in Kaziranga 

Sl. No.
Swamp deer
Hog deer
Wild boar
Hog badger

                                                                                                                                                      Source: Rajya Sabha

Floods part of Kaziranga ecosystem

As per MoEF documents, the floods are a normal part of the ecosystem of Kaziranga National Park. “Being located in the Brahmaputra Flood Plains, the reserve is prone to annual floods.  However, the normal flood inundation is inherent and important aspect of the Kaziranga ecosystem to maintain the large number of water bodies (around 175) and the floral/faunal biodiversity of the area”, says an earlier official document on the flood situation of the national park.

A Map of Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan has reiterated this stand again in the latest reports. According to the replay, she said that flood is a natural and recurring phenomenon in Kaziranga and it creates a variety of habitats for different species.

However, this year, the floods were stronger. According to the latest reply from MoEF, similar floods have inundated Kaziranga in 1988 and 1998. The floods claimed 1203 and 652 animal lives in both the years respectively.

Sunday, August 26

The lone bat species in Kutch district threatened by serious habitat destruction near Hamirsir Lake

Bhuj is gradually recuperating from the devastating earthquake which claimed 12290 lives in 2001. Now, the developmental activities are at full swing, the wreckage is being replaced by new constructions. However, the developmental and rehabilitation activities around the Hamirsir lake in the Kachch district is adversely affecting the population of the lone bat species in the district in the Indian state of Gujarat, the Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus).

Indian flying fox, Pteropus giganteus, Pteropus giganteus in Kutch
Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus)
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Fondly called as 'Vagol' in local Guajarati, the bat species is the only large-sized fruit bat species found in Kachchh District. According to a research correspondent published in the latest issue of the Current Science Journal, the bat species has been using the small vegetation patches near the Harmisir Lake as a major roosting site. However, it is facing serious habitat destruction due to cutting of large trees in and around the lake as part of the reconstruction and developmental activities, says the correspondence reported by researchers at the Institute of Desert Ecology, Gujarat.

“The reconstruction and developmental initiatives have resulted in the cutting down of large trees which had provided shelter to the flying fox population in the past.  The natural habitat like forest patches and larger trees are disappearing due to rapid industrialization, urbanization” says the correspondence.

Disturbance from Laser shows

Moreover, the tourists activities in and around the lake are also taking a toll on the Indian flying fox population here. The influx of tourists and the resulting vehicular traffic are additional threats. According to the correspondence the laser light shows during the ‘Kutch Carnival’, a tourist fest, is also disturbing the Indian Flying Foxes in the area.

According to the correspondence, the wide presence of an invasive plant Prosopis juliflora, is also posing a major threat to the natural habitat of this bat species in Kutch district.

Conservation significance of Pteropus giganteus in Kutch

Earlier studies have shown that bats usually play a major role in pollination and seed dispersal of many plant species. Since it is the lone bat species in the district, it will be crucial in the pollination of many plants in the area. The disturbances caused to the habitat of the organism will thus take a toll on the population of many plants here thus bringing down the quality of the eco system, points out experts.

Though Indian Flying Fox is categorized under the Least Concern group in the Red Data book of IUCN, experts point out that the population trend of this organism is decreasing.

Calling for immediate attention towards the conversation statusof bats, the correspondence says that the bats have been given a least conservation priority in the area.  

“The time has come for the conservation of all animal groups, including the Flying Fox for maintaining ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity”, says the correspondence. 

Do you think conserving Indian flying foxes in Kutch as important? Share your views in the comments. 

Saturday, August 25

5 Critically Endangered Fishes in India

Despite being in a comparatively inaccessible habitat, many endemic fish species in India are at the verge of extinction. According to the latest IUCN red data list, there are more than a dozen species of organisms under the Chondrichthyes class of fishes in India which are classified as endangered. Among this, five of them are considered critically endangered in India.

The Pondicherry Shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon)

No records of this species are available from India during the last two decades, with the last known spotting taking place in 1979. However, it is still considered as critically endangered and even possibly extinct from the face of the earth. This rare and little known fish species takes it name from Pondicherry, a union territory in South India.

