Thursday, December 29, 2011

A pioneer of bird study in India

About twenty years ago, a time when the only reading was in print and good material hard to come by, my favourite place was the library at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. The racks near where I sat held almost the entire collection of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Until a few years ago, that library held the most accessible copies of that venerable Journal and researchers from around the world have benefited from photocopies sourced from there. It was only a few years back that the journal was digitized by a couple of volunteers who, like me, were fascinated by the contents. In more recent times, high quality scans from better libraries have become available online through the efforts of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The journal is a source not just for the fauna and flora of the Indian region, but  is also as an indicator of social and scientific change.

One of the many articles of interest that I had read in those years was a series on the birds of Coorg. The series was written by a certain F. N. Betts and his many writings made it very clear that he had spent a great deal of time in the region. His address indicated that he was one of the many British coffee planters, but his writings like those of many others in the Journal had little to reveal of the author. The BNHS had a tradition of including obituaries of their key contributors, but none had been written on Betts. When I earned my first salary, I invested it on becoming a life member of the BNHS. Unfortunately, by that time this ancient organization had moved rapidly into a new century, slipped on its way and had lost touch with its founding principles.
The newly wed Betts and Ursula Bower (Shillong 1945)
With the arrival of the Internet, and the loss of access to my favorite libraries, I often ended up searching on the Internet for material and one day I stumbled on a website (which does not exist today !). It was about a BBC radio play titled "The Butterfly Hunt"  and was based on the life of F. N. Betts. The story was that Betts, who had left the coffee plantations of Coorg to join the Army, had been enamoured by tales of a British anthropologist in Nagaland. American Pilots who bailed over the Hump  called her "The Jungle Queen" and the British called her "The Naga Queen!"  The Americans even had a comic strip cartoon based on her. Betts had decided that she was the kind of woman he could marry and had decided to visit her under the pretext of collecting butterflies. Reaching there and spending some time led to him proposing to her and they got married. The website revealed in its last line that the then BBC correspondent  in India, Mark Tully, was a nephew of Betts. With the help of some friends, I found the email address of Sir Mark Tully and rather tremulously sent an email asking  him for any information on his uncle. To my great surprise, he wrote back to say that the best person to contact was his cousin, Betts' daughter Catriona, who lived right in New Delhi! Catriona responded prompty to my next email and expressed surprise.  Few had asked her about her father, least of all about his ornithology, as most people wanted to know more about her mother who was decidedly famous. Ursula Bower, the Naga Queen, was a recipient of the Lawrence Memorial Medal instituted in the memory of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) and given for achievements in exploration  and research.  She led a guerrila unit in Nagaland, wrote several books and had been made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

In February 2010, Catriona found time to make a visit to Coorg to trace her father's life. I joined her from Bangalore and we managed to visit some of the places where he lived and met others in the region who would find interest in his life and work. This was made possible by old friends who helped organize meetings at the the Coorg Wildlife Society premises in Madikeri and at the Forestry College at Ponnampet.
Lt. Col. F. N. Betts (1906-1973)

Frederick Nicholson Betts ("Tim") was born in 1906 near Launceston. Although interested in zoology he was forced to find work and decided at the age of 17 to work at a tea plantation in Ceylon. He then moved to coffee planting in the Nilgiris. In 1939 he was on holiday in Norway when the war began and on returning to India, he volunteered with the Army and was posted in Abyssinia with the 2nd Punjab Regiment. He was injured at Keren and was later posted back in India. He was active during the Hur uprising in Sindh and when Assam was threatened by Japan he was moved into a group that was involved in getting south Indian workers into Assam for road work. He was posted into this duty because of his knowledge of south Indian languages (he apparently knew six, which presumably could have been Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and perhaps Kodava Tak, Tulu and Konkani or Telugu?). He did not enjoy this work and when he heard about a new unit called the V Force he moved to it. In March 1944 he was in the Chindwin area working with V Force Scouts, but this group had many Kukis who rebelled and defected to join the Japanese forces. An unpublished diary that he maintained during early 1944 after a long march  through Japanese lines has numerous interesting bits on birds, butterflies and how he found things to eat such as Bauhinia flowers. 
With binoculars in Arunachal Pradesh
A few entries from this diary:

14 April
Thundery and wet in the morning. Found Corbett is a very enthusiastic butterfly hunter and keen too on birds which is great fun. We had a lot of yarns to swap. I hope my heavy kit hasn't gone with all my war diaries and photos and films and papers written for the BNHS. He has gone in a lot for caterpillar breeding, which is about a virgin field with most of these tropical butterflies.

21 April
...Corbett got his kit with a very fine book of Ceylon Butterflies and a number of BNHS Journals. It made me horribly homesick. ...

23 April
Went into Gauhati ...One would'nt know there was a war on here. Went along to Malabar Camp and saw X and got ISLU news. MacClellan is away but babington is here now. Walker is giving up the CLLO job and going back to tote. Went along to see Babington. He has aged a good deal. He seems to have had a good war and done very well Being pulled out for ISLU from being DAAG Bangalore, much to his disgust. He had very little news of Coorg people but thinks Fred Foster is dead. I hope he is wrong.

24 April
Went into Gauhati again ... Rumour has it that the whole Dimpaur/Imphal road now open. Three mynahs here, Pied, Jungle and Common. The vultures in Gauhati town seem to have finished breeding.

8 May
In the jungle in the morning. Found Bronzed Drongo and Black-naped Flycatcher building. Saw a broken egg, apparently a Shortwing plain brown. Lots of butterflies. Kallima, no Parthenos here. Rang up Col. Binny and got permission to send Bridges and Whitaker on leave. Tibbetts to go off to protect Miss Bower the anthropologist. That's a job I should have liked. She sounds as if she might do me quite well for a wife if I could make contact. ...

