Archive for July, 2009

Vanishing Species – The Lynx

An article by Mohan Pai
The Eurasian Lynx
Lynx lynx isabellina

This cat appears in India only in the far north, bordering Tibet. Its recent records are only from Ladakh, where the species may not survive for long.
The Lynx, which occurs within our limits in the upper Indus valley, in Gilgit, Ladakh, and Tibet, is a race of the Lynx of northern Europe and Asia. It is distinctive in its pale sandy-grey or isabelline colouring, hence the racial name Isabellina.
The long erect tufts of hair on the tips of its ears distinguish the Lynx from other cats; From the carcal the Lynx is distinguished by its short tail reaching only half way to the hocks, and by distinct ruff or fringe of pendant hairs framing its face. In summer its coat shows a sprinkling of spots which may persist, but which usually disappear in the heavier winter coat.

Postage Stamp from the Soviet Union 1988

The Lynx shelters in the dense cover provided by willow scrub patches of reeds, and tall grass. It hunts such animals and birds as it can overcome, hares, marmots, partridges, pheasants, and takes its toll from flocks of sheep and goats. In summer it covers a wide range of altitude having been seen at levels between 9,000 (2,745 m) and 11,000 feet (3,355 m).
Its keen eyesight and hearing is proverbial. It is said to have 2-3 young, the mother usually hiding her litter in a cave or a hole among rocks. Half grown cubs have been seen in August.

Range map of the Lynx (IUCN)

It is a medium-sized cat. The Eurasian lynx is the biggest of the lynxes, ranging in length from 80 to 130 cm (32 to 51 in) and standing about 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder. Males usually weigh from 18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and females weigh 18.1 kg (40 lb) on average. The Eurasian lynx is mainly nocturnal and lives solitarily as an adult. Moreover, the sounds this lynx makes are very quiet and seldom heard, so the presence of the species in an area may go unnoticed for years. Remnants of prey or tracks on snow are usually observed long before the animal is seen.


While China and Russia had annual commercial exports of thousands of skins in the 1970s and 1980s, this trade has ended in recent years. However, illegal skin trade remains the leading threat to the species, together with habitat loss and prey base depletion.

References: S. H. Prater (The Book of Indian Mammals), Wikipedia, IUCN.


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Vanishing Species – Fireflies

An article by Mohan Pai


Fireflies, also called “glowworms” or “lightning bugs” are actually flying beetles and not true flies.
What are fireflies?
Fireflies are actually beetles! Fireflies are not really “flies” as entomologists know them, but are beetles in the family Lampyridae. “Flies” have one pair of wings (like houseflies) while all other winged insects have two pairs of wings, or, four wings altogether. In general, when the common names of insects contain the word “fly” as part of a one word common name such as firefly, dragonfly or scorpionfly, the insects are not true flies and belongs to another order of insects. When the word “fly” is hyphenated or follows the first word of an insect common name, it is most likely a true fly (and by definition, has only two wings.)
Lampyridae is a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged beetles, and commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous crepuscular use of bioluminescence to attract mates or prey. Fireflies are capable of producing a “cold light”, containing no ultraviolet or infrared rays. This chemically-produced light, emitted from the lower abdomen, may be yellow, green, or pale red in color, and has a wavelength from 510 to 670 nanometers.
There are more than 2,000 species of firefly found in temperate and tropical environments around the world. Many species can be found in marshes or in wet, wooded areas where their larvae have abundant sources of food. These larvae can also emit light and are often called “glowworms”, particularly in Eurasia. In the Americas, “glow worm” also refers to the related Phengodidae.

