Archive for the 'Ecology' Category

Sunday Article: Vanishing Species – Forest Owlet

Sunday Article by Mohan Pai
 
 
Forest Owlet
Athene blewitti
 
 

Sighted in the wild for the last time in 1884, it was rediscovered after 113 years in1997.Only 100 breeding pairs survive in the wild.

The Forest Owlet, Athene blewitti, had not been seen in India last in1884. The last confirmed record- a specimen in Britain’s Natural History Museum – was collected in 1884. Believed to have been extinct for over a century, 113 years to be precise, it was rediscovered by Pamela C. Rasmussen, Ben King and David Abbott at Shahada near Taloda in the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra (Toranmal Reserve Forest) in India in November 1997.

How this rediscovery came about is a fascinating story, involving theft, fraud, and international espionage. In the course of working on a field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent, ornithologist Rasmussen became aware of irregularities in the records of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a World War I British spy and colorful character who early in this century owned what was generally considered to be the finest private collection of Old World birds in existence. Through painstaking research, she and her colleague, Nigel J. Collar of Birdlife International, were able to show that Meinertzhagen’s specimen of a Forest Owlet–which he had supposedly collected in 1914, was a fraud and had been taken from an existing 19th-century collection.

The species epithet commemorates F. R. Blewitt, the collector of the first specimen that was obtained in December 1872 from Busnah-Phooljan near Basna on the Phuljar highway in eastern Madhya Pradesh. The specimen was sent to Allan Octavian Hume who described it in 1873.

The Forest Owlet is small (23 cm) and stocky. It is a typical owlet with a rather unspotted crown and heavily banded wings and tail. They have a relatively large skull and beak. Unlike the Spotted Owlet, the Forest Owlet has the fewer and fainter spots on the crown and back. The upperparts are dark grey-brown. The upper breast is almost solid brown and the sides are barred with a white central wedge in the lower breast that is sometimes unmarked, especially in males. The primaries are darker and distinct. The wings and tail are banded with white trailing edges. A dark carpal patch on the underwing visible in flight. The facial disc is pale and the eyes are yellow.

Distribution and habitat

Until its rediscovery in 1997, this owl was known from only seven specimens collected in the nineteenth century, in northern Maharashtra, and south-east Madhya Pradesh/western Orissa. In November 1997 a group of American ornithologists, including Pamela C. Rasmussen, rediscovered the species in foothills of the Satpura Range, north-east of Bombay. In 2000 a survey of 14 forest areas across its former range located 25 birds (using call playback) at four sites in northern Maharashtra and south-western Madhya Pradesh, including three pairs at Taloda Forest Range and seven pairs at Toranmal Forest Range. No birds were found in a brief survey of its former eastern range in Orissa. More recently survey efforts in the Satpura Range added another five sites. The species was also reported from the Chatwa and Padwa forests near Andhra Pradesh by K. S. R. Krishna Raju

The Forest Owlet has sightings from the Talda Forest Range, the Toranmal Forest Range, the Melghat Tiger Reserve, and the Khaknaar Forest Range, all in central India had dense to open deciduous forest.

Behaviour

These owls typically hunt from perches where they sit still and wait for prey. When perched they flick their tails from side to side rapidly and more excitedly when prey is being chased.. When nesting the male hunted and fed the female at nest and the young were fed by the female. The young fledge after 30–32 days

The peak courtship season is in January to February during which time they are very responsive to call playback with a mixture of song and territorial calls.

They appear to be strongly diurnal although not very active after 10 AM, often hunting during daytime. On cold winter mornings they bask on the tops of tall trees. Filial cannibalism by males has been observed.

They make several different calls. These include a hissing call of short duration. The song calls are short and mellow unlike those of most owls.

Status

The Forest Owlet remains critically endangered, and the current population has been estimated at about 100 breeding pairs. It is thought that this owl has always been rare. The original specimens were collected in dense jungle, and the recent sightings in more open forest may also represent a habitat. The forest in the plains in its range has been totally cleared, and there is pressure on the remaining forest resources.

 

Until recently, the best illustration of the Forest Owlet was the one above, which appeared in The Scientific Results of the Second Yarkard Mission, published in 1891. the illustration has several inaccuracies: the cheek patches are too dark and the breast is too barred; the belly, lower flanks, and undertail coverts should be completely white, not marked; the bands in the wing should be whiter; and the bill should be larger.
 
 
References: Wikipedia, Copperwiki, “Lost & Found” by Tim Gallagher.

Sunday Article: Clouded Leopard

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 Clouded Leopard
 
Neofelis nebulosa
 

Clouded leopard is not a leopard but a relative of the extinct saber toothed tiger.
 

It has long been known that the clouded leopard has the longest upper canine teeth for its skull size of any modern carnivore, causing some people to compare the cat with the extinct saber-toothed cat.

Recent research into the skull characteristics of both living and extinct cats has revealed that the clouded leopard has a skull unlike any other cat today. In a number of respects it bears distinctive resemblance to the primitive saber-toothed cats.
 
The Clouded Leopard is a medium-sized cat found in Southeast Asia. It has a tan or tawny coat, and is distinctively marked with large, irregularly-shaped, dark-edged ellipses which are said to be shaped like clouds. This unique appearance gave the mammal both its common and scientific species name (nebulosus is Latin for “cloudy”). The Clouded Leopard was confusing to scientists for a long time because of its appearance and skeleton. It seemed to be a cross between a big cat and a small cat. The scientific name of the genus, Neofelis, originates from neo, which means “new”, and felis, which means “small cat”, so it literally means new kind of small cat.
 
The average Clouded Leopard typically weighs between 15 and 23 kg (33 to 50 lb) and has a shoulder height of 25 to 40 centimeters (10 to 16 inches).This medium sized cat has a large build and, proportionately, the longest canine teeth (2 in, about the same as a tiger’s) of any living feline. These characteristics led early researchers to speculate that it preyed on large land-dwelling mammals. However, while remarkably little is known about the natural history and behavioral habits of this species in the wild, it is now thought that its primary prey includes arboreal and terrestrial mammals, particularly gibbons, macaques, and civets supplemented by other small mammals, deer, birds, porcupines, and domestic livestock.
 

 

 
Clouded leopard – Range map
 
As might be expected from the fact that some of its prey lives in trees, the Clouded Leopard is an excellent climber. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and sharp claws combine to make it very sure-footed in the canopy. The Clouded Leopard’s tail can be as long as its body, further aiding in balance giving it a squirrel-like agility similar to the Margay of South America. Surprisingly, this arboreal creature can climb while hanging upside-down under branches and descend tree trunks head-first.
 
Behavior
 
Like all wild cats, clouded leopards are carnivores. They are thought to hunt a variety of prey including birds, squirrels, monkeys, deer, and wild pigs. It was once thought that clouded leopards hunted while climbing. Current thought, however, is that while some hunting may occur in the trees, most likely takes place on the ground. Trees are thought to provide resting habitat during the day.

Virtually nothing is known of the social behavior of wild clouded leopards. They are likely solitary, like most cats, unless associated with a mate while breeding or accompanied by cubs. Likewise, activity patterns are virtually unknown. Once thought to be exclusively nocturnal, evidence suggests that they may show some periods of activity during the day as well.

Reproduction

Clouded leopards are sexually mature around the age of 2 years. Mating can occur in any month, but in captivity most breeding occurs between December and March. The gestation period is between 85 and 93 days with 1 to 5 cubs produced per litter. Cubs are independent at approximately 10 months of age. Females can produce a litter every year.
 
 
 


 
 
References, Wikipedia, S. H. Prater (The Book of Indian Animals), iloveindia.com
 
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Sunday Article: Indian Chameleon

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

INDIAN CHAMELEON
Chamaeleo zeylanicus
                                     Photo courtesy Amrut Singh, Goa.
 
 
The Amazing Chameleon !
 
Apart from changing colours, it can focus each of the two eyes in different directions and observe two different objects simultaneously!

 The Indian Chameleon, Chamaeleo zeylanicus is a species of chameleon found in India, Sri Lanka, and other parts of South Asia. Like other chameleons, this species has a long tongue, feet that are shaped into bifid claspers, a prehensile tail, independent eye movement and the ability to change skin colour. They move slowly with a bobbing or swaying movement and are usually arboreal.

The ability to change colours has made these lizards famous. Strangely, they do not choose the background colour and may not even be able to perceive colour differences. They are usually in shades of green or brown or with bands. They can change colour rapidly and the primary purpose of colour change is for communication with other chameleons and for controlling body temperature by changing to dark colours to absorb heat. Though many lizards can change colour, chameleons have made an art, and we see them go from brilliant yellow through shades of green and brown, all the way to dark purple.
 
There is only one species of chameleons found in the Indian subcontinent, scientifically known as Chamaeleo zeylanicus. The term ‘chameleon’ is a combination of two Greek words, ‘Chamai’, meaning ‘on the ground/earth’ and Leon, meaning ‘lion’. Thus, ‘chameleon’ means ‘earth lion’. The foot structure, eyes and tongue of all the chameleons are the same.

Physical Traits

The body of the chameleon lizard is covered with granular scales and measures upto 37 cm in length. Its feet are split into two main fingers, each of them attached with sharp claws that help in climbing trees. The bulging eyes are nearly covered by eyelids. The upper and lower eyelids of a chameleon are joined and there is a small pinhole through which the pupil can be seen. The chameleon can focus each of the two eyes in different direction and observe two different objects simultaneously.

One of the most interesting features of an Indian Chameleon is its extremely long tongue, which at times may exceed its body length also. The tongue is sticky at the end, which helps the reptile in catching prey. The moment the tongue of a chameleon hits a prey, it forms a small suction cup and draws the prey into the mouth. Chameleons do not have ears and vomeronasal (bone forming part of the middle partition of nose) organ.

Mating Behavior

The breeding season of the chameleon lizard falls around the month of October. Ten to thirty eggs are laid at a time and the gestation period is 3 to 6 weeks. Before laying eggs, the female chameleon digs a hole in the ground, between 4 to 12 inches deep, and deposits her eggs in that hole. The eggs hatch after a period of 3 months. Like all other lizards, they do not look after their young

Diet

Chameleon lizard survives on a diet of locusts, mantids, crickets, and other insects.

Geographical Range

Chameleons are seen inhabiting almost all the parts of south India and west of the Ganges. However, they are rarely seen in areas that receive heavy rainfall. Chameleons are mostly arboreal and are found in trees or on smaller bushes.

 
References: iloveindia.com, Wikipedia.
  
  
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Sunday Article: Pallas’s Cat

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 Pallas’s Cat
 Octocolobus manul
 

 Pic courtesy: Edinburgh Zoo
 
An exotic and rare feline, Pallas’s cat is a small size predator of Central Asian mountains, found only in the Ladakh region in India.
 
It is named after the naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, a German zoologist and botanist who worked in Russia who first described the species in 1776. Pallas’s Cat is the oldest living species of the modern genus felis .
 
The pallas’s cat is a small, long tailed cat with a broad head, low forehead and short widely – separated ears. Pallas cat is small in size, weighing between 2 – 4.5 kg. and has a grey to ruddy grey coat. Its legs are short and striped. The forehead is spotted and the tail is bushy and striped. Pallas cats are adapted to cold, arid environments and have a wide distribution through Central Asia, but they are relatively specialized in their habitat requirements. Pallas cat is chiefly crepuscular and feeds mainly on pikes and rodents. Birds and insects also form part of its diet. Pallas cats are seasonal breeders, with most litters being born between April and May. Four to five kittens (sometimes up to 8) are born in a litter. Their gestation period is of 66 – 75 days. They are found in stony, alpine desert and grassland habitats but are generally absent from low land sandy desert basins except along river courses. They are found at altitudes up to 4,800 mts. Globally, its distribution spans the cold arid regions of the Central Asia. The northern cold desert region of Ladakh in India is its southernmost distribution
 
          Range map of Pallas’s cat                                                    
 
Pallas’s Cat is the oldest living species of a clade of felids that includes the modern genus Felis. This feline, along with the extinct Martelli’s Cat, were the first two modern cats to evolve from Pseudaelurus approximately 12 million years ago.
 

 
This cat has several features which distinguish it from other felines. Most strikingly, it has round pupils. Its legs are short, its rump is rather bulky, and its fur long and thick. The combination of its stocky posture and thick fur makes it appear especially stout and plushy. Its coat changes with the seasons: the winter coat is greyer and less patterned than the summer coat. The ears are set low and give the cat a somewhat owl-like appearance. Because of its relatively flat face, it was once thought that Pallas’s Cat was the ancestor of the Persian cat breed.
 
Pallas’s Cat inhabits the Asian steppes up to heights of 4000 m (13,000 ft). They are thought to be crepuscular hunters and feed on small rodents, pikas and birds.
 
The Pallas’ cat is similar in size to a housecat. A thick coat of shaggy fur and a long, bushy tail help combat extreme temperatures that reach lows nearing -60°F. Pallas’ cats take shelter in marmot burrows, caves, and rock crevices. 
 
Fact File

Length: 1.5 to 2 ft Weight:2-4.5 kg Lifespan: 8 to 10 yrs in wild Habitat: Mountain regions, including grassland, woodland, and semi-desert Diet: Pikas, hares, and small rodents such as gerbils, voles, and young marmots Status: Species at Risk (IUCN—Lower risk/near threatened )
 
 


 
Pic courtesy: Zurich Zoo
 
 
References: Wikipedia.
 
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Sunday Article: Nilgai

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 
 
Nilgai
 Boselaphus tragocamaelus
 

 
 

 

India’s largest antelope
 

Hindi word Neelgai (Nilgai) refers to the bluish color of the adult male, and therefore Blue Bull is another name for the animal. Neelgai probably evolved in open, dry Indian forests during the Tertiary geological period. Nilgai are classified as bovids (family Bovidae), and with their close relative, the Four-horned Antelope Tetracerus quadricornis, are the only living representatives of the tribe Boselaphini.
 

Neelgai is the largest of the Asiatic antelopes. They have a life expectancy of 20 -30 years, most of which they prefer to spend in open jungles and scrubby grasslands. Adult bulls weigh about 220 kg, while the cows weigh about 180 kg and calves about 7 kg at birth. The blue-gray adult bulls have black legs, and some may be brown-tinged, particularly younger bulls. Cows and calves are fawn or pale brown. All have similar dark and white markings on their ears and legs. Only the males have horns, which are black-coloured, short (about 18 cm), sharp, and bi-curved. The hair of adults is thin in density, wiry, and somewhat oily. Their skin is thick, particularly on the chest and neck of the bulls, where it forms a dermal shield. The eyesight and hearing of Neelgai is quite good but their sense of smell less acute. They have good speed and endurance.

Neelgai make several low-volume vocalizations, including a short, guttural “bwooah” when alerted. Calves may bawl and may make a grunting sound while nursing. In India, Nilgai occurs from the foothills of the Himalayas southward to Mysore. They live on a variety of land types from hillsides to level ground with scattered grass steppes, trees, and cultivated areas, but not in thick forests. Their habitats are characterized by paths, water holes, defecation sites, and resting cover. Neelgai were common in India during
the 1880s and were hunted for sport by the British. Besides man, the tiger is their main predator. In the 1980s Neelgai had drastically declined because of shooting and loss of habitat.

Neelgai segregate into male and female groups except during the breeding season. Bulls do not maintain a fixed territory but defend a space around themselves. Fighting occurs between dominant bulls, and serious injury or death sometimes results. Neelgai make dung piles by defecating repeatedly on the same sites. The social and territorial significance of this habit is not known. Some breeding takes place year-round. At that time breeding groups of one dominant bull and one to several cows are found. The peak calving period is September through November. Neelgai breed at age two to three years, whereas males may not mature until their fourth year. The gestation period is approximately 245 days. Twins are common, and triplets occur occasionally.

Neelgai eats mainly woody plants supplemented by agricultural crops. Their diet includes herbs and plant parts (flowers, seeds, fruit, leaves, stem tips). In the absence of preferred food they readily alter their diet. In India they share certain diseases with livestock and wildlife. Perhaps the most universal of these are foot-and-mouth disease and malignant catarrhal fever. 
  Nilgai pursued by dholes, as drawn by Robert Armitage Sterndale in Denizens of the Jungles, 1886
 

Status 
 
Nilgai antelope has been listed in the ‘Low Risk’ category by the IUCN. The estimated population of Nilgai in India is approximately 100,000. The main threat to the Neelgai is from the destruction of its habitat to accommodate the ever-swelling human population.
 
Tidbits
 Blue bulls generally come to the same place to deposit their droppings.
Blue bull can survive for a long period of time without water.
Nilgai was introduced in Texas in 1920’s.

In India, it is believed that the Nilgai antelope is a sacred animal (precisely a cow) and it is protected against hunting.
 


 
References: Wikipedia, iloveindia.com
 
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Sunday Article: Indian Jackal

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 The Indian Jackal
 Canis aureus
 

  Photo coutesy: S. Das
 
Tabaqui of Kipling’s Jungle book with an eerie howl.
 
Tabaqui, the jackal (Gidur-log) in Kipling’s Jungle Book is an opportunistic associate of Sher Khan, the lame tiger and he is also a mischief maker. Also known as Golden jackal, this animal features in many fables (Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Jataka Tales) and generally projected as a sometimes conceited, sometimes foolish and sometimes greedy, cunning and shrewd creature.
 
Jackal’s long-drawn eerie howls at dusk or just before dawn are characteristic of the Indian countryside and jungle and has been subject of superstition about death and evil spirits. The other characteristics which makes the jackal infamous is the rabid jackal attacks on people. Just last month (November, 2009) jackals attacked over 50 people in Bargama and other villages of Samastipur, Bihar.
Fredrick Forsythe’s popular book “The Day of the Jackal” where Carlos is the professional assasin has also endowed this animal with some popularity.

Description:

Golden Jackal are 70- 85 cm long and weigh around 8 -10 kg. They are golden yellowish in colour with a reddish tail having a black tip. The tail itself measures upto 9 -14 inches. It has white mark on its throat and the back of the ears is darker in colour. Males are usually larger than the females.
 
 
 


 
Tabaqui’ of the Jungle Book
 
Distribution:

Golden Jackal are found throughout India. Jackals live in almost any environment, in humid forest country, or in dry open plains, or desert. They are found at higher altitudes in the Himalayas but greater number lives in the lowlands about towns, villages and cultivation. In Kodagu and Nilgiris their population appears to be declining. The total estimated population in India is around 80,000.

Diet : Golden Jackal are omnivorous. They feed on small mammals, insects, hares, fish, birds and fruits.

Reproduction: Gestation period rests for nine weeks. Females give birth to 3-6 pubs. During pregnancy males go out in search of food and the females rest at home. They weigh around 200 -250 g at birth. They open their eyes in about ten days. They are weaned in 4- 6 weeks. The females are sexually mature than in less than a year, the males closer to the two years.

Conservation status : Not threatened

Life span : Golden Jackal lives up to 14-16 years of age. 
  
 

 Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead

For centuries, golden jackals have made an impression on Middle Eastern civilisations. They feature in many fables, are referred to in the Bible several times, and Anubis, a god of ancient Egypt, was depicted as a man with the head of a jackal.

References: Wikipedia, Jungle Book, The Book of Indian Animals, S. H. Prater.

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Sunday Article: Peacock

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 
PEACOCK
 Pavo cristatus
 
  
 
The icon of beauty, love & romance
 
The male Indian peafowl is commonly called Peacock. This gorgeous and majestic bird Peacock, Pavo cristatus is the national bird of India. It’s a symbol of beauty, joy, grace and love. Indian tradition is full of references to this glamourous bird and it has been repeatedly used as popular art motif. Due to its close proximity to humans for thousands of years, the peacock is featured in ancient Indian stories, songs and poems as symbol of beauty & pose. In two epic poems of Kalidasa (Meghadutam and Kumarasambhava) the beauty of the peacock has been used as an ornate literary tool. The peacock is a prominent motif both in Rajasthani & Mughal schools of paintings. The lovelorn, pining Nayikas in Rajasthani miniatures have the peacock as a companion. The Jataka tales Mahamayur Jataka describes the earlier birth of Bhagavan Buddha as a golden peacock. 
 
 
Hindu mythology describes the peacock is to be the vahan or the vehicle for Karthikeya also called Murugan, the brother of Ganesha, the goddess Saraswati, and the goddess Mahamayuri. Indian Peacock (called Mayura in Sanskrit) has enjoyed a fabled place in India since ancient times. In imagery Lord Krishna is always represented wearing a peacock feather tucked in his headband. Peacocks often live in proximity to humans. Ancient kings in India were said to have gardens to raise peacocks where guests were invited to see the famous male peacock dance during the mating season. Due to this close proximity to humans for thousands of years, they have entered ancient Indian stories, songs and poems as symbols of beauty and poise. As the mating season coincides with the onset of monsoon rains and the month of Shravan in the Hindu calendar, many songs of rains have peacock-dance mentioned in them. One possible origins of the name of the famous Maurya dynasty of ancient India is probably derived from the word Mayura as the ancestors of the Mauryas are thought to be peacock-keepers of a royal court in eastern India.
 

 
 The main figure of the Kurdish religion Yezidism, Melek Taus, is most commonly depicted as a peacock. The Yezidi’s claim Indian origins.
 

 
This colourful bird has a fan-shaped crest on its head, a white patch under its eye and a long-slender neck. The male of species is more beautiful with a gleaming blue breast and an iridescent blue-green coloured plumage. The train feathers have a series of eyes and are best seen when the elongated tail is fanned. When displaying to a female, the peacock erects this train into spectacular fan, presenting the ocelli(eye-spots) to their best advantage.
 
Physical Features

The peacock, is one of the most recognisable birds in the world. These large, brightly colored birds have a distinctive crest and an unmistakable ornamental train. The train (1.4-1.6 meters in length) accounts for more than 60% of their total body length (2.3 meters). Combined with a large wingspan (1.4-1.6 meters), this train makes the male peafowl one of the largest flying birds in the world. The train is formed by 100-150 highly specialized uppertail-coverts. Each of these feathers sports an ornamental ocellus, or eye-spot, and has long disintegrated barbs, giving the feathers a loose, fluffy look. When displaying to a female, the peacock erects this train into a spectacular fan, presenting the ocelli to their best advantage.

The more subtly coloured female Peafowl is mostly brown above with a white belly. Her ornamentation is limited to a prominent crest and green neck feathers. Though females (2.75-4.0 kg) weigh nearly as much as the males (4.0-6.0 kg), they rarely exceed 1.0 meter in total body length.
 
Plumage

The male (peacock) Indian Peafowl has iridescent blue-green or green coloured plumage. The so-called “tail” of the peacock, also termed the “train,” is not the tail quill feathers but highly elongated upper tail coverts. The train feathers have a series of eyes that are best seen when the tail is fanned. Both species have a crest atop the head.

The female (peahen) Indian Peafowl has a mixture of dull green, brown, and grey in her plumage. She lacks the long upper tail coverts of the male but has a crest. The female can also display her plumage to ward off female competition or danger to her young.

The Green Peafowl is different in appearance to the Indian Peafowl. The male has green and gold plumage and has an erect crest. The wings are black with a sheen of blue.
 
Social Characteristics

Peacock or peafowl Large bird belonging to the pheasant family, in East Asia being its native region. The crested common peacock during courtship displays his elongated upper tail which converts into a magnificent green and gold erectile train adorned with green blue ” eyes ” before the duller plumaged peahen. The peacock is a ornamental bird and is of quarrelsome nature and does not mix well with other domestic animals.

Habitat & Diet

They are omnivorous, obtaining most of their food by scratching the leaf litter with their strong feet. Indian Peafowl do most of their foraging in the early morning and shortly before sunset. They retreat to the shade and security of the forest for the hottest portion of the day. Foods include grains, insects, small reptiles, small mammals, berries, drupes, wild figs, and some cultivated crops.

Peacock distribution

The peacock is widely found in the Indian sub-continent from the south and east of the Indus river, Jammu and Kashmir, east Assam, south Mizoram and the whole of the Indian peninsula. The peacock enjoys immense protection. It is fully protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection) Act, 1972.
 
Peacock Throne
 
The legendary ‘Peacock Throne’ (also known as Takht-e-Tavous) of Ml Emperor Shah Jahan is a wonder of Mughal Art. It was yet another example of Shah Jahan’s unparallel aesthetic sense and love of art. This is counted as the costliest single treasure crafted in the last thousand years. In fact, the Peacock Throne was twice as costly as the total cost of the Taj Mahal. The original Peacock Throne was built in the 17th century and it was placed in Delhi’s royal court known as Diwan-i-Aam.
 


 
It acquired its name from its unique shape. It had the figures of two peacocks standing behind it, their tails being expanded and the whole was inlaid with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, pearls and other precious stones of appropriate colors so as to represent life. As described by the French jeweler Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who visited Delhi in 1665, the throne as of the shape of a bed (a “takhta” i.e. platform), 6 ft. by 4 ft., supported by four golden feet, 20 to 25 in. high, from the bars above which rose twelve columns to support the canopy; the bars were decorated with crosses of rubies and emeralds, and also with diamonds and pearls. There were 108 large rubies on the throne, and 116 emeralds. The twelve columns supporting the canopy were decorated with rows of splendid pearls, and according to Tavernier, these were the most valuable part of the throne. Among the historical diamonds decorating it were the famous Kohinoor (186 carats), the Akbar Shah (95 carats), the Shah (88.77 carats), the Jehangir (83 carats) and the second largest spinel ruby in the world — the Timur ruby (283 carats). A-20 couplet poem by the Mughal poet-laureate Qudsi, praising the Emperor, was embedded in the throne in emerald letters.
 
Delhi was invaded by Nader Shah in 1738 and the priceless Peacock Throne was one of the rare treasures he plundered from India. The legendary throne was carried to Iran. It glorified the palace of Iran till it was destroyed in the chaos following the assassination of Nader Shah in 1747.
 
 References: Wikipedia, wildlife-tour-india.com
 
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Sunday Article: House Sparrow

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 House Sparrow
 
Passer domesticus
 


 

…there’s a providence in the fall of a sparrow  -Hamlet (Shakespeare)

India’s foremost ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali published his autobiography in1985. He very aptly gave the title “The Fall of a Sparrow”.

Universally familiar in appearance, the widespread and once abundant house sparrow has become a mystery bird and is becoming increasingly rare all over the world. Perky and bustling, house sparrows have always been seen, mingling with finches in the fields in autumn and winter, but now weeks pass without a single one putting in an appearance.

They are vanishing from many big cities, but are still not uncommon in small towns and villages. India has seen a massive decline of sparrows in recent years and on the world map too. Once a commonplace bird in large parts of Europe, its numbers are decreasing. In the Netherlands, the House Sparrow is even considered an endangered species. Their recent decline has earned them a place on the Red List in the Netherlands. Similar precipitous drops in population have been recorded in the United Kingdom. French ornithologists have charted a steep decline in Paris and other cities. There has been an even sharper fall in the urban areas in Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy and Finland.

History

It is thought that the House sparrow originated in the Mediterranean and expanded into Europe with the growth of civilization. At the insistence of man did the sparrow make its way across the Atlantic to the United States in 1850.
The house sparrow is an intelligent bird that has proven to be adaptable to most situation, i.e. nest sites, food and shelter, so it has become the most abundant songbird in the world.
 
Sparrows are very social birds and tend to flock together through most of the year. A flock’s range covers 1.5-2 miles, but it will cover a larger territory if necessary when searching for food. The sparrow’s main diet consists of grain seeds, especially waste grain and live stock feed. If grain is not available, its diet is very broad and adaptable. It also eats weeds and insects, especially during the breeding season. The parasitic nature of the house sparrow is quite evident as they are avid seekers of garbage tossed out by humans. In spring, flowers (especially those with yellow colours) are often eaten crocuses, primroses and aconites seem to attract the house sparrow most. The birds also hunt butterflies.

Housing

House sparrows are generally attracted to buildings for roosting, nesting, and cover. They look for any man-made nook or cranny to build their nests. Other nesting sites are clothes line poles with the end caps open, lofts, kitchen garden etc. The sparrow makes its home in areas closely associated with human habitation.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a member of the old world sparrow family Passeridae. Some consider it to be a relative of the Weaver Finch Family. A number of geographic races have been named, and are differentiated on the basis of size and cheek colour.
Birds of the western hemisphere are larger than those in the tropical South Asian populations.

In India, it is popularly known as Goraiya in the Hindi belt. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala it is known as Kuruvi. Telugu language has given it a name, Pichhuka, Kannadigas call it Gubbachchi, Gujaratis call it Chakli where as Maharashtrians call it Chimani. It is known as Chiri in Punjab, Chaer in Jammu and Kashmir, Charai Pakhi in West Bengal, and Gharachatia in Orissa. In Urdu language it is called Chirya while Sindhi language has termed it as Jhirki.

Features

This 14 to 16 cm long bird has a wing span of 19-25 cm. It is a small, stocky song bird that weighs 26 to 32 grams. The male sparrow has a grey crown, cheeks and underparts, and is black at the throat, upper breast and between the bill and eyes. The bill in summer is blue-black and the legs are brown. In winter the plumage is dulled by pale edgings, and the bill is yellowish brown. The female has no black coloring on the head or throat, or a grey crown her upper part is streaked with brown. The juveniles are deeper brown, and the white is replaced by buff the beak is dull yellow. The House Sparrow is often confused with the smaller and more slender Tree Sparrow, which, however, has a chestnut and not grey crown, two distinct wing bars and a black patch on each cheek
The sparrow’s most common call is a short and incessant, slightly metallic cheep, chirrup.

Reproduction

The nesting sites are varied – in holes in buildings or rocks, in ivy or creepers, on houses or riverbanks, on sea-cliffs or in bushes in bays and inlets. When built in holes or ivy, the nest is an untidy litter of straw and rubbish, abundantly filled with feathers. Large well- constructed domed nests are often built when the bird nests in trees or shrubs, especially in rural areas.

The House Sparrow is quite aggressive in usurping the nesting sites of other birds, often forcibly evicting the previous occupants, and sometimes even building a new nest directly on top of another active nests with live nestlings. Eggs are variable in size and shape as well as markings. Eggs are incubated by the female. The sparrow has the shortest incubation period of all the birds, 10 -12 days, and a female can lay 25 eggs each summer. The reproductive success increases with age and this is mainly by changes in timing, with older birds breeding earlier in the season.
 

Causes of Decline

There are various causes for dramatic decrease in their population, one of the more surprising being the introduction of unleaded petrol, the combustion of which produces compounds such as methyl nitrite, a compound which is highly toxic for small insects, which forms a major part of a young sparrow’s diet. Other being areas of free growing weeds, or reduction in number of badly maintained buildings, which are important nesting opportunities for sparrows. Ornithologists and wildlife experts speculate that the population crash could also be linked to a variety of factors like the lack of nesting sites in modern concrete buildings, disappearing kitchen gardens, increased use of pesticides in farmlands and the non- availability of food sources.

The widespread use of chemical pesticides in farmlands has resulted in the killings of insects on which these birds depend. Seed-eating birds like sparrows have to depend on soft- bodied insects to feed their young ones. The other possibility could be increased predation by crows and cats, while crows have grown in number as a result of garbage accumulation in the city. Changing lifestyles and architectural evolution have wreaked havoc on the bird’s habitat and food sources. Modern buildings are devoid of eaves and crannies, and coupled with disappearing home gardens, are playing a part in the disappearing act.
 
Today, one sadly misses the sight of sparrows hopping from branch to branch in the bushes outside one’s house and their chirping.
 

 
House Sparrow -Native range in dark green and introduced range in light green
 
References: House Sparrow – Declining Population by Kalpana Palkhiwala, Wikiped
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Sunday Article: Seahorse – The Pregnant Male!!!

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

 
 
Seahorses
Hippocampus
 
 
 
 
The Pregnant Male !!!
Seahorses are among the only animal species on Earth in which the male bears the unborn young. Male seahorses are equipped with a brood pouch on their ventral, or front-facing, side. When mating, the female deposits her eggs into his pouch, and the male fertilizes them internally. He carries the eggs in his pouch until they hatch, then releases fully formed, miniature seahorses into the water.
When people first hear about seahorse male getting pregnant, the question that naturally follows is, “So what makes them male?” The simple answer is sperm. The distinction between scarce round eggs and prolific tadpole-like sperm is essentially all that separates woman from man. 
  
This delicate, diminutive creature (size of a tea cup) has enchanted people for thousands of years. It was Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who first wrote about the unusual habits of the Syngnathidae family in the third century BC..
In ancient Rome, the people believed that when Neptune, the god of the ocean, traveled, he swished through the water in a chariot drawn by gigantic, enchanted horses who could breathe underwater. When fishermen first saw the minute sea horses, they thought that they must be the offspring of Neptune’s horses, and they were fascinated with the little creatures.
Now we know that sea horses are, of course, not horses at all, they are merely a unique kind of fish. But these petite sea creatures with the elongated snout still seem as magical to us as they were to the ancient Romans.They are playful and graceful, and divers often stop to watch these marvelous creatures frolic around in the depths of the sea.
 
Habits
Sea horses don’t have scales the way that many other kinds of fish do. Instead, they have bony plates underneath their skin, like a small suit of armor to protect them from harm. There are numerous different kinds of sea horses, and they come in varying colors and sizes. Sea horses can be very tiny, and some are no larger than the length of the fingernail on your pinkie finger. Many types of sea horses have a unique way to camouflage themselves and hide from their enemies. Some can change colors, and chameleon-like, blend in with their surroundings. Some sea horses look so much like their surroundings that it is difficult to see them unless one is looking closely, and this helps to hide them from predators. One kind of sea horse even grows hair-like skin extensions so that they will blend in with the plant life whose fronds wave gently in the water of the ocean. Seahorses have no teeth and no stomach. Food passes through their digestive systems so quickly, they must eat constantly to stay alive

Breeding

It is the male, not female, sea horses who are impregnated, and they can have up to 1500 babies at one time. Males have a special patch or pouch on their belly that provides incubation for the female’s eggs. The female transfers the eggs to the male’s pouch, and they then attach to the wall of the male’s pouch. After the male fertilizes the eggs, they are retained within the brood pouch to develop. When the young hatch, the male expels them from the pouch and they emerge looking like miniature versions of the adults. During the entire pregnancy, a mated pair of sea horses will dance in the water together every day just after the sun has risen. Scientists have speculated for years on the reason for this, but no one really knows why the sea horses execute this peculiar, beautiful greeting dance.
 
 

Seahorse distribution map
They are found in shallow, coastal, tropical and temperate waters from about 45°S to 45°N. They inhabit many ecologically sensitive aquatic habitats, including coral reefs, sea grasses, mangroves and estuaries, with most species in the Indo-Pacific and western Atlantic regions. Sea horses primarily occupy inshore habitats in narrow strips along the coast and prefer shallow waters (< 15 m depth), but have been encountered in shallow rock pools. Many temperate and tropical sea horse species inhabit sea grass meadows, while others inhabit mangrove ecosystems and coral reefs.
 
In medicine

Ironically, it is their very popularity that places them in danger, as they are sought in large numbers for use in traditional medicine, aquarium fish and curios (souvenirs).

Seahorses are used as an ingredient in traditional medicine, particularly in southeast Asia where traditional Chinese medicine and its derivatives (e.g. Japanese and Korean traditional medicine)are practiced and have been used perhaps for about 600 years. Seahorses are credited with having a role in increasing and balancing vital energy flows within the body, as well as a curative role for such ailments as impotence and infertility, asthma, high cholesterol, goitre, kidney disorders, and skin afflictions such as severe acne and persistent nodules. They are also reported to facilitate parturition, act as a powerful general tonic and as a potent aphrodisiac.

It was conservatively estimated that at least 20 million sea horses (more than 56 metric tonnes) were caught for the traditional medicine market. In addition, more than one million live sea horses are caught for aquarium trade, mostly destined for sale in North America, Europe, Japan and Taiwan. The value of sea horses is quite high; the price of dried sea horses in Hong Kong markets ranges from Rs 11,500 to 50,400 (US$ 275 to 1200) per kg depending on the species, quality and size. About 50 countries are involved in sea horse exploitation.

Medicinal seahorse
India is one of the largest exporters of dried sea horses globally, exporting at least 3.6 tonnes (~ 1.3million sea horses) annually, and contributes to about 30% of the global seahorse trade. There is also a significant trade in sea horses as aquarium fishes,as supplements in some specialized cuisine and as curios. Sea horses are exploited both as an incidental catch (by-catch in trawl nets) and target catch, for export. Presently, the commercial exploitation of sea horses is being carried out from Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts. Along Ramnad coast in Tamil Nadu, dried sea horse is used as a medicine to arrest whooping cough in children.

Goa– Maharashtra coast also indicated a similar usage. Demand for medicinal purposes has increased 10-fold during the 1980s and continues to grow at an annual rate of about 8–10% in China alone, predominantly due to China’s economic boom which promotes increased consumer-spending on traditional medicines.
 
Today, sea horse populations face an unpredictable future. They are not as yet on the endangered list, or even the potentially threatened list, but scientists and other experts are worried. Fishermen are catching far too many of them, and more of their underwater habitats are destroyed each day by pollution and other human carelessness. 
 

Population data for most of the world’s 35 seahorse species is sparse. However, worldwide coastal habitat depletion, pollution, and rampant harvesting, mainly for use in Asian traditional medicine, have made several species vulnerable to extinction.

In Mythology

The hippocamp or hippocampus in Greek and often called a sea-horse in English, is a mythological creature shared by Phoenician and Greek mythology, though the name by which it is recognised is purely Greek; it became part of Etruscan mythology. It has typically been depicted as a horse in its forepart with a coiling, scaly, fishlike hindquarter.

Hippocamp in Roman mosaic in the thermae at Aquae Sulis (Bath)
Homer described Poseidon, who was god of horses (Poseidon Hippios) as well as of the sea, drawn by “brazen-hoofed” horses over the sea’s surface, and Apollonius of Rhodes, being consciously archaic in Argonautica describes the horse of Poseidon emerging from the sea and galloping away across the Libyan sands In Hellenistic and Roman imagery. However, Poseidon (or Roman Neptune) often drives a sea-chariot drawn by hippocampi. Thus hippocamps sport with this god in both ancient depictions and much more modern ones, such as in the waters of the eighteenth-century Trevi Fountain in Rome surveyed by Neptune from his niche above.
Poseidon’s horses, which were included in the elaborate sculptural program of gilt-bronze and ivory, added by a Roman client to the temple of Poseidon at Corinth, are likely to have been hippocamp.
 
 
References: Wikipedia, National Geographic, essortment.com, