Thursday, June 26, 2014

Naming the birds

Linnaeus apparently trumps internet popularity measures. I needed some easy visual depictions of bird taxonomy and suddenly found that things I had known to work no longer did. ManyEyes told me that my browser had an outdated Java VM. Updating it led to an error claiming that my security settings were too stringent (the dataset exists). Then I found Tableau Public. And then that too refused to allow me to put out data and interactive visualizations on the website! It was however possible to get some static images, which was good enough for my purpose.

For the data, I went to the IOC worldbird names list (4.2) and downloaded the XLS file. I deleted the blank lines, the genus lines and retained only the subspecies for polytypic forms and the main species line for those that were monotypic. I then took the author column, removed the brackets, split it so that the year went to another field and then I was able to quickly produce a few visuals. Note however that this depicts the authors of the names and that usually refers to the descriptions of the species. The exceptions are when names are revived or when replacement names are used.

An interactive version (updated 9 July 2014)

Here are a few snapshots that look interesting. Remember that this is species/subspecies (genus descriptions are not included).

The biggest bird namers

The big bird namers by decade

The big namers in the biggest decades using a treemap

If the species continent is included it might make for some more interesting views. It would likely show how the dominant contributions move from Asia to Africa and then to the New World tropics.

PS: There is definitely a login related problem on Tableau Public. It works intermittently so success perhaps depends on the load on the web-server.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A not-so-great hedge

Many would have heard about the "Great Hedge of India" or the book on it by Roy Moxham. This was supposedly a British innovation started in 1803, meant primarily to block the free movement (a.k.a. "smuggling") of salt so as to be able to impose a salt tax or customs duty. It was also referred to as the  "Customs Hedge" (e.g. in Hume's Nests and Eggs ... ). The idea of live hedges appears however to be much older in India and is probably lifted from the Mysore and Madras regions.

Bound-Hedge, s. A corruption of boundary-hedge, and applied in old military writers to the thick plantation of bamboo or prickly-pear which used to surround native forts.
 1792-"A Bound Hedge, formed of a wide belt of thorny plants (at Seringapatam)."- Wilks, Historical Sketches, iii. 217. [Hobson-Jobson]

Dr. M.B. Krishna recently forwarded an old map of Bangalore (from the British Library collection)  made in 1800 by a certain James Ross (more on this man in the footnote) under the command of Colin Mackenzie (who pops up yet again!) and it shows a nearly circular hedge marked as the "Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore". A little research showed that this defence was a widespread practice in the Mysore and Coromandel regions. Large cacti and some Euphorbia patches are found around the Nandi Hills and Savandurga and it is possible that some of them are really old remnants worthy of special protection. The hedge around Bangalore is perhaps less known.

Here is the relevant part of this very interesting map. The lake at the top with the bund along the road is presumably Hebbal lake. "Yesmunjepoor" is probably Yeshwanthpur.

The Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore (1800)

It seems like Bangalore just grew over this leaving no remnants of this hedge. It would seem like the hedge either passed through or went very close to the campus of the Indian Institute of Science. There were some patches of Acacia and bad land that may have been part of this but it is also likely that some of these were cleared up to become parts of roads that we have today. 

Looking up more on this "bound hedge" led to several bits and it seems to be very specific to India. Most deal with the "bound hedge" around Tipu's fort at Srirangapatnam or the one around Pondicherry. Sidney (1868) writes about the "bound hedge" around Madras, which apparently was being extended around 1758 according to Barlow (1921) but may have been even older as it finds mention in 1748 in the diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai.

It is said that the town of Conjevaram was surrounded by a bound hedge "chiefly of agave americana" (Hamilton, 1820) but that sounds like an unlikely jump for a New World plant for that point of time. For a more detailed botanical description of the bound hedge at Srirangapatnam, see Pennant:

"The Bound hedge, the frequent concomitant of the fortresses of Hindoostan, appears here in great strength. It is the practice in the Polygar system of defence, and copied by the civilized natives from the wild warriors of the forests. Of the latter, the fort of Calicoil and that of Palam Courchy are strong examples.... These local defences are formed of every thorny tree or caustic plant of the climate. Palmira trees, or the Borassus flabelliformis, are the primary. These are planted to the depth of from thirty to fifty feet. In the interstices of the trees, which are very closely placed, are confusedly sown or set, the following plants. Pandanus odoratissimus, or wild pine; see my preceding volume, p.241; Cactus tuna, Euphorbia Tiraculla, or milky hedge. The juice of this is so caustic as to scald not only the human skin, but the hide of a horse, on whom it may fall in forcing through this infernal hedge. Several other sorts of Euphorbia; The Aloe littoralis of Koenig, Convolvulus muricatus, and other Convolvuli. The Mimosa cinerea, horrida, instia, and another, as yet undescribed, armed with most dreadful thorns. The Guiliadina unite their powers; intermixed is the Guiliadina Bonducella, G. bonduc, and another not laid before the public, to which Koenig gives the epithet lacinians, which it fully merits. The Calamus rotang, or rattan, and the Arundo bambo, often assist in the impenetrability. The last is remarked to be admirable for the purpose, since nothing equals it in resisting the edge of the ax, or the subtile fury of fire. ..."
Note: I have unfortunately not yet actually read Moxham's book and would like to know if he mentions bound hedges. There is also apparently an MS by William Sargeant on the topic.