The Pondicherry Shark, Carcharhinus hemiodon

The Pondicherry Shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon)

According MoEF documents, this marine fish was reported inshore on continental and insular shelves.  As per earlier records, the fish was once widely distributed in Indian Ocean – from Gulf of Oman to Pakistan and India. Though there are no records of the species near the shores of Sri Lanka, it is expected that this rare fish will be present here also. The Pondicherry shark has been once reported from the mouth of the Hooghly River also.

Like the case of many fish species, Pondicherry shark also is a victim of indiscriminate commercial fishing in inshore aquatic habitats. The population of this fish is almost completely depleted to an extent that it is no more reported even as a by-catch from the areas around its natural habitat.

The Ganges Shark (Glyphis gangeticus)

The Ganges Shark got its name from its mother river Ganges where it was found in plenty numbers once. Though not much is known about the nature and character of this shark, it is known that it has adaptations which help it lead the life of a fish eating shark.

The Ganges Shark, Glyphis gangeticus, critically endangered fish

The Ganges Shark (Glyphis gangeticus)

Its unique body adaptations include the small eyes which help it to survive in turbid waters and slender teeth which help it to have a fish diet.  Mature individuals are recorded to grow up to a length of 2.04 meters. 

Actually found in the turbid waters of river Ganges and Bay of Bengal, the fish has been reported from Hooghly river mouth region also. There are speculations that the fish can be present in Pakistan also. 

Ganges shark is also a victim of indiscriminate shark hunting fisheries. Construction of dams and barrages in Ganges and the alarmingly rising pollution of the habitat have also contributed to a drastic population fall of these fishes.

Though there have been not a single instances of finding a live specimen of the species in recent times, a few jaws of the species were spotted in the international market suggesting that the species is not  completely extinct.

Long-comb Saw fish or Narrow-snout Sawfish (Pristis zijsron)

Long-comb Saw fish, Narrow-snout Sawfish, Pristis zijsron

Long-comb Saw fish (Pristis zijsron)

Usually found in shallow water, Long-comb Sawfish can grow up to 4.3m in length. The reports of these species varies considerably from 40 metres belwo the sea surface to the muddy bottoms of inland estuaries.

Distributed in the Indo-Pacific region including Australia, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, this fish is also a victim of indiscriminate fishing and aquarium trade.

The Knife-tooth Sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidata)

The Knife-tooth Sawfish, Anoxypristis cuspidata
The Knife-tooth Sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidata)
Resembling sharks in its body structure, the Knife-tooth Sawfish has a long narrow snout with blade-like teeth. This fish can grow up to 2.8 meters.

With its ability to survive in a range of salinity conditions, it is found in shallow coastal waters as well near the bottom of the sea even up to a depth of 40 meters. This ability has given it a widespread distribution in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region, including Red Sea.

Their unique feature – the long saw with teeth on it, make them easily caught even in primitive fish nets. Since their meat, fins and saw are highly valued, they end up in the international trade rackets, even if caught as a by-catch by fishermen.

Large-tooth Sawfish (Pristis microdon)

Large-tooth Sawfish, Pristis microdon

Large-tooth Sawfish (Pristis microdon)

Found in the western part of the Indo-Pacific in countries like East Africa to New Guinea, Philippines and Vietnam to Australia, Large-tooth saw fish is unique with its heavy-body and short, massive saw. Mature indivduals have been recorede to grow to a maximum of 3 meters in length. Usually a bycatch with Bull Sharks and the Green Sawfish, Large –tooth Sawfish is reported from inland waters of Mahandi River even up to 64 km off the coast. According ot MoEF documents, it is common in the estuaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra, but its present records are rare.

While dam construction and pollution from industries and other sources has destroyed its habitat considerably, indiscriminate aquarium tarde is also threatening the existence of this fish.

Friday, August 24

Climate change to badly affect bat life, says new research review

Climate change is speculated to affect almost all living creatures on the earth. Some will be severely hit due to their close relation to the climatic conditions of their habitat while some other may adapt and survive these changes. Bats, however, make it to the first category, points out a new review published by the journal Mammal Review.

According to the study, changing climate pattern is already taking its toll on many bat species. Based on a review of existing empirical data on the impact of climate change on bats, the scientists point out the bats are yet to face worst things. 