9th May
...Was in the jungle morn and eve. Heard a jungle cock crowing and managed to call him up by the old handkerchief flapping trick. Saw Necklaced Laughing Thrush, Red-winged, Crested and Drongo cuckoos ...

21 May
... Ruther has pinched another jeep. Went up to Piphema to see him and try and find out what if anything was happening. As far as I can see 2 V Ops is dead. ... Went down to see Toby in the evening. Grans meeting him again. Barbara off to a WAC (I) OCTU in Simla. Bull is trying to get Walker back. Report of Ford's death believed false, thank goodness. Owen Tipping in England on sick leave from Italy.
You can find a bit more on his life on the Wikipedia article here.

A group taken after a cricket match in Mercara
circa 1932 containing L to R: WAF Bracken,
Mrs Cunningham, JJ Cheesley, Owen Tipping,
RB Cunningham and FN Betts

Based on the addresses indicated by Betts in his JBNHS notes, we decided to visit two of the estates where he worked- Yemmegundi and Coovercully. Both these estates are today under the management of Tata Coffee and a lot of the old heritage appears to be untraceable. We discovered a photograph of him in the collections of Mr K P Uthappa of Pollibetta. While the estates did not yield much information on the life of F N Betts in particular, it did give us an idea of how life might have been in those days.

Kalbane bungalow (Yemmegundi). Shoe scraper (inset)
A steel safe at Coovercully estate reminds one of a time when large amounts of money had to be held when access to banks was limited. At another estate one is reminded of a time when one would come back from work and scrape the mud off their shoe before stepping in. A time when electricity, cars and telephony were not taken for granted.

The ornithological contributions of Betts have been mentioned several times in literature. Just as I left Bangalore for Coorg, I discovered a 1982 issue of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers  ( 22(11&12):2-4 ) with an editorial note by Zafar Futehally which quotes Salim Ali, here included in its entirety.

A Visit to Coorg
I had the good fortune of attending a meeting of the recently formed Coorg Wildlife Society at Mercara. The Society mainly consists of planters who have a great deal of knowledge of natural processes - the relationship for example, between vegetation and the water regime, and they might well form a Task Force for producing an Ecological Plan for Coorg. Mrs V. Rama Rao the District Commissioner, as well as Mr. Yellappa Reddy, Conservator of Forests seem to be the kind of civil servants who will encourage the rehabilitation of this wonderful area.

I was taken to Coorg through the kindness of Mr. Harish Chittiappa, and when I stepped out of his house in the morning, within a few minutes I could see a golden-backed woodpecker, white-breasted kingfisher, black headed munias, a shikra, jungle mynas, spotted doves, red whiskered bulbul, red-vented bulbul, magpie robins, a white-breasted waterhen. In view of the splendid bird life of Coorg, I had suggested to the Coorg Wildlife Society that they could not do better than reprint in the form of a brochure the two articles by F.N.Betts on the birds of Coorg, which were published in the Journal of the BNHS in 1951. This they have agreed to do. Dr. Salim Ali was requested to write a foreword and I have his permission to reproduce this here. Betts has the capacity to make the sort of perceptive comments about the habits and movements of birds which makes his writing so fascinating and instructive. Here is Salim Ali's foreword:
A steel safe (Coovercully)
I consider it a capital idea of the Coorg Wildlife Society to bring out in booklet form the excellent articles by F. N. Betts on The Birds of Coorg originally published in two parts in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1951. It will thus become available not only to its own members but also to the growing band of keen bird watchers that has emerged in South India, and serve as an authentic bench-mark for future observations. The pace of our so-called 'Development' has accelerated to hectic proportions since the end of World War II, and particularly since our Independence in 1947. In the process the natural environment has become drastically transformed, and some areas have been rendered almost unrecognizable even by those who were intimately familiar with them no more than twenty years ago. Forests everywhere have been ruthlessly devastated through the short-sighted stupidity of State Governments or to make way for often dubious hydel or other projects or industrial complexes or for settlement of refugees and repatriates from other parts of the world.
With the forests has gone the wildlife which was once the glory of those forests as I remember them in Mysore from the time of my bird survey in 1939/40. However, Coorg, and Karnataka as a whole, are fortunate to have such authoritative first-hand records as Betts' paper and the report of the Mysore Ornithological Survey against which to measure the ravages that have been wrought in the intervening years and their impact on the biota. It is to be hoped that in course of time the Coorg Wildlife Society will also be able to provide a similar record of the conditions obtaining today for a comparison with what they will be say twenty years hence, in this inevitable march of 'Progress'.
Bird watchers of the present generation, especially those in Coorg, may be interested to know something about the author who was an esteemed friend and colleague of mine and an exceptionally keen and knowledgeable field naturalist. In the years up to World War II, Betts was a young British coffee planter who had started his professional as well as Indian bird watching career in the Nilgiris, I believe, and made a very useful contribution to our knowledge of the birdlife of those hills. By the time I first came to know him personally he had shifted to Coorg and was Manager of a coffee estate at (or near) Hebbale while I was working that area during Mysore survey. He was an ardent Zoologist and had made an excellent collection of eggs and notes on Mysore birds -especially of Coorg- adding significantly to what was known about the breeding biology of many uncommon species. Soon after the outbreak of the 1939 war Betts left coffee and volunteered for the army. He was on active service in various capacities in the Assam sector till the fighting with Japan ended, rising to become a Colonel in the process. There had been a belated realization on the part of the British Indian Government only when the Japanese invasion of Burma had brought the war to the frontiers of Assam that India's eastern borders were vulnerable. They had then set up in haste the N E Frontier Agency in order to fill the political and administrative vacuum between Assam and Tibet that had been allowed to drift. Betts was appointed Political Officer for one of the several tracts into which this hitherto no man's land was divided. He was in charge of Subansiri (earlier Balipara) Frontier Tract where he made friends with the Apa Tani, Dafla, Abor and other reportedly wild and ferocious tribes, and did much for their social uplift and economic and administrative betterment. At the same time he made the best of his opportunities to study the avifauna and collected valuable information from the tribals concerning these, till then, ornithologically virgin areas. At some point during his service as a Political officer, Betts seems to have fallen in love with a young British woman anthropologist, Ursula Bowers, who had been working for some time among the Nagas studying their local tribes (some of them as yet practising headhunters!). By her tact and friendliness she had won their trust and confidence to such an extent that she had come to be known among her British compatriots by the honorific of the 'Naga Queen'. An understandable romance developed which soon culminated in marriage! After Independence in 1947, when the services were nationalized, Col. and Mrs. Betts returned to the UK where he settled down to farming in the Isle of Mull (Scotland). Many of his meticulous notes relating to the birds of Coorg and N E Frontier Agency (NEFA), as Arunachal Pradesh was then called, he was good enough to offer to me and Dr. Ripley when our Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan was under preparation. They have proved of inestimable value in filling some of the gaps in our knowledge, particularly concerning the latter area. [Salim Ali]

Ornithological evolution

One of Betts' earliest publications in the JBNHS is about the Brown Shrike (1929 33(3):714). He noted that Stuart Baker in the Fauna of British India (edition 2) had failed to include southern India in its distribution and commented that it was a common  winter visitor in Coorg. The editors of the BNHS responded to it and commented that it was indeed an oversight. Looking at this further it turns out that the first edition of the Fauna of British India continues to have bits that are not found in almost all other subsequent works. It continues for instance to have the best feather colouration details and there is still an occasion when one needs to look it up. These presumably trivial details (at least from a bird spotting/ticking perspective) are often dropped in later syntheses and is something one notices especially when researching or reviewing the literature on species  (something that I often do when attempting to improve Wikipedia entries).

In the subsequent years in the Nilgiris, Betts seems to have kept a careful record of the arrival dates of migrants. In 1937 he wrote  the Bird life on a southern Indian tank ( JBNHS. 39(3):594-602) which is a very readable word picture of life around a wetland near Mysore. One of his favourite birding areas there  was Palahalli and is perhaps what is today Ranganathittu bird sanctuary. The editors of the JBNHS made a special comment on it: "Mr F. N. Betts contributed a well illustrated paper on the Birds of a South Indian Tank in the Province of Coorg. Ecological notes of this description covering bird life in relation to a particular environment deserve encouragement and indicate a line of study which might with advantage be followed by others in the country."
By 1936 Betts notes that there are great differences in the timing of breeding of birds (particularly waterbirds). Like ornithologists before him, he attempted to collate information from others to cover a larger geographic area. He sought information on  heronries and was particularly interested in the seasons in which the birds bred. 

He continued to write about the birds of Coorg and some of the interesting observations made by Betts include notes on the behaviour of Jerdon's Baza and on the construction of dormitory nests by Dark-fronted Babblers.

In 1938 he made a trip to the Lakshadweep Islands on a boat from Mangalore and noted the breeding of Sooty Terns. Around this time, he also compared the bird life of the dry and wet zones of Coorg.

After his move to the north east he wrote about the birds of Assam comparing the composition of various groups (or guilds) with expectations from a comparable south Indian habitat.

It seems like his search for patterns began after he moved to Kenya. In his 1952 paper on "The breeding seasons of birds in the hills of South India", published in the Ibis, he thanks Reginald Moreau. Now Moreau, it turns out was an important player in the history of ornithology. An accountant by profession, he began to use numbers to look for patterns. Working in Africa, he recruited local assistants to help him look for bird nests and to count eggs and survival of chicks. From this data he was able to suggest that comparable bird species had larger clutches in the higher latitudes than in the tropics. He was an editor of the Ibis from 1946 to 1960 and was among the pioneers (or rebels!) who transformed the Ibis from a systematics and taxonomy oriented journal into one that increasingly focused on ecological aspects of bird life. The exact nature of Betts' association with Moreau is not clear but in the Ibis paper, he notes that the birds of the hills of southern India have distinct breeding seasons - and that given the absence of any major day-light duration are largely limited to specific breeding periods by the rains. He then attempts to look at how the rains limit the breeding of birds and how different groups of birds breed before the rains (raptors, woodpeckers), during them (thrushes, rails and grebes) or  in the driest periods ( larger water birds - storks etc.) and correlates them with food availability. He notes his inability to find large scale geographic data but suggests that the breeding dates for the same birds may differ by as much as month between the wet and the dry zone. In 1966 he published a paper on the breeding of the birds of Kenya in which he finds a similar pattern entirely associated with rainfall.

Very little has since been studied on the effects of the monsoon on breeding seasonality in India and perhaps the only recent work on this was an analysis of secondary data [Pramod Padmanabhan and Yoram Yom-Tov (2000) Breeding season and clutch size of Indian passerines. Ibis 142(1):75-81] derived from the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. The timing of breeding in this work however mixes information from all parts of the country and does not take geographic variation into account. This is a problem even with the morphometrics data contained in it and even basic information on clinal variation is often lacking.

Given the interest in climate change, the theme of Betts'  key research is still alive and much remains to be studied. The evolution of Betts' research from stray reports of species from around his residence to larger collations of data  followed by the quest for underlying patterns is perhaps something that is reflected in the lives of most naturalists and in the nature of ornithology itself.

