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 clichéd, 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)


Friday, November 8, 2013


A colourful term used by field biologists for a kind of mate-seeking behaviour that involves unmated males and females going up to the highest point in a locality and then competing and pairing up before dispersing. (this behaviour is thought to be restricted to insects although I know several mountaineering couples!) Apparently some of us had expanded the "hill-topping" entry on Wikipedia a few years ago but the real impact of that behaviour did not sink in until last week.

There is a wonderful line of hills somewhere between the two westbound highways going down from Mudigere and Sakleshpur in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, India that we decided to visit. More importantly it was accessible to researchers, unlike the national parks and sanctuaries in the neighbourhood. The forest here surrounds a towering hill with a rock that sticks out from lower hills covered in grass.

We climbed up the summit and were surprised by an enormous swarm (several thousands) of Tetraponera rufonigra (you can find some images here), all of them winged. It was so large and the numbers quickly got onto our bodies and faces that we were forced to descend back. I tried to tolerate them but had to swat one off leading to a sting that quickly swelled into a nice weal that took a couple of days to fully subside. We packed off a few specimens just to confirm identity and check whether we had any males. Getting back we checked with Dr Musthak Ali and he found that the few we collected to be only queens. We had hoped for some males, perhaps some more valiant observers will determine how males respond to these aggregations. It would seem that the usual emergence of breeders is in October-November, possibly after some rains.
Looking towards the western horizon - a matrix of tropical montane forest and grassland

Hill-topping behaviour is apparently very widespread and the definition of a hill can be as low as a small mound. In some countries the location of such sites are carefully avoided when roads are aligned or special wildlife crossings and other measures considered at such places. And talking of roads, there is a particularly well-done bit of road between Belur and Hassan. The road is uniformly wide and just right for two lines of traffic with well marked medians and edges and the shoulders are level with the roadside verge well covered by a tough species of grass. Overall this would seem like a great model for other roads, good enough and supporting a smooth flow of traffic without being too much of a hazard for people and wildlife around it. The quality of the road and the surroundings seems to induce calm driving behaviour.

The road between Belur and Hassan. Well marked and bordered. Accidental or by design?
Further reading

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Elephant Killer

I was looking for some Wikipedia articles tagged under the umbrella of WikiProject India - I was looking for poor quality articles to use in a little training exercise and of course there was no shortage there. Since the article list was alphabetically sorted, I espied the entry for Anaconda. Now why should that be related to India when the snake does not even occur outside of South America? Turns out that the word for the South American snake may have never been used in South America and that the word somehow emerged out of Sri Lanka. The material on the Wikipedia article was not entirely incorrect but the sources it cited were really poor quality and dubious and there was excessive emphasis on one theory - that the word anaconda was derived from the Tamil roots anai and kondra meaning "elephant killer". 

As always, a good researcher needs to find better sources and so a check for better sources for etymology and associated information led to a fairly interesting pursuit. The first port of call was that incredible and most entertaining piece of scholarship - the Hobson-Jobson and Henry Yule had practically sorted it all out in two and a half pages of in depth research but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to fish out the sources he used and found some others too.

Hobson Jobson entry

Entry from John Ray (1693)
Charles Owen (1742) An essay towards a natural history of serpents has this entry which expands on Ray and cites the source as D. Cleyerus (=Andreas Cleyer) which seems to be fairly good fit for the rock python (except for the length which might be based on stretched skins or imagination).
And The Dublin Penny Journal for 1834-5 has a long entry explaining the boa constrictor and anaconda.
Frank Wall, the herpetologist who worked in Sri Lanka, seems to be quite clear that the snake in question was a python. It would seem that somehow a really tiny little snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta - and that genus name is also derived from Sinhalese) known as Henakandaya in Sinhalese somehow got mixed up with tales of pythons which then grew into monstrous man-eaters in South America (and Hollywood).

Now there is a second tale here, the one that I really came here to tell, which is that one can research the Internet and find Wikipedia articles in quite a bad shape or worse, appearing to be in good shape and not being scholarly enough.  The right thing then is not to blame the medium but to use it to make things easier for future seekers/researchers. Part of that is to recognized bad sources and the other part is to fix it and I just did my bit for today.

PS: Have not been able to locate a scanned copy of Cleyer's note - (Cleyerus, Andreas 1683?/1684? De Serpente magno Indiae orientalis urobubalum deglutiente. Ephemer. curios. natur. Dec. 2, an. 2, p. 18)

"Boa Constrictor seizing a Government Messenger" by William Daniell  (1769-1837)