Japanese Firefly – pic courtesy: y. Furukawa
Why do fireflies glow ?
Light production in fireflies is due to a type of chemical reaction called bioluminescence. This process occurs in specialised light-emitting organs, usually on a firefly’s lower abdomen. The enzyme luciferase acts on luciferin, in the presence of magnesium ions, ATP (adenosene triphosphate), and oxygen to produce light.
The behavioral function of the larval light has received considerable speculation and several plausible theories have been proposed. However, the most generally accepted hypothesis is firefly larvae use their luminescence as a warning signal that communicates to potential predators that they taste bad because they have defensive chemicals in their bodies. These larvae also increase both the intensity and frequency of their glow when disturbed.
Not all firefly species are bioluminescent as adults, but of the species that are, one or both sexes use a species specific flash pattern to attract a member of the opposite sex . These bioluminescent signals can take the form of anything from a continuous glow, to discrete single flashes, to “flash-trains” composed of multi-pulsed flashes.
In most species of North American fireflies, during a certain time of night, males fly about flashing their species specific flash pattern. Females of the same species tend to be perched on vegetation, usually near the ground, and if a flashing male catches a female’s fancy, she will respond at a fixed time delay after the last male’s flash. A short flash dialogue may ensue between the male and female as the male locates her position and descends to mate. The courtship patterns of Japanese fireflies seem to show many variations of this type of communication system, as well as courtship behaviors that include pheromones as well as photic signals. It is generally assumed that most non-luminous North American fireflies locate mates through the use of pheromones.
Aspects of male flash patterns are also thought to be affected by sexual selection. Female fireflies have been shown to prefer certain characteristics of a male’s photic signal (such as increased flash rate) and respond preferentially to males that possess these “sexy” signal components.
Unidentified species from India, dorsal (left and ventral aspect).
Habitat and range
Most firefly larvae are found in rotting wood or other forest litter or on the edges of streams and ponds at night. Some Asian species are fully aquatic (due to the presence of tracheal gills) and live underwater, feeding on aquatic snails. The larvae of several tropical firefly species in the genus Pyractomena are strictly arboreal, feed on arboreal snails and pupate while hanging under living leaves – similar to a butterfly chrysalis.
Adult fireflies are found in the same general habitats as their larvae. Generally speaking, the highest number of firefly species are found in warm, humid areas of the world. Some species, however, are found in very arid regions of the world. In these arid regions, larvae and adults can be readily found following rains. The greatest number of firefly species (highest species diversity) are found in tropical Asia and Central and South America.
Natural history and behavior
Firefly Larvae are predaceous and have been observed feeding mostly on earthworms, snails and slugs. Larvae can detect a snail or slug slime trail, and follow it to the prey. After locating their future meal, they inject an anesthetic type substance through hollow ducts in the firefly’s mandibles into their prey in order to immobilize and eventually digest it. Multiple larvae have also been observed attacking large prey items, such as large earthworms. Other observations suggest larvae sometimes scavenge dead snails, worms and similar organic matter.
Adult Fireflies also have mouth parts suggestive of predation (long sickle-shaped mandibles). Although it is widely known that fireflies of a few species mimic the mates of other species in order to attract and devour them, observations of adults feeding on other prey items are practically non-existent. It is likely however, that adults might feed on plant nectar in order to sustain their energy requirements in the adult stage, which can last several months or longer.
Aggressive Mimicry
Aggressive mimicry is a phenomenon where one organism (a mimic) tricks another organism (the dupe) into thinking it is another (the model), with the result being a negative outcome for the dupe, as well as the model. In the case of aggressive mimicry in fireflies, mated females that belong to a few species in the genus Photuris mimic the female responses of other fireflies in the same area in order to attract males of the mimicked species. When these males are tricked (or duped) into landing near these mimics to mate, they are pounced upon and eaten! Recent evidence also suggests that these female mimics are not only acquiring food but also defensive chemicals from their prey, which they themselves do not produce in large quantities.
References: Wikipedia, Firefly facts.htm.
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Vanishing Species – The Blue Whale

An article by Mohan Pai

The Blue Whale
Balaenoptera musculus

Critically endangered Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, almost as big as Boeing 737 and even larger than the biggest dinosaurs.

 With lengths up to 100 feet (30 m) and weights up to 150 tons (136 metric tons), the blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived on this planet. An average individual is 70 feet (21 m) long and weighs 100 tons (90 metric tons). The female, which is larger than the male, gives birth to a calf that averages 25 feet in length and weighs about 2 tons. The calf drinks about 106 gallons of milk every day. An average adult has almost 2,500 gallons of blood and burns up to 3 million calories a day. Its heart weighs more than a ton and the tongue alone weighs about 2 tons! Linnaeus must have had his tongue in his cheek when he gave this species the Latin name “musculus,” which means “little mouse.”As the common name indicates, the upper parts of the body are mottled blue-gray. The undersides are whitish or light yellow. This whale has a relatively small dorsal fin and black baleen plates. The straight, column-like water spout can reach 20 feet into the air. Speeds of up to 23 miles per hour (20 knots) have been recorded for the blue whale.
 For many, many years ancient sailors had rare encounters with these gigantic ocean mammals and were terrified by their overwhelming size and powerful tails. You can understand a little of the fear and trepidation they might have felt upon seeing these huge, mysterious creatures for the first time. Today we know them to be virtually harmless to humans and that they have quite a bit in common with us – they, too are warm-blooded mammals that must breathe air. They are highly social animals with complex languages and intelligence. Most importantly, they are not monsters at all, but gentle giants we have come to respect, admire and protect.
Size comparison against an average human
Blue whales diet consists mainly of krill, a tiny shrimp that lives in tremendously large schools in almost every ocean of the world. Krill is probably one of the most plentiful food species (outside of insects) anywhere on earth. It’s got to keep up with the blue whale’s big appetite. A big blue can eat over a thousand krill at one time swallowing them with a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant! Blue whales eat the krill using a special type of filter on their mouths called a baleen. By gulping enormous amounts of sea water containing the live krill the blue whale closes its mouth and flushes the sea water back out through the filter leaving the krill behind for it to swallow. Small fish and plankton are also favorite food items of the whale. It takes about 8,000 lbs/3600kg of fresh seafood a day to keep the blue whale well fed.
Probably the most spectacular thing about blue whales that’s bigger than big is the sounds they make. Scientists have measured the low-frequency (deep rumbling) sounds they make when they communicate with each other by using a decibel meter. Some of their vocalisations have been recorded as loud as 188 decibels and can be heard as far as 530 mi/848km away. To give you an idea of just how loud 188 decibels is a commercial jet taking off makes a sound of 120 decibels. That makes whales, by far, the loudest living thing anywhere on earth!
Found in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian Oceans, with a range that extends from the periphery of drift-ice in polar seas to the tropics . Three main populations persist: one in the southern hemisphere, one in the North Pacific and one in the North Atlantic ).
In India, the Blue Whales have been washed ashore in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
Red area indicates the range of the Blue Whale

Life History

Blue whales migrate several thousand miles to wintering grounds and fast for the duration of their stay; the fat on their body is enough to see them through the whole winter. The mating season occurs for 5 months over the winter. A single calf is born after a gestation period of one year. It nurses for 7 months and will reach sexual maturity at 5-15 years of age. Females give birth every 2-3 years.
The blue whale is currently one of the world’s most endangered whales. It was not hunted until somewhat modern techniques made them more easily attainable.
 Blue Whales were abundant in nearly all the oceans until the beginning of the twentieth century. For over 40 years, they were hunted almost to extinction by whalers until protected by the international community in 1966. A 2002 report estimated there were 5,000 to 12,000 Blue Whales worldwide, located in at least five groups. More recent research into the Pygmy subspecies suggests this may be an underestimate. Before whaling, the largest population was in the Antarctic, numbering approximately 239,000 (range 202,000 to 311,000). There remain only much smaller (around 2,000) concentrations in each of the North-East Pacific, Antarctic, and Indian Ocean groups. There are two more groups in the North Atlantic, and at least two in the Southern Hemisphere.

Blue Whale skeleton, outside the Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Major Threats

The main threat in the past was direct exploitation, which only became possible in the modern era using deck-mounted harpoon cannons. Blue whale hunting started in the North Atlantic in 1868 and spread to other regions around 1900 after the northeastern Atlantic populations had been severely reduced. The Antarctic and North Atlantic populations were probably depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling ceased, but are increasing . Blue whales have been protected worldwide since 1966, although they continued to be caught illegally by former USSR fleets until 1972. The last recorded deliberate catches were off Spain in 1978.


References: Dept. Of Environmental Conservation, New York State, Wikipedia, IUCN Red List.


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Biodiversity – Noah’s Ark

69. Biodiversity – Noah’s Ark – An article by Mohan – July 2009


Hello friends,

Good morning.

This Sunday’s article ‘Noah’s Ark’ was actually written for the World Environment Day (5.6.09) but for some reason could not be completed in time. Conservation of the biodiversity of our planet earth is now becoming a very serious and an urgent issue. We will have to build a
Noah’s Ark fast to save the species which are becoming extinct in
thousands and the loss of biodiversity puts the future of human kind
itself  in a jeopardy. Please read on.

Very best wishes,

Mohan Pai

Noah’s Ark
or Manu & the Fish

“With more and more species threatened with extinction by the flood that is today’s global economy, we may be the first generation in human history that literally has to act like Noah – to save the last pair of a wide range of species. Or as God commanded Noah in Genesis “ And every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” – Thomas L. Friedman
 Native global flood stories are documented as history or legend in almost every region on earth. Old world missionaries reported their amazement at finding remote tribes already possessing legends with tremendous similarities to the Bible’s accounts of the worldwide flood. H.S. Bellamy in Moons, Myths and Men estimates that altogether there are over 500 Flood legends worldwide. Ancient civilizations such as (China, Babylonia, Wales, Russia, India, America, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Sumatra, Peru, and Polynesia) all have their own versions of a giant flood.
These flood tales are frequently linked by common elements that parallel the Biblical account including the warning of the coming flood, the construction of a boat in advance, the storage of animals, the inclusion of family, and the release of birds to determine if the water level had subsided. The overwhelming consistency among flood legends found in distant parts of the globe indicates they were derived from the same origin, but oral transcription has changed the details through time.
Perhaps the second most important historical account of a global flood can be found in a Babylonian flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When the Biblical and Babylonian accounts are compared, a number of outstanding similarities are found that leave no doubt these stories are rooted in the same event or oral tradition.
Matsya Avatar

Manu – the Indian myth

The Matsya Avatara of Lord Vishnu is said to have appeared to King Manu (whose original name was Satyavrata), the then King of Dravida, while he washed his hands in a river. This river was supposed to have been flowing down the Malaya Mountains in his land of Dravida. According to the Matsya Purana, his ship is supposed to have been perched after the deluge on the top of this Malaya Mountains. (This land or kingdom of Dravida that was ruled over by Satyavrata or Manu might have been an original, greater Dravida, that might have stretched from Madagascar and East Africa in the west to Southernmost India and further to Southeast Asia and Australia in the east.) The little fish asked the king to save It, upon his doing so, kept growing bigger and bigger. It also informed the King of a huge flood which would occur soon. The King builds a huge boat, which houses his family, 9 types of seeds, and animals to repopulate the earth after the deluge occurs and the oceans and seas recede.This story is to an extent similar to other deluge stories, like those of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumerian Mythology, and the story of Noah’s ark from Judeo-Christianity.

With the human population expected to reach 9-10 billion by the end of the century and the planet in the middle of its sixth mass extinction this time due to human activity the next few years are critical in conserving Earth’s precious biodiversity. It is our generation and our civilization that is responsible for causing the flood of commercial development which is causing Global Warming and pollution that could wipe out much of the world’s biodiversity.

To quote E. O. Wilson “Except from giant meteorite strikes or other catastrophes every 100 million years or so, Earth has never experienced anything like the contemporary human juggernaut. With the global species extinction rate now exceeding the global species birthrate at least a hundredfold, and soon to increase ten times that much, and with the birthrate falling through the loss of sites where evolution can occur; the number of species is plummeting. The original level of biodiversity is not likely to be regained in any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.”
Since Man is causing this flood, it also now becomes his responsibility to build the Ark that is needed to preserve life on the earth.

Let us consider the following facts:

During the past 150 years, humans have directly impacted and altered close to 47% of the global land area.

Under one bleak scenario, biodiversity will be threatened on almost 72% of Earth’s land area by 2032.

48% of South East Asia, the Congo Basin, and parts of the Amazon will likely be converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas — compared with 22% today, suggesting wide depletions of biodiversity.

Starting some 45,000 years ago a high proportion of larger land animals became extinct in North America, Australia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, coinciding with human arrival.

The current textbook definition of “biodiversity” is “variation of life at all levels of biological organization”.

Biodiversity can be defined as the totality of life on earth. It’s a vast field, encompassing all the world’s ecosystems, all the plant and animal species that populate those ecosystems, and all the genes that make up the hereditary material of each living species. To get some inkling of the vastness of the topic I am reproducing below E. O. Wilson’s speech given at the Explorer’s Club on March 18, 2006:

What is left to explore?

Why, the biosphere of course, that razor-thin membrane of life plastered to the surface of Earth so thin it can’t be seen edgewise from an orbiting space vehicle yet still the most complex entity by far we know in the universe. How well do we understand this part of the world? Proportionately not very much. We live on a little-known planet. Let me give you some examples. The best-studied animals are the birds, which have been carefully collected by naturalists and explorers for centuries. Nevertheless, an average of 3 new species are added each year to the 10,000 already described by scientists. Comparable to them are the flowering plants: about 280,000 species known out of 320,000 or more estimated to exist. From there it goes steeply downhill. You’d think that the amphibians—that is, frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—would be comparable to the birds, but in fact they are still poorly explored: from 1985 to 2001, 1,530 new species were added to the 5,300 already found, an increase of over one-fourth, and with more new species pouring in.

When we next move to the invertebrates, what I like to call the little things that run the world, we get a fuller glimpse of the depth of our ignorance. Consider nematode worms, the almost microscopic wriggling creatures that teem as free-living forms and parasites everywhere, on the land and in the sea. They are the most abundant animals on Earth. Four out of every five animals on Earth is a nematode worm. If you were to make all of the solid matter on the surface of Earth invisible except for the nematode worms, you still could see its outline in nematode worms. About 16,000 species are known to science; the number estimated actually to exist by specialists is over 1.5 million. Almost certainly the world’s ecosystems and our own lives depend on these little creatures, but we know absolutely nothing about the vast majority. To continue: about 900,000 kinds of insects are known to science (I’ve just finished describing 340 new species of ants myself, for example) but the true global number could easily exceed 5 million. How many kinds of plants, animals, and microorganisms make up the biosphere? Somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million species have been discovered and given a Latinized scientific name. How many species actually exist? It is an amazing fact that we do not know to the nearest order of magnitude how many exist. It could be as low as 10 million or as high as 100 million or more.

Those of us in biodiversity studies say that we have knowledge of only about 10 percent of the kinds of organisms on Earth. The nematodes and insects and invertebrates all shrink in diversity before the bacteria and archaea, the dark matter of planet Earth. Roughly 6,000 species of bacteria are known. That many can be found in the 10 billion bacterial cells in a single gram, a handful, of soil—virtually all still unknown to science. It’s been recently estimated that a ton of fertile soil supports 4 million species of bacteria. We believe each one is exquisitely adapted to a particular niche, as a result of long periods of evolution. We don’t know what those niches are. What we do know is that we depend on those organisms for our existence. A search is on right now at least for the bacteria that live in the human mouth. The number of species adapted to that environment so far is 700. These bacteria are friendly; they appear to function as symbionts that keep disease-causing bacteria from invading. For those species your mouth is a continent. They dwell on the mountain ridges of a tooth; they travel long distances into the deep valleys of your gums; they wash back and forth in the ocean tides of your saliva. I’m not suggesting that we give an Explorer’s Club flag to a dentist. But you get the point. Every part of the world, including Central Park where a new kind of centipede was recently found, has new kinds of life awaiting discovery.

But—if none of this impresses you, would you like an entire new living planet for your delectation? The closest we may ever come is the world of the SLIMES (that’s an acronym for Subterranean Lithoautotrophic Microbial Ecosystems), a vast array of bacteria and microscopic fungi teeming below Earth’s surface to depths of up to 2 miles or more, completely independent of life on the surface, living on energy from inorganic materials, possibly forming a greater mass than all of life on the surface. The SLIMES would likely go on existing if we were to burn everything on the surface to a crisp. In approaching biodiversity, we are all explorers, scientists and all others who care about the natural world, now put in perspective, like Cortez and his men on a peak in Darien, before the new ocean, staring, in Keat’s expression, in wild surmise at the unknown world stretching before us.

E. O. Wilson’s Explorers Club Speech 18th March, 2006

Coral Reef
 The highest percentage per unit of area of endangered species are in the tropical rainforests and coral reefs. These species are now disappearing at the rate somewhere a thousand times faster than they are born due to human activity. At this rate, in one human lifetime, half these species of the world which have developed over thousands or millions of years, could be eliminated. Conservation needs to be focussed on the hot spots of biodiversity and fresh water systems of the world. Fresh water systems deserve special attention because they are under heaviest assault from pollution and drainage.

Most of the species extinctions from 1000 AD to 2000 AD are due to human activities, in particular destruction of plant and animal habitats. Raised rates of extinction are being driven by human consumption of organic resources, especially related to tropical forest destruction. While most of the species that are becoming extinct are not food species, their biomass is converted into human food when their habitat is transformed into pasture, cropland, and orchards. It is estimated that more than a third of the Earth’s biomass is tied up in only the few species that represent humans, livestock and crops. Because an ecosystem decreases in stability as its species are made extinct, these studies warn that the global ecosystem is destined for collapse if it is further reduced in complexity. Factors contributing to loss of biodiversity are: overpopulation, deforestation, pollution (air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination) and global warming or climate change, driven by human activity. These factors, while all stemming from overpopulation, produce a cumulative impact upon biodiversity.

“The science of living beings in general, and especially of the human individual, has not made such a great progress. It still remains in the descriptive state. Man is an indivisible whole of extreme complexity. No simple representation of him can be obtained. There is no method of comprehending simultaneously in his entirety, his parts and his relations with the outer world.”
“We are beginning to realise the weakness of our civilisation. Many want to shake off the dogmas imposed upon them by modern society – those who are bold enough to understand the necessity, not only mental, political and social changes, but the overthrow of industrial civilisation and of the advent of another conception of human progress’’

– Man, the Unknown – Dr. Alexis Carrel.
References: ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded’ by Thomas L. Friedman, E. O. Wilson’s work, ‘Man the Unknown’ by Dr. Alexis Carrel, Wikipedia.


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