Indian Flying Fox,Pteropus giganteus, climate change and bats
Indian Flying Fox (Pteropus giganteus),
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
"Climate influences the biogeography of bats, their access to food, timing of hibernation, reproduction and development, frequency and duration of torpor and rate of energy expenditure", says the study. 

Analysing the data on the foraging, roosting, reproduction and biogeography of bats, in relation with extreme weather events and indirect effects of climate change, the review finds seven risk factors associated with bats as a result of climate change.

Bat risk factors in a changing climate

Bats distributed in geographically smaller ranges and high altitude and latitude ranges will be severely affected since climate change will leave them with no other home to move on. Bats which are distributed in the areas which may come under water stress as a result of changing climatic conditions also will be victimised.

However, their eating habits also will risk certain types of bats. For example, aerial hawking bats which live on an insect diet will have to travel more to find food. Similarly, since they lack body adaptations to prevent water loss, they will have to fly more to quench thirst when the climate gets warmer. This will adversely affect feeding mothers more, points out the study.

The hibernation patterns will also be changed. Bats which are known to undergo torpor or temporary hibernation periods with minimal physiological activity to conserve energy will have to wake up from it earlier than usual, in warmer conditions. It may jumble up their energy conservation tactics.

The reproduction pattern may change, but need not be in negative direction, says the study. Though there is a lack of enough data to assess the impact on reproduction, the researchers think that a warmer climate may help females to give birth and grow their child earlier than usual.

Threatened bats species under risk

The study has used the case of European and north-west African bats to identify the risk associated with climate change. It finds that 38 out of 47 species among these bats will be affected by climate change. Among them, 11 species which live on tress or caves will be severely hit, says the study.

All these bat species are presently categorized as endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable by IUCN. So their status is less likely to improve with the climate change, suggest the study.

Read more on our coverage on climate change 
Do you think Climate Change is a hoax? Have your say here.

Thursday, August 23

Unknown species still live in biodiversity hotspots; find them now or never, warn scientists

Calling for urgent species discovery programmes in world’s biodiversity hotspots, a recent research review by major ecologists points out that the hotspots still harbor more number of unknown organisms than any other part of the earth. But they are under threat from severe habitat destruction which may push them to extinction even before anybody trace and record their existence, warn the scientists. 
The twenty-five biodiversity hotspots (green) as indicated in Myers, N., et al. (2000)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

According to the research review which was published in the latest issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution Journal, the missing species are highly likely to have a restricted geographical range as well as small bodies or difficult traits which make it harder to find them. 

As per the review, there are high chances that the missing species are situated in the biodiversity hotspots which are geographically difficult to access and are in politically unstable regions. So places like Central America, northern Andes, South Africa, and New Guinea will have a bevy of unknown species in the earth, hints the review. 
According to the scientists, restricted geographical range as well as severe habitat loss will make them listed as endangered or critically endangered, if not extinct, right when they are described.

The issue of misguiding biodiversity estimations

The study also highlights that the existing figures on biodiversity are often miscalculations due to issues like synonymy and hyper estimation in biodiversity assessment. According to the review, synonymy, or describing similar species under different names, by taxonomists from different continents and generations is a major issue in understanding the real picture of biodiversity. 

Great Nicobar Crake, a new bird species recently discovered
from Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India
Often, the possible number of species in a specific family is estimated based on the number of known species. While synonymy always makes such estimation incorrect and inflated, incorrect extrapolation of data which is specific to a locality or habitat to chalk out a worldwide estimation will also give inflated figures on biodiversity, says the study. 

The study also points out that the method of assessing the number of missing species based on a sample of known and common organisms often leads to miscalculation of missing species. “Even well-known vertebrate taxa are now yielding surprising numbers of new species, overlooked because of their small ranges or because of cryptic species complexes”, says the study. Cryptic species are a complex of morphologically similar organisms belonging to closely related species. Such species are often overlooked in missing species estimations, due to their small geographical range.

Underestimating the biodiversity crisis

According to the paper, the inability to trace and record the identity of all existing organisms on the earth is greatly making academicians and policy makers to under estimate the biodiversity crisis we are actually passing through. According to studies, human intervention has been driving many organisms to extinction at 100 to 1000 times faster than their natural rate. Increasing extinction rate calls for immediate species discovery efforts, says the study.
Brett R. Scheffers, National University of Singapore, Lucas N. Joppa, Microsoft Research, UK, Stuart L. Pimm, Duke University, USA, William F. Laurance, James Cook University, Australia co-authored the review.