Coorg Wildlife Society did not publish Betts' notes as suggested by Salim Ali in 1982. If anyone is interested in any of Betts' publications, please contact me and I will be happy to email a PDF copy.

Roshan, Shyamal, Caroline, Gayathri and Catriona (2010)

The black and white photographs of F N Betts are reproduced here through the courtesy of Catriona Betts. The 1932 photograph of the Coorg planters group is from the collection of Mr K P Uthappa, who kindly showed us his collection of photographs from the past. Thanks are due to Roshan Somaya, Gayathri and  family for hospitality and all the help in making this attempt to trace Betts' life in Coorg possible. Managers Machaiah and Rajeev at Coovercully and Yemmegundi respectively for their kindness. and help. Many thanks are due to members of the Coorg Wildlife Society for finding time during  the busy coffee harvest season. The secretary of Coorg Wildlife Society, Tarun Cariappa for the organization of  the meet at Madikeri. Professor C G Kushalappa at the Forestry College in Ponnampet for help in organizing both the Madikeri and Ponnampet meets in February 2010. Thanks also to Dr S V Narasimhan and KN Changappa for their support.

Further links
In August 2014 I visited the library of the Natural History Museum at London and examined some of the correspondence of Betts and it turns out that Norman Boyd Kinnear had been in correspondence on the matter of collecting in the Dafla hills. He mentions meeting Betts along with the late Hugh Whistler (Letter 29 June 1946). Betts' correspondence with Moreau is untraceable at the Edward Grey Institute Library (per Sophie Wilcox, email 11 April 2014).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Trichinopoly talc

Some months ago, I needed to look at an old work on Indian birds - Illustrations of Indian Ornithology printed in 1847 at Madras. It was privately published by Dr Thomas Caverhill Jerdon who is most famously associated with Jerdon's Courser. Being privately published meant that very few copies of the book were printed. If any are left in Indian collections, they are most likely in a bad state if not vandalized and sold off to collectors and in any case these are inaccessible to ordinary citizens interested in researching them. This work included paintings made by Indian artists. In An Indian Olio (1888), Lt-Gen. E F Burton (page 61)  mentions that Jerdon hired native artists at Trichinopoly and taught them to produce natural history illustrations. These artists traditionally painted on talc (actually mica which came from Bihar and Bengal) and rice paper, making portraits of local chiefs and royalty. For samples of these mica paintings from Trichinopoly see here and here. The author noted further that :
Under Dr. Jerdon's teaching these people became apt in faithful and laborious representations of the feathered tribes, and attained a really high pitch of excellence. With true Hindoo patience, every feather - nay, every vane and cirrus of each feather - was separately and truly shown; the pictured bird was a laboured and exact presentment of the bird itself. These were painted on rice paper or on sheets of talc.
These comments made me want to see these paintings badly. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is an incredible project. In spite of being an enormous project, they have a place to make requests and I made one. A few days ago, I noticed that the Library had scanned this work and it was all suddenly accessible. Some of the plates are signed by C V Kistnarajoo while several others appear to have been redone in London. Jerdon however noted that all the originals were made by "natives".

Among these interesting paintings is one of the Grey-headed Bulbul and is captioned as "Brachypus parvicephalus" - a spelling that does not even seem to be noted in major avifaunal synopses. This could however be an error of the artist (a certain Leonard) as the text uses "poioicephalus". Interestingly a French work from around the same time - the voyage of the Bonita - described the species under the name of Ixos fisquetti, again not finding mention in any taxonomic work. Burton's description of the paintings needs to be interpreted on the basis of the styles of the time and the technology used for printing. These pictures, at least the lithographs, are not very spectacular by modern standards or even by the later standards set by Keulemans, Smit and Wolf. But I am impressed by how well the shades of blue have been retained since 1847. The images shown here are digitally enhanced and include white level corrections and increased contrast.

My choice for the best of Kistnarajoo's work would be for the Blue-winged Parakeet Psittacula columboides - which makes use of a range of blue shades.

One of the species that Jerdon described was once common in Bangalore. Its identity had however troubled many of us in the past. It is now known as Mirafra affinis - only recently reinstated as a full species (formerly as Mirafra assamica affinis) and known as Jerdon's Bushlark. A recent trip to Pune courtesy of Colonel Ashwin Baindur allowed me to see what was I think was a proper Mirafra erythroptera - at least it was quite distinctly different in call and appearance from the commonest bushlark in Bangalore. Jerdon's notes in his Illustrations state that the two are entirely distinguishable from the shape and dimensions of the beak. Jerdon also seems to have guessed the southern boundary of M. erythroptera quite accurately.

Publishing these works probably contributed to Jerdon being pushed into debt and it is said that he died insolvent. We however owe a debt to Jerdon for all these works. He was instrumental in rallying, along with big names like Darwin and Hooker, for the project that produced the Fauna of British India - a work that continues to be indispensable even today. Jerdon was also a part of the scholarly group that brought in ideas of conservation leading to the establishment of the forest department in India. His role was noted in a widely cited article (Grove, Richard H. (1992). “The Origins of Western Environmentalism,” Scientific American 267(1, July), 42-47) which included a photograph of Jerdon and others taken by Samuel Bourne. Jerdon has not been forgotten yet, and there has just been a publication of an interesting piece of detective work on that same photograph to determine the identities of the people in it - Notie, HJ (2011) A botanical group in Lahore, 1864. Archives of natural history. 38(2):267-277.

White-cheeked Barbet

Pink-headed Duck

White-winged Tit

For more images see Wikimedia Commons.


