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Thursday, January 31

Wrestling lessons from the ancestors

Games are an integral part of primate life. It is the same reason which makes sports pages a must in the better primate's newspapers. Studies have shown that animals that lead a social life, including primates use games as a way to teach the young survival tactics and other lessons needed in the life.

Below is a photo series of two young bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata diluta) indulging in wrestling games. Taken from the Agroha temple compound , Hissar in the Indian state of Haryana.

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1. Wont let you go just like that !
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2. Lets play Undertaker and Triple H

animal behavior, Bonnet Macaque, Haryana, playing monkeys, funny pictures, funny animal pictures,
3. Here we go
animal behavior, Bonnet Macaque, Haryana, playing monkeys, funny pictures, funny animal pictures,
4 This is a Scissor lock

animal behavior, Bonnet Macaque, Haryana, playing monkeys, funny pictures, funny animal pictures,
5. You are done !

animal behavior, Bonnet Macaque, Haryana, playing monkeys, funny pictures, funny animal pictures,
6. Want another chance !

As you can see, I was not very good in captioning the pictures. If you have suggestions on better captions, please mention it in the comments. Thank you.

Thursday, January 24

Western Ghats shelter highest number of endemic orchids in Peninsular India

According to a recent research review published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, Western Ghats, one of the eight hottest biodiversity hotspots in the world, harbours highest number of endemic orchid species found in Peninsular India. 123 species among the 130 endemic orchid species of peninsular India are found in different parts of Western Ghats, says the study. Among them, 95 species are strictly restricted to Western Ghats.

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A terrestrial orchid species found in Western Ghats
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Flowers of a terrestrial orchid in Western Ghats

Peninsular India is the region is bordered by Vindhyan mountain range in the north, Arabian Sea in the west, Indian Ocean in the south and Bay of Bengal in the east and comprises of seven Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamil Nadu and union territory - Pondicherry. Geographically, peninsular India is divided into Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats and Deccan Plateau. 

 Kerala shelters maximum number of endemic orchids in Western Ghats
According to the study, Kerala part of Western Ghats has maximum number of endemic orchid species. Agasthyamalai-hills, Anamalai-High Ranges, Nilgiri-Silent Valley-Kodagu region are some of the important regions here which support high endemism, says the paper. 

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State-wise distribution of endemic orchids in Western Ghats
The present study also points out the high endemism among orchids found in Western Ghats. Of the 123 endemic orchids found in Western Ghats, 95 are strictly restricted to these mountain ranges. At the same time, among the 22 species of endemic orchids found in Eastern Ghats, only 5 species are strictly endemic. None among the 29 endemic orchids reported from Deccan Plateau are restricted to the plateau. 

Endemic orchid fauna of Peninsular India
According to a study, the family of orchid like plants have 22500 different species across the world. Among them, 1331 species are reported from India. 404 species among them are endemic to India. 
The present study claims that the actual number of endemic orchid species at peninsular region is 130 which are distributed into 38 genera. Among them, 43 are ground orchids, 85 are epiphytic or grow on trees and two are holomycotrophic (grows on dead or decaying matter). 

In the past, different studies have come out with different figures about the endemism among orchids in the region. However, the authors of the present study claims that they have updated the list by including latest changes in the taxonomy and updated distribution data for many orchid species. 
According to the paper, many species which were earlier considered as endemic were later reported from other regions also. “A total of 27 orchid species earlier considered as endemic to the peninsular region are excluded from the list owing to their extended distribution in the neighbouring countries”, says the paper.

Threats to endemic orchid fauna in peninsular India
According to the study, different forms of human intervention like cattle grazing, mining, construction activities and forest fires are the major threats to these endemic orchids in the peninsular region.

Tuesday, January 22

Irrawaddy Dolphin Population at Chilika Lake increases

The population of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) at the Chilika Lake, Bhubaneswar in the Indian state of Orissa has increased, shows the figures released by Chilika Development Authority (CDA) after a recently concluded census of the dolphin population in the lake. According to CDA, the dolphin population in the lake has increased by 4.6 percent when compared to last year’s census figures.