25 May 2014: James Ross (aged 23) was apparently someone who ran afoul of his superiors. He was one among several "Native boys" (India born Europeans) who had been trained at the surveying school in Madras. He was accused of several misdeeds during his service. Hunting instead of doing his work, mistreating servants and others and last but not least of seducing a dancing girl at Nanjangud. His superior John Mather ordered him to release the girl from the home the pair had found and Ross threatened violence. Ross was finally sent back to Madras with an armed escort! (Robb, 1998)

Further reading

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hideous and patent symmetry

Urban parks such as the ones in Bangalore are largely controlled by the BBMP, who in turn contract it to vicious, uninnovative and exploitative contractors who then use underpaid "gardeners" (usually a family that has been displaced from rural areas due to the lack of jobs, indebtedness or other problems). The parks themselves often begin as a little plot of land that lies under high-voltage electricity lines or has been set aside  because of laws. The work begins first by using equipment to level the ground, followed by a fence and then typically a rectangular path, a central lawn, a flower borders, a bunch of concrete seats, circular gazebos and so on. The whole thing so is so clich├ęd, so "hideous" that it is hard to begin a criticism. The problem is that alternative visions are so rare, yet they exist in many places. There is (or at least was, maybe it is called Chittoor Reserve Forest) a wonderfully wild park not too far outside the town of Chittoor that I thought was quite interesting in the way it had been let to go wild. There are similar wilderness areas in many small towns, but larger cities seem to have a way to destroy them. The usual approach involve the removal of existing vegetation, addition of exotic annuals for their flowers. The removal of undergrowth, the artificial surfacing of paths, the inclusion of a very stereotypical playground, excessive lighting and various other actions that if avoided would have left the place far more satisfying to the urban dweller who need a little bit of wild nature. The cost involved in such an enriching place is actually zero, but because there is money to be made, there are hordes of people on the line waiting to destroy the few accessible wilderness areas. This is not done only by city governments alone, the beautiful scrub forest of about 1800 ha of the GKVK campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore has been destroyed right under the eyes and noses of extremely knowledgeable people. Numerous species of insects have their type locality as GKVK. 
Saving even the campuses of educational institutions is a fight against the  powerful

I was recently made aware of a beautiful essay by the great Indian naturalist M. Krishnan that, sadly enough, is not sufficiently well-known. It makes for such a lovely reading even fifty years on and it is clear that few people listen or learn. Thanks to Shanthi and Ashish Chandola for sharing the original which I post here. While modern writers talk about active processes like "rewilding", Krishnan uses a more passive term.


The Sunday Statesman 
March 7 1954
M. Krishnan's Country Notebook

If I had a five acre plot of outlying cultivation as so many ryots have, a stony field at the foot of a hill or the edge of the scrub that would gradually repay the effort of reclamation, I would not make the effort. I would abandon my field to weeds and shrubs, even help it actively to run wild, and count myself as much a patriot as the man who, by sustained toil, adds it on to the struggling agriculture of our grain-hungry country.

And if I lived in a mansion set in an immaculate garden, with lawns and smooth paths and every annual in place, or if I were in charge of a spotless city park laid out in a geometrical pattern and with ornamental trees in rows - why, then too I would let my garden or park run wild, in part at least, and encourage thick bushes festooned with greedy creepers and the rank undergrowth.

I would do these things from no sense of cussedness or ennui, but because in a small way I would be contributing towards a less sterile life. We can grow more food by less wastefully extensive agriculture-an incredible extent of countryside is cut up and wasted by our loose agriculture and communications. And in towns and cities one can no longer find a bit of wasteland, leave alone woodland. Even the bird life of these places has been banished by an ugly craze for ferro-concrete architecture and tidy, well-tamed gardens.

In the old days urban gentlemen lived in bungalows with large, tree-filled compounds, and it was part of their gentlemanliness not to bother overmuch about the further reaches of their domain. Today the urban rich, when they do have a bit of garden space, have flowering trees near the road and rectangular lawns in front of the house in herbaceous borders; cannas flank the drive and crotons in pots decorate the portico, and if there is a plot in the backyard they grow anaemic tomatoes in it.