Many years ago, I came across a handwritten manuscript called the "Lepidoptera of Kanara" written by a certain Samuel Neville Ward. I also knew of Jerdon's name for the Pied Thrush (Zoothera wardii) (more info on the Wikipedia link) which he named after a S. N. Ward of the Madras Civil Service. And this year (2012) I happened to notice a memorial at the entrance of the St. Stephen's Church at Ootacamund to the son of this S. N. Ward! Apparently S. N. Ward was a magistrate at Sirsi and he presented his illustrations of lepidopteran caterpillars on their host plants to the NHM.

Memorial for S N Ward's son
Zoothera wardii drawn by S. N. Ward
S. N. Ward has been said to have been born in 1813 and died 1897. A news report - Morning Post 23 July 1887 notes the death of Mary Catherine on the 16th at Clive Dale, Steyning, wife of S. N. Ward, late of the Madras Civil Service.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I recently joined a bunch of bird-photographers and birdwatchers who decided to hire a fishing boat out to sea to watch seabirds. The result was that we, at least I, got to see among others our first view of one of the world's most abundant birds - Wilson's Storm Petrel (some amazing photographs on the Wikipedia article contributed there by Nanda Ramesh) The bird books for the Indian region seem to be completely off mark with information on the sea birds. It seems like a number of birds that are considered extremely rare are actually quite common at least seasonally. The problem of course is that the vast majority that are interested in birds are employed in the cities and are trying to learn more by making a trip here and there, now and then, while the ones who can be doing that best in those locations, the fishermen, have never been recruited into this business of knowing-science.

Unidentified Scotophilus
Anyway, it was a great experience being in the open with a 360 degree unobstructed view of the horizon, silence, colourful sunrise and sunset; and various sea denizens. Masses of pulsating jellyfish, the beauty of which could not be captured easily (I am not sure if there is any aquarium in India that displays their beauty like they do at the Monterey Bay aquarium), many sea snakes (mainly in the evening), and several sea birds. The gulls, terns and skuas all sat on floating debris allowing photographs that are truly sharp and detailed but anathema to photography purists. There were some lepidoptera flying in to the Indian peninsula from the West - some looked a bit like Melanitis and there were moths, a lacewing and several other insects such as the Pantala dragonflies flying about. Far out at sea at dawn, a Scotophilus bat flew from the west and finding some terra firma ("the more the firmer, the less the terror") in the form of our boat seemed to desperately look for a quiet corner where it went to sleep. It could have gone out on a large ship and then taken off to be lost at sea or who knows, in migration. It just seems like there is so much that nobody has ever bothered to learn about. There are of course heavily funded government departments and the ZSI who for sure run expeditions out here but what they learn or the quality of their work is not easy to discover unless someone is willing to go to court and spend time trying to straighten out governance, justice and all else. Anyway, I suspect that one could easily learn a lot more for a lot less if someone started a scheme to provide old digital cameras to some selected curious-minded fisherfolk to document what they see.

What a tern can use
By some coincidence, I happened to read a semi-autobiographical account of Curtis Ebbesmeyer, titled Flotsametrics: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science (2009). A captivating book that one can especially appreciate if one saw Nandini milk sachets way out in the Arabian Sea. It deals with the study of ocean currents and the methods involved. A historical bit talks about the tracks taken by wooden objects dropped by Icelandic Vikings in a ancient tradition to establish the locations of their settlements. Ebbesmeyer worked on how the sea retained little patches of water without mixing and that included sewage from American coastal cities that would upwell far out at sea and apparently a lot of these phenomena had military applications and oceanography appears to have been well funded during the Cold War. Certain underwater density anomalies could apparently obscure sonars. The circular routes of certain currents results in some parts of the ocean becoming garbage patches for floating debris. Ebbesmeyer notes that the major garbage patches are in the centres of about eight of the eleven distinct gyres.

Dead Olive Ridley with signs of propeller damage
Ebbesmeyer also writes about his Japanese colleague Akira Okubo who applied mathematics to oceanic phenomena and then moved onto what started as a hobby study on the ecology of squirrel competition, something that resulted in a book on the application of the principles of diffusion in ecology (a new edition of the book should give some impression of its impact). It seems like such theoreticians tend to be little known and their work not easily grasped or appreciated. One of Akira's works was on the oceanic Halobates or sea striders - a relative of the water striders and one of the few insects that lives on the sea, a world where crustacea are more at home. I hope someone looks out for Halobates, one species of which is known from the Indian Ocean. A mitochondrial DNA based study on phylogeography notes that there is considerable isolation of gene flow inspite of the continuity of oceanic waters and the suggestion in Akira's paper that there would be considerable gene flow. Some petrel species feed on these sea striders.

A lot has been written about the Great Pacific Garbage patch, but there seems to be little done about what happens around India. What is the effect of effluents into the seas? We know how our rivers have been destroyed and one just hopes that the seas are managing our onslaught better.

On a different note, I was wondering about the advantages to seabirds using polystyrene perches. They appeared to prefer them. Perhaps there is an energy saving by choosing to stay dry. Strangely there appears to be little published on the topic (unless I have not got the right keywords for Google Scholar).

Young Heuglin's Gull (?) here panting in the heat

Polystyrene, not getting wet could help save energy

A pair of Wilson's Storm Petrels working over a patch of sea.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making kitchen scrap fly

I have recently been watching some very interesting films. One was Waste Land ( which covers the artistic work of Vik Muniz done in collaboration with the recyclers who work on a landfill in Rio de Janeiro and another was No Impact Man. Both are well worth watching. In our home we started composting about a couple of years ago. We just handle it in two large concrete pots with lids to keep away rats. It works very well and it is probably the biodiversity hotspot within our home. There are so many critters living off this resource.

Yesterday, I was watching the soldier flies (Hermetia sp.) emerging and some of them were laying eggs. I was mainly admiring the beautiful patterns in their eyes.
Soldier fly Hermetia sp.
The eye up close
It such a joy to see the biomass from the kitchen being converted into these insects. I was however quite surprised that many people see this as a problem. Some university extension sites even have guidelines on how to deal with them.

If one can afford to have the composting done outdoors, one should perhaps really be aiming to produce more flies.

PS: The images are taken with the Panasonic FZ100 with the Raynox DCR 250 magnifier which now makes the new camera compete with my old 3.2 Megapixel CoolPix. Thanks greatly to Ullas for importing the DCR-250 lens.

In case you want to start composting - there is an excellent introduction (and no, you do not need African earthworms)  here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Weatherwise and otherwise

The climate science debate seems to have cooled off but it has raised various questions on data and its accessibility. Apparently most weather data has not been digitized and in some countries in Africa and South America, data has been gathered only since the mid 20th century. India has been extremely fortunate that data collection began early with a large network of stations. It is however extremely unfortunate that this legacy of data has effectively been made useless by bureacratic procedures and a lack of a public-domain release policy on data.

One project however seems to have made good with whatever has been available and made extrapolations to fill up blanks and smoothen any bumps. WorldClim  - has made these layers available and hordes of researchers who have no better data to use make use of it.

After a day of downloading various layers for four-tiles that India straddles and merging them and formatting them, I found that it is quite educative to see how the bigger picture of temperature and precipitation looks. Here are four animated PNGs showing temperature and precipitation parameters in the region (Firefox and Chrome apparently support APNG, in case you see a static picture - its time to change your browser)
Monthly minimum temperatures

Monthly maximum temperatures
Monthly mean temperatures

Monthly precipitation

If governments could liberate satellite remote-sensing, weather and demographic/health (without personal information) data, the results could be so useful and revealing to everyone.

Worth reading
Post script
There is a bit of a lie effect in the rainfall map. The colouring scheme and bin choice makes it look like the South Asian region is a green paradise. Here is another with a slightly altered binning and colouring scheme which emphasises the drier parts.

Monthly precipitation (version 2)

Lie factor - a term introduced by Edward Tufte - More on this here, and a result of looking for the link got me to sit and read an interview with Tufte which like his books is just as interesting.

Also NASA has a number of data layer at a lower resolution. Here is a rendering of Relative Humidity using their data. You can find a number of nice animations out there as well.
Relative Humidity (%)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ant-mimic spiders

There seem to be quite a number of this around my place. Yesterday I spotted one with what appeared to be prey and looks like an ant queen (or drone?).

An online survey of literature indicates that they do not normally feed on ants!

My Nikon Coolpix E3700 (3.2 Megapixel) produces a sharper image than a Panasonic FZ100 (14 Megapixel) - but then the subject does not fill the screen in the new camera even at the macro setting and seems to need an extra lens to really utilize the sensor size.

PS: 2013-04-12 A Tetraponera look-alike - FZ100 Lumix with Raynox DCR 250

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tax-payer funded science in India

Taking a day off from work, I went to a vision brainstorming meeting of the ICAR called "Agricultural Entomology for the 21 Century: The way forward". A friend had jokingly commented the previous day that the "vision must be blurred when you see through compound eyes"!

First the good things. The event was rather austere for an ICAR meet where a Director General presided. The crude opulence seen at institutions in northern India, at least in the past, was thankfully absent. The DG himself was amazing in being a careful and knowledgeable listener, having a firm footing on the ground realities and most surprisingly appeared to abhorr what used to be termed by IARI students as "makkanbaazi" (literally meaning a butter-smearing contest) - prolonged sessions of overt and crude flattery accompanied by displays of subservience by lower rank employees towards their higher-ups- in a hierarchical system where favours  are often needed to hasten action and perhaps to avoid punitive actions. To an outsider, such displays were/are clear symptoms of inefficiency. The inaugural session included a number of rituals that could have very well been done away,  particularly given that these were supposed to be scientists.

The session I went to attend was on systematics and taxonomy in relation to agricultural research. There were several ideas, all excellent. One was about ensuring a system of storing voucher specimens associated with publications. So when there was a crop insect outbreak, anyone working on that issue would collect a few specimens and deposit them in a suitable repository and quote the accession number in their publications relating to that insect. This would allow for any corrections to be made in future in case there was a misidentification. This is all too common - apparently the widely mentioned predator Chrysoperla carnea which was bred for biological control was not actually C. carnea. Some other examples exist as well but perhaps none as famous as "Drosophila melanogaster" which for the millions of pages of research on it is not strictly a Drosophila.

A representative of the ZSI suggested that the ICAR could digitize their literature and specimens. Excellent idea but rather ironic given that the ZSI itself has little interest whatsoever in doing anything that noble. A few researcher friends of mine recently decided to attempt an experiment with the ZSI and requested, via the RTI Act, a list of the specimens of birds in their collection along with the basic label data and they promptly received a response saying that such data was either stored in very delicate and ageing paper registers or had already been published. This is of course not only contradictory to the spirit of the Right to Information Act but also contradictory to basic scientific conduct. Indeed, the ZSI has a very poor scientific record. Just a random sample - a recently named the Indian subspecies of the Ceylon Frogmouth, "roonwali", after a ZSI director (actually a lot of taxa are named after their directors - zoological makkanbaazi perhaps) has a typographical error in the title (Ceylone instead of Ceylon!). That is probably the very least of their errors, indeed taxonomists of various groups regularly sink new names produced by the ZSI and BSI into the obscure dumps of junior synonymy and invalid names. If certain changes by the ICZN to the definition of "publication" happen, publications made in in-house journals produced by the ZSI (and BSI) could well become invalid for lack of peer-review. It is extremely unfortunate that despite the lack of transparency, knowledge and training, the ZSI has been empowered by the government to do such high-risk activities as Environmental Impact Assesments. Unless the journals and process of functioning of such organizations is made readily visible (ie, not requiring the filing of RTI requests and to merely be told that "the information exists but we cannot provide it"), it is unlikely to gain any of the credibility that they possessed in their early years. I have tried similar experiments with the BNHS in the past and they too are quick to deny help despite appearing to be helpful on their website. The BNHS however is more of a private club, although they are funded by the MoEF - thus tax-payer funds are used to subsidise the printing of a journal for an elite group of subscribers. This kind of problem is avoided in the US by ensuring that federal works are released into public domain and not covered by copyright. Such a far-sighted view is not taken by the Indian Copyright Act.

At the meeting, one participant noted that there were incorrect reports being published by some agricultural researchers. It was suggested by another participant that the director of the institute would vouch for their accuracy. This was precisely the problem that voucher specimens aimed to avoid. Human error can occur even in the best of situations and to rely on hierarchical structures to ensure scientific accuracy can hardly be considered good policy making. In 1995 an Australian entomologist, C. A. M. Reid  (Australian Journal of Entomology 34(4):318-318 doi:10.1111/j.1440-6055.1995.tb01347.x) went so far as to go on record to say that Indian entomologists had earned a reputation for unreliability. The need for evidence to be made available has been a constant endeavour in various sciences and now such a case is even being made for governance. The idea of type specimens in systematics arose from such a need for evidence. Today that evidence also requires to be in the public domain, accessible to all and readily so. A central collection would need one or more curators. Unfortunately a bad curator can be as good as none at all and there are all kinds of historical stories of how curators prevented advance and tried to gain monopoly as experts. (For a story of Edward Blyth and British Museum curators, see Brandon-Jones, Christine (1996). "Charles Darwin and the repugnant curators". Annals of Science 53 (5): 501–510.)

The ICAR has apparently invested enormous funds (apparently 7 crores! and just for setting up the software and perhaps hardware - with no actual provision for long term maintenance) in what is called "Agropedia" a kind of Wikipedia like system. Apparently in all of the last year, this much-touted project received as few as 5000 hits. (Compare the average 4000 hits per month for the Wikipedia article on the Sarus Crane! Even something with the charisma of a cockroach Therea petiveriana - gets about 200 views a month.)  Now one must really ask, why can't the ICAR actually contribute to pre-existing systems? There is Wikipedia, but that requires that scientists do not contribute original research. Of course one could argue that no original research should be done on Agropedia either, assuming that it is a secondary or tertiary source. I am reminded here of the statement of Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside who noted that he as well as everyone was better off contributing to Wikipedia than his university site as more people went to Wikipedia. One would expect original research to be published in peer-reviewed journals. A more real problem with Wikipedia is that articles on it need to reflect a global picture rather than an India centric view, a synthesis that may be well outside the ability of ICAR scientists. The future for things like Agropedia appear to be bleak, especially given the situation of other similar experiments like Citizendium. By not understanding that copyright is automatic and not releasing material for reuse - unlike the USDA which being federally funded produces most material (that which is not generated by contractors) - the ICAR essentially prevents future enhancement and adaptation for local needs. If the ICAR actually decides to release all its content under a free creative commons license, it would be a valuable resource that could be reused and enriched by a range of volunteers outside of the system and with little cost by way of salaries. It would be enhanced and enriched by people who do not need salaries to motivate them. Additionally systems like Agropedia run the risk of vanishing due to poor backup policies and lack of long term funding. Copies of the data cannot be made either as they are copyrighted and such massive data losses was noted by another meeting participant who contributed to a biodiversity database run by NCL Pune. This lack of long term support in database infrastructures is very disturbing. Systems such as and Wikipedia put in so much thought about these aspects. The license itself is made so that even if the original organization cannot continue, the project can be taken over by others and continued. Indeed releasing under public domain rather than the copyrighted system is a major safeguard for long term survival.

Another event at this meeting was the release of a publication with cytochrome oxidase sequences of a series of insects that feed on cultivated crops. Now, it is certainly a major advance for an organization like the ICAR but it is unclear why they should adopt using paper to print a series of DNA sequences. There is nearly no practical use for this publication (even the selfish motive of increasing citations for the authors would not be achieved) in its printed form although the sequences are potentially usable as they have been added to a major international initiative - in this case .

If the ICAR really discussed things in the open there is a future for it and for Indians. A discussion in the open requires freedom and if that is suppressed, progress is prevented. It seems like I can comment on this since I have little to do with the ICAR, but can folks within the ICAR engage in debate and discussion over the Internet ? Perhaps they need to give it a try, and if they did, then Agropedia or some similar avatar of it may be feasible.

On a quieter note, some of us in the back-benches discussed entomology, and that resulted in my adding a new Wikipedia entry the next day, albeit a "stub" - Polyrhachis gracilior - and that did not cost too much!

Postscript: See this post How our heritage collections are managed by ZSI

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A change of diet

Cyperus alternifolius - a relative of the papyrus
A tiny egg is visible at 2 O'clock
The leaves are eaten and curled. Inside a curl was a pupa.
The adult emerges one morning at ten end of December
The wings are inflated and the skipper seeks a vertical surface
The vertical surface is what it likes

The Giant Red-eye (Gangara thyrsis) is a well known skipper that breeds on a range of palms. Strangely, it seems like one female decided to lay its eggs (December 2009) on Cyperus a member of the Cyperaceae, rather distant from the palms. I have kept a regular lookout for a repeat of this phenomenon and it has not happened and it seems like a case of accidental oviposition. The mistake however does not seem to have had an ill effect on the young.

Further reading

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ocelli in hindsight

Forest calotes sleeping
About a year ago I was musing over the spots on butterflies and most of it was about getting away from predators. On a recent visit to Rishi Valley, thanks to Dr Santharam, I spotted a female Calotes versicolor. Interestingly it had on the back of its head, two ocelli (false eyes, not to be confused with the functional simple eyes in insects). My impression was that this feature was more prominent in the Forest Calotes (C. rouxii).

Some years ago, I spotted the forest calotes on the right at night. I was not aware of the sleeping habit of these lizards until it was pointed out to by Saleem Hameed. They apparently always choose  the end of an overhanging tendril or branch which they clasp and roost. In the photograph of a roosting rouxii you can see the two eyespots on the back of the head.

A female C. versicolor, possibly gravid
The Rishi Valley Calotes appears to be a gravid female and has two ocelli. Perhaps I have not paid enough attention to this but the phenomenon of ocelli in more predatory species is apparently more widespread. It is also found a few falcons, hawks and owls. The white spots behind the ear of the tiger have also been pointed out as being similar.

Further reading

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Invaders on the tree trunk

Herennia with a male at left
Why did the fly fly
because the spider spied 'er

On a visit to the Kaveri riverside, I spotted this spider on the trunk of a Terminalia arjuna. It was only muxh later that I learnt about its identity. It seems to be Herennia possibly H. multipuncta. Like many successful creatures it has been termed as an "invasive", apparently because it has been found rather unexpectedly on many islands across Asia. It seemed rather odd, for I had never seen it before and one generally expects "invasives" to be more ubiquitous. Anyway, "invasives" appear to be one of those buzzwords invented by scientists to get funding behind their work and for a recent turn of events on the "science and politics" behind the term - do check out this essay. Anyway, the female of our spider is the large one with a strange disc with pores while the tiny orange one at the left is the male. It takes a while to realize that it is an orb-weaver and are in the same family as the Nephila wood spiders, the orb is actually placed close to the tree trunk in tight circle and presumably targets small bark living insects. The orb itself is constructed so that it does not touch the trunk, but this was not readily apparent. The male at the left appears to be unmated - as apparently those that mate, sever their pedipalps - blocking the female genital opening to ensure paternity. These eunuch males cannot mate again but continue to stay beside the females.
Further reading

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Prying levers

The levers three
each in turn in the centre be

A school mnemonic to remember the three orders of levers (with the fulcrum, weight and effort at the centre). 
Muscle schematic

In biological systems, the third order lever is the most often seen system. On a recent trip a friend of mine pointed out the foraging technique used by Asian Pied Starlings - they always pierced the soft soil and then were opening apart their bill to uncover prey. Some subsequent research showed that this prying or gaping action of starlings was well documented from an anatomical perspective but rarely recorded in behavioural studies. Another Indian bird that is well known for prying is the Hoopoe. All these birds have better developed muscles to open apart the bill. However some species have the lower mandible processes extending further back to give extra leverage.

It is a better known fact that birds can move their upper mandible, to a greater degree in some cases as in the skimmers and parrots.
Huia skulls

Lower mandible depressor muscles and the extended process at the back of the mandible are (were ?) particularly pronounced in the now extinct Huia. This bird had an extraordinary sexual dimorphism in the bill shape (although the bony parts are similar and the difference in length largely accounted for by the rhamphotheca). It appears that a downward curve is quite helpful when depressors are well developed. The Huia also had a cavity at the back of the skull to accomodate the muscles used to open apart the beak. Interestlingly a fossil bird with similar adaptations was described in 2005 by Gerald Mayr. Although the case of the Huia was never mentioned in that study, he notes that none of the skulls he examined (including that of the Pied Myna) had as long a process extending backward.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

The endless miles to read

Hidden away between the Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling is a lovely story titled "The Miracle of Puran Bhagat". Sir Purun Das KCIE however came to mind again while reading Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (1996), which I have just read many years after it was first published. A very impressive and moving work that everyone who thinks about themselves and the environment will appreciate. Economics and ecology, both words derived from the same roots (oikos for "home"), are remarkably disparate and the connections and disconnections resulting from mixing the two should make anyone think about the compromises we make. Even though few would be against conserving the environment, the debates of left versus right, top-down versus bottom-up are enough to suggest that the least contradictions are found in the anarcho-primitivist position. Unfortunately, it is a position that very few have managed to attempt living without getting into the situation of Chris McCandless or Theodore Kazynski. And it seems like one has to also read Tolstoy and Thoreau and so much more to understand the origins of the various viewpoints. It would be great if there was an accessible classification of the various philosophical underpinnings of conservation to make up for the rather superficial and misused blanket labels widely in use.
"When the first handful of Norwegians showed up on the shores of Iceland in the ninth century, the papar (Irish monks) decided the country had become too crowded-even though it was still all but uninhabited. The monk's response was to climb into their curraghs and row off towards Greenland. They were drawn across the storm-racked ocean, drawn west past the edge of the known world, by nothing more than a hunger of the spirit, a yearning of such queer intensity that it beggars the modern imagination." Into the Wild p. 97
"waiting for father" by R A Sterndale - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed. Sterndale's work was an inspiration for Kipling.

PS: It seems like this site lets me post notes but does not let me post responses to comments!