Irrawaddy dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris, Chilika Lake, Indian dolphin

     Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
During the survey which has taken place from January 18 to 19 this year, teams were able to spot a total of 152 dolphins among which 118 were adults while 16 were sub-adults and 18 were calves and newly born dolphins.

Moreover, the survey teams have also sighted at least eight dolphins in the northern sector of the lagoon. According to experts, this sighting is an indication that the dolphin population in the lake is expanding the habitat.

The rate of presence of calves and neonates has also increased compared to last year’s figures. According to Ajit Patnaik, chief executive of CDA, there has been a 38.9 percent increase in the presence of calves and neonates in the lake.

Line transect method used for sampling
The survey has used the line transect methodology to assess the population of dolphins in the lake. According to sources at CDA, the survey used a total of 18 transects and the sampling in each transect were taken by teams of 7 to 8 members which had at least 3 experienced persons. 10 teams were deployed at the main lagoon while 8 teams at the outer channel and northern sector of the lagoon.

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A view of Chilika Lake, Bhubaneswar, Orissa
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
A total of 130 persons from different organizations and institutions participated in the survey.  To facilitate smooth survey process with accurate sampling, the usual tourist boat services in the lake started operating only after the completion of the census process during the census days.

Geographic distribution of Irrawaddy dolphins
The survey results are a green signal as the population trend of these rare aquatic organisms, according to IUCN, is declining worldwide. At present, it is present only in Asian countries like Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam in addition to India. Chilika Lake is a brackish water lake which retains the only sizable population of this rare dolphin in India, which is categorized as Vulnerable by IUCN. According to IUCN, direct mortality from fishing, habitat fragmentation and habitat destruction due to human intervention are some of the major threats faced by Irrawaddy dolphins.

Wednesday, January 16

Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary witness huge Danaine butterfly roost as migration season kicks off

Aralam(Kannur): Marking the beginning of yet another season of butterfly migration, Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary in Kannur District of Kerala witnessed a large congregation of  Dark blue tiger, Common crow and Double banded crow butterflies of Daniane family at Pothanplavu area of the sanctuary during the second week of January. 

According to sources in the Malabar Natural History Society, a Calicut based nature organization which conducts a routine butterfly survey at the sanctuary with the support of Kerala Forests and Wild Life Department to observe and document migration, there could be more than 3 lakh butterflies roosting at Pothanplavu area only. During the survey, at least two similar roosts were reported at different places in the sanctuary. According to sources, the roosting flies could be a part of large flocks of butterflies which were reported migrating from Nadukani plains of the Nilambur forest during last week.
Dark Blue Tiger,Tirumala septentrionis, butterfly roost, butterfly congregation, Aralam WLS, Western Ghats butterfly
Dark Blue Tiger (Tirumala septentrionis) butterflies roosting at Aralam WLS

A roost or congregation is a group of butterflies which perch on trees or plants, often with limited physical activities and with almost no feeding. Usually butterflies do not shift their roosting sites every year, so roosts were earlier observed in Aralam almost in the same places during migration season.

 “During a roost, migrating butterflies live through weeks with limited or no activity like feeding.” says Dr. Jafer Palot who has conducted studies about the butterfly migration in the Kerala part of Western Ghats. “However, we have observed mating behavior among roosting butterflies”, he said during a lecture to the team members who took part in the survey.

Butterfly roost at Aralam WLS: Video Clip

Common Albatross migration at Aralam Wild life Sanctuary
The survey teams have also reported that the migration rates of Albatross butterflies from the sanctuary was more this year during the survey days, unlike last year.   According to a press release issued by MNHS, a peak point of Common Albatross Migration was observed this year with a maximum count of more than 500 butterflies in 5 minutes time, all along the Cheenganni River of the Park. Last year, the rate was very minimal, mainly owing to the shrinking of mud puddling sites, according to sources.

According to researchers and volunteers who took part in the survey, groups of migrating common albatross butterflies were often followed by Bluebottle, Great Orange Tip and Painted Saw-tooth butterflies.

The butterfly migration here is usually observed during the end of the winter season and before the starting of summer.The  phenomenon has been routinely observed by the annual butterfly survey for the last twelve years. The survey is the only one to be conducted  in any protected areas in India for such a long period to record the changing butterfly diversity and migration patterns.