Critically Endangered Indian vultures face threat from new veterinary painkiller Aceclofenac

Diclofenac, the widely used veterinary painkiller was a killer of vultures too, which has forced the Indian government to ban the usage of it as a painkiller on animals. But a recent research review shows that the pharmaceutical companies have introduced a new alternative named Aceclofenac, which is again fatal to the vultures in the country. 

White-rumped Vulture, Gyps bengalensis
White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The review published in the Journal of Raptor Research, points out that the new entrant has a structural and pharmaceutical similarity to the banned chemical. As per the empirical studies cited by the paper, Aceclofenac turns into the same lethal Diclofenac after metabolised inside the cattle body. 

According to the review, the non-steroidal drug which is used to suppress inflammations in animals is again toxic to the Gyps genus of birds which includes three major vulture species - Gyps bengalensis, G. indicus and G. Tenuirostris - found in South Asian countries. All the three are listed as Critically Endangered vultures by IUCN. The paper argues that the banned chemical and the alternative have at least two same metabolites in mammals, indicating that the use of the alternative chemical on cattle may harm the vultures in the region. 

Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus
Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Earlier studies have shown that the use of Diclofenac as a painkiller on cattle has brought down the vulture population in India as the chemical caused liver toxicity and renal toxicity to the vultures that ate the cattle carcasses. 

Safety testing and precautionary ban

The paper also calls for an urgent move to implement a regulation which makes it compulsory to subject all veterinary drugs to safety testing before they are administered on animals. It also calls for a precautionary ban on the use of the chemical till safety test on vultures are done and the metabolism of Aceclofenac on cattle is studied in detail. 

Being scavengers, the well being of vultures is a crucial factor in the survival of the food chains in a forest ecosystem. To save the vultures, the country has declared Ramadevarabetta near Bangalore in Karnataka as the first vulture sanctuary in India and is taking serious measures to conserve these critically endangered birds in the country.

Wednesday, August 22

Climate change will bring unprecedented marine life extinction in near future, says scientists

As the impact of a gradually growing climate change is secretly creeping into our life, a group of leading scientists point out that it is the marine life on earth that will be hard hit with maximum number extinctions due to climate change. As per a review published in the Trends in Ecology and Evolution Journal, the climate change will cause unprecedented levels of mass extinctions in marine life.

Map showing that the Earth is getting warmer
Note: Image not relted to the reserach mentioned in the report
Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

By analyzing the causes and patterns of marine extinctions and extinction risks with the help of fossil, historical and modern records, the paper argues that many periods in the past had similar climatic conditions estimated to take place in the future. Apparently, the effects also could be the same. 

“Even if the ultimate drivers of extinctions have changed over time, the proximal effects experienced by organisms might be similar”, says the paper. 

For instance, the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the Permian era was due to volcanic activity but now it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Both ways, it has taken the toll on the marine organisms. However, it makes the extinction rates in the Permian era a better indicator to that in the immediate future. 

Lessons from the past
By analyzing geo chemical data and fossil records in the past, the researchers have found that three among the five largest extinctions in the past were related to global warming and ocean acidification. Similarly, the study has also found that loss of oxygen, habitat loss due to human intervention and pollution have also contributed to large scale extinction rates in the past. 

History of carbon dioxide concentrations
Note: Image not relted to the reserach mentioned in the report
Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons
Based on the lessons they learned by joining the jigsaws of data from fossil, historic and modern records, the study estimates that the marine organisms with a restricted geographical range will be more prone to extinction risk from habitat loss due to climate change. 

“As such, extinction risk in the future might shift from larger-bodied species to those with restricted geographic ranges as marine ecosystems respond increasingly to habitat loss and the environmental disturbances associated with climate change.” says the study.

Though over-exploitation and habitat loss were major reasons for extinctions in the past, acidification and warming will become more important drivers of extinction in the present times, despite cases of over-exploitation still existing, says the review. 

Do you think climate change is a hoax? Make you say in the comments.

Read more on our coverage on climate change