Our public parks display a hideous and patent symmetry; wide, hard paths intersect one another at right angles, rows of flaming Cassias and Poincianas stand stiffly in attention, there are sandpits and short-mown lawns for the children and concrete benches for older visitors. There is not enough undershrub and bushes anywhere to tempt a mongoose to stay or a warbler to nest. There is no lebensraum for the lesser fauna even.

Off and on, during the past thirty years, I have watched the bird life and lesser beasts of a city area dwindle and vanish, and I know at first hand how our extensive agriculture can drive out wild life in rural areas.

Even now it is not too late, if we follow a sensible plan of non-reclamation in the countryside and encourage gentlemanly neglect in city gardens and parks, to bring back the charm of wild life to these places. What many people (including enthusiasts for our fauna) do not realize is the power of nature to recoup, left to itself. The following extract from an editorial in The Times (London) of Dec 18, 1953, is significant:-

"Many cities in Britain have their acres of bomb-devastated land, once covered with houses but now overgrown with vegetation. Thee are places of great interest to naturalists; they can see what plants most readily and most permanently colonize ground on which no plants have grown, perhaps, for centuries past. Not only plants but also insets and birds and even mammals have been demonstrating how nature pours into any vacuum that is offered, and then stages a battle there for survival... In all, 269 kinds of wild flowers have now been recorded in the City of London, their seeds brought there within these last few years by air, in the fodder of horses, and by other agencies including birds. For birds, too, have been quick to colonize the ruined cities."
No need, of course, for our cities to face a blitz for the welcome return of nature - though it is true that ruined buildings offer splendid scope for wild things. Plant a section of every park and garden with native jungle trees (not forgetting a few fig trees) and thick bushes, allow creepers and the undershrub to grow, and the birds and smaller beasts will come back.

In the countryside all that is needed is to tighten up agriculture so that intervening wasteland can run wild, and be available to wild life sufficiently in large blocks. Unfortunately our wild life preservation effort is directed mainly towards the denizens of forests; the fauna of the open scrub receives little attention from anyone-excepting professional trappers.

When I was a boy I had ample opportunities for watching minor wild life in a city and in the countryside. Those opportunities are now gone, or are going. It is such a pity, and so wrong that urban children today should grow up in ignorance of the common wild life of the soil. The idea that our fauna should be penned up in national parks and preserves, and that our children should visit these pens or some remote countryside for a glimpse of the great heritage of nature that is theirs, revolts me. There is room enough for man and birds and beast in this hospitable land, if only men would be less covetous of space and curb their urge to claim and tame every plot of land in the neighbourhood for the sake of grain too hard won, or may be the sight of a row of Poincianas.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A young cloud-forest?

In the last week, I have been trying to examine some evidence on the history of the vegetation atop Nandi Hills, a popular birding location close to Bangalore. But trying to examine it forced me to research some persons associated with the evidence. The key person involved was Colin Mackenzie, who had a strange interest in the history of mathematics, who in his youth worked on a biography of John Napier, the man who is considered to have discovered (or invented?) the idea of logarithms in arithmetic computations. One of Napier's successors wanted Mackenzie to study the possibility that logarithms were in use among Hindu mathematical traditions. When this sponsor died, another relative bought Mackenzie a commission with the Madras Engineers. Setting off from the Outer Hebrides ("Farthest Hebrides"!), he arrived in Madras on 2 September 1783 and was never to return home, dying in Calcutta on 8th May 1821. Working in the army during tumultuous times, he quickly forgot the biography project, but retained an interest in antiquities and kept careful notes, had illustrations made and collected artefacts as he travelled around southern India. During the campaign against Tipu Sultan, he had illustrations made of the scenery around and among them is a picture of "Nandidrug" made in 1791 probably by Captain Thomas Sydenham. His interest in surveying the land and collecting information led to him being chosen for the new position of "Surveyor General".

[A side effect of the research was a bit of improvement of the Wikipedia biography of Colin Mackenzie.]
"Nandidrug" (1791) from the Mackenzie collection

The picture appears to have been drawn from the adjoining hill (which has some trees) and the painting may have some aspects exaggerated and has many inaccuracies. The top is however shown to be largely devoid of any vegetation. The overhang to the right side of the picture just beyond the end of the lower and second line of fortification exists but is much less prominent.
Mackenzie and his fellow researchers

Colin Mackenzie is somewhat special in his use of native interpreters. Early in his career, he was introduced to Kavali Boria, a "Brahmen" from Andhra with linguistic abilities that included the ability to read old Kannada script. Several other brothers and family members were part of his team, and after Mackenzie's death, the third brother Ramaswamie went on to publish books in English and these include perhaps the first Indian cookbook written in English (Pakasastra, translated from a book in Telugu by a Saraswati Bai) ! A pity this out of copyright work is not available online.

Mackenzie appears to have been quite accurate with his descriptions and the illustration of Nandi Hills is rough but still identifiable. The one shown may have been redrawn from a field sketch and lost some detail in the copying. Apparently a course in drawing (esp. of topography) was part of military training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich (Dias, 2013). The lack of trees on Nandi Hills is also mentioned very specifically by Surgeon C. J. Smith (see my earlier post "Perfect Alembics" for the full text).

The metalled road that leads up Nandi was set up only after 1923 according to the memorial stone at the entrance arch. It appears that some of the fortification was removed in the process (as it appears by comparing with the 1799 image).

It is widely claimed that Eucalyptus was first introduced in India in the Nandi hills by Tipu Sultan somewhere between 1782 and 1790. (Where did he get the plant from?). The Eucalyptus trees at Nandi Hills are among the largest trees in the Bangalore area and many of them show a surprisingly different kind of bark, not peely, smooth and white as elsewhere but fissured and cork-like bark. Surgeon Smith's claim that clouds covered the adjoining vegetated hills but not Nandi is also not something that is seen. In fact on one overnight stay in summer we noticed that the tree trunks are all covered in a thin film of flowing water each morning. This condensate is what makes the little forest patch on Nandi look so much like the Western Ghats, trees covered in moss and epiphytes. It has also been adopted by a wide range of birds that one would find more regularly in the Western Ghats - the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, the odd Malabar Whistling Thrush, the Orange-headed Thrushes, the Pied Thrushes, the summering(!) Small Sunbird and so on.
Bark of a Eucalyptus with condensation running down in summer 

There is little doubt then that Nandi Hills qualifies as a cloud forest. The question is, can one have accidentally been made in the course of a little under 200 years? Considering that the adjoining hills have not grown in a similar way, does the Eucalyptus itself have a role here?
Morning clouds around the adjoining hill (March 2014)

The central hill with the fort has vegetation that includes tall tree cover and undergrowth.


PS: Is something similar happening at Mount Sutro in San Francisco ?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why look like a spider?

"Why did the fly fly? Because the spider spied'er." - Anon.

Not every resemblance is a case of mimicry. An image of the Tephritid fly Goniurellia tridens with spider-like or ant-like patterns on its wing went viral in recent times and some have pointed out that this might be a case of wishful thinking. A little more than a week ago, I was observing a tiny day-flying moth in the Western Ghats of India and its behaviours. It seemed to make quick movements after landing and before coming to rest and then it would wave its hind legs slowly. It also made slight shifts of the forewings giving it the distinct impression of a jumping spider (Salticidae). 

Here are some not so brilliantly captured videos:

I cannot find a matching Salticid model but the posture and appearance make the mimicry seem perfectly plausible. Unlike the ants, which are dreaded by most of the smaller majority it is harder to think of a jumping spider as being recognized and avoided.

Here is a Salticid as seen from the side

Salticus scenicus from California by Kaldari (Wikimedia Commons)

Roger Kendrick has kindly identified this as belonging to the family Glyphipterigidae
Now there are ways to test if the resemblance is just accidental or if it really enhances the survival of the mimic. When I posted this on Facebook, I was pleasantly surprised to know that the Tephritid pattern which is quite widespread has actually been put to some test by an old friend, Dinesh Rao and his colleagues. Some of the earlier studies on the Tephritids with experiments involving wing transplantation suggests that the behavioural part is vital and that this seems to be specifically to avoid predation by Salticids. It seems like much more work is needed and we may well find many more cases of Salticid mimicry. But why only Salticids, is it because they are the most active on vegetation? And then we have some Salticids themselves being mimics of ants.
Brenthia sp. (from Rota & Wagner, 2006)

Here are some more suspects - (another moth) (Amphientomidae, Psocoptera)

See also the excellent and interesting videos on
Rear end of Amycle sp. (from Zolnerowich 1992)

PS:  Have just examined the history and it seems that Tom Eisner was the first to suggest spider mimicry in Zonosemata.

Many other "microlepidoptera" have the habit of raising or waving their hindlegs. Given that salticids are considered masters of taking indirect routes to their prey, it seems like waving legs from the blind hind end might have a benefit not unlike that of the false heads of lycaenids. Perhaps salticids choose to circumvent this false head and come into the visible zone of the potential prey's zone of vision, thereby making them less liable to fall prey.


Dinesh Rao for pointing out the work he is doing and allowing me to post without fear of sounding like a complete crank.

A salticid peers from the cover of a fern (Wynaad)