Butterfly migration in South India: Changing notions
Despite 12 years of documentation, the mystery of butterfly migration in the Kerala part of Western Ghats in general and that to and from Aralam WLS remains an unsolved mystery for many reasons. Though the migratory behavior among butterflies were thoroughly studied in many countries (the monarch migration from US to Canada, for instance), the scholars in the country are yet to crack the nut of complete secrets of these winged travelers.

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Butterflies in mud puddling during migration
“In the early years we thought that the migration flocks going through the sanctuary were actually coming from Wayanda and were going to Kodagu in Karnataka through Kottiyoor. However, with the information network getting wider and people from different parts of the state alert us on any sight of butterfly swarms moving in particular direction for prolonged period of time, we now know that the phenomenon is not restricted to a single route or region”, says Dr. Palot. During their later studies, they have found that the phenomenon can be mainly connected with altitude, since the general pattern of Common Albatross migration shows that the flies are moving from high altitude to low altitude and vice versa during specific seasons.

Though the phenomenon is more correctly understood as altitude migration now, many questions are still left unanswered. During surveys in 2008, more than 5000 butterflies were recorded moving down the stream every five minutes, making a rough figure of 4 lakh butterflies during the season. “We don’t know how this much butterflies come up together at a time during the season”, says a researcher.  “Neither do we know where they flies disappear”, adds he.

 “There should be sorts of factory run by nature which produces this much lakhs of butterflies upstream to trigger large scale migrations,” said Dr Palot while interacting with the survey teams. It needs thorough investigations, he said.

Tirumala septentrionis,Dark Blue Tiger,butterfly roosting,Aralam WLS,Common Crow,Euploea core
Dark Blue Tiger (Tirumala septentrionis) and Crow butterflies
roosting at Aralam WLS
However, researchers got a clue this time, since one survey team spotted female Albatross butterflies laying eggs on a lesser known larval host plants on the migration routes. According to their assumption, the wide presence of the plant could be the factory which produces tens of thousands of Common Albatross butterflies during a migration season.

Pale Four- Line Blue reported from Aralam WLS
According to MNHS sources, the survey has also added a new species to the butterfly diversity of the sanctuary, with one team spotting and photographing ‘Pale Four-Line Blue’ from the sanctuary for the first time in the past 12 years of the survey. With the new report, the sanctuary has 244 different butterfly species, which makes it one among the top protected areas in the country for its butterfly diversity.

The survey has also recorded more than 140 species of butterflies from the sanctuary, with rare sightings like Red Spot Duke, Common Onyx, and the Western Ghats endemic Malabar Tree Nymph. As many as 84 butterfly watchers from Kerala and Karnataka took part in the camp. 

Thursday, January 3

Pygmy sized human ancestor in Central Narmada Valley a missing link in evolution chain, reveals new study

During a recent exploration in the Central Narmada Valley, researchers have unearthed skeletal parts of hitherto unknown archaic humans that have inhabited Central Narmada valley in India during late Mid Pleistocene.

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Hominin femur fossil  found from Central Narmada Valley
Image Courtesy: Current Science
According to a research communication published in the Current Science Journal, a partial humeral piece (bone which extends from shoulder to elbow), a fragment of the left femur (bone that extends from pelvis to the knee) and other stone artifacts collected from Netankheri, located 3 km away from Hathnora on the banks of Narmada River, shows that Central Narmada Valley had two different archaic human races.

While one was large robust hominins who used to hunt down large mammals with heavy duty weapons, the later developed pygmy sized one which was hitherto unknown to science, used to hunt smaller animals with lightly refined tools. The pygmy sized race could be the real ancestors of all short-bodied populations in South Asia, says the study.

Anatomical differences
Though the humeral piece was 84 mm in length, scientific estimations reveal that the maximum possible length could be 240mm. In that case, it is shorter than that of the known archaic mainland Eastern Indian races. According to the researchers, the humeral piece has more similarities with that of Chaurite Nicobarese populations.

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Hominin humerus from Netankheri
Image Courtesy: Current Science 
Though it is not easy to confirm if the fossil belongs to modern humans or archaic hominins, the mineralization and the artifacts recovered along with the fossil suggest the period could be Upper Palaeolithic.

Similarly, the femoral piece is different from that of modern humans. The newly discovered femur, according to researchers, has scarcely developed medial and lateral lips while they are prominently developed into ridges in modern humans. A comparative analysis, according to the research communication, makes it more similar to femur of the Neanderthal man or late archaic hominins.

Thus the newly unearthed humeral fossil may belong to a connecting link between the short statured archaic humans to the early modern homo sapience during the late Pleistocene, says the study.

Culturally different race
Excavations at Hathnora earlier have revealed the existence of archaic hominin populations on the Narmada banks dating back to mid- Pleistocene age. However, the present findings, when compared with that from Hathnora, reveal that the races were culturally and physically distinct.

Substantiating the findings, the study points out that the faunal fossils and the types of artifacts recovered from the two sites are different, which in turn suggest that the races were culturally different.

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a. Bone and stone implements associated with human humerus at Netankheri and similar sites. b, Small mode 3 lithic implements excavated at Hathnora clavicle site; such tools were also recovered from Netankheri humerus site.
Image Courtesy: Current Science 
During the excavation at Hathnora, researchers have unearthed a complete mandible or lower jaw of Equus namadicus, a pre-historic era horse like mammal of Narmada valley. Interestingly, a portion of its lower jaw had a pre-historic tool struck in it, pointing out that the animal was contemporary with the man who made these tools.

 Similarly, current excavations at Hathnora partial skull level have yielded a large cache of heavy duty artifacts, many of them associated with large mammalian fossils, suggesting that the Hathnora populations known by the skull were large robust humans and they used to hunt down large mammals also.

However, excavations at Netankheri at the same level yielded very few large mammalian fossils and very few heavy duty artifacts. Researchers were able to unearth some lower jaw remnants of Stegodon insignis ganesa, a pre-historic elephant known for its longer tusks, and very few heavy duty artifacts from Netankheri. While the artifacts at Hathnora contained Picks, chopping tools, cleavers and hand axes, not many similar tools were present at Netankheri. However, the picks recovered from Netankheri at femur level were culturally similar to those of Hathnora skull level and connect the two robust fossil findings.

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Map of a portion of the Central Narmada valley
Image Courtesy: Current Science 
All these signs, point to the fact that the races were physically and culturally different, to the point that the short-statured race used to hunt only smaller mammals and used more refined tools, than the robust humans in Hatnora. “The fossil and archaeological evidence from Hathnora represent two types of culturally and physically distinct, anatomically archaic hominin populations in the Central Narmada Valley.”, says the paper.

Connecting link to modern human populations on Narmada Valley
These findings throw more light into the evolution of human race in South Asia region. According to the research communication, the humeral piece of fossil belonged to a type of human race which could be a connecting link between short statured archaic human races in Narmada Valley during later Middle Pleistocene to the modern Homo sapiens in the evolutionary chain.

Possibly, the present short bodied South Asian populations could be descendants of this ancestral root. According to the study, the present Munda settlements in Narmada Valley who have phylogenetic similarities with Andaman Pygmies, can be the present continuation of this short statured human race who inhabited the place during late Pleistocene.

According to Dr. A R Sankhyan, the lead author and a retired palaeoanthropologist with Anthropological Survey of India,   the short and stocky people can even be the ancestors of African pygmies. In a media statement, Sankhyan said that the race "could be the ancestors of the short-bodied people of south Asia, those found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and African pygmies".
Early human populations in Narmada Valley
Excavations and palaeontological explorations in the Central Narmada Valley have given valuable insights into the prehistoric age with faunal fossils and stone-age artifacts since 1830s. However, the first direct door of knowledge to the archaic human populations here was opened when a partial hominin cranium was found in 1980s. Later, two clavicles and a partial 9th left rib also were recovered from Hathnora.

However, the mismatching nature of the recovered fossils has always suggested the chances of presence of more than one human race in Central Narmada valley.  The present study also points out that the archaic human settlements extend to other places on the banks of Narmada like Netankheri which calls for more studies to unravel the mystery of Central Narmada Valley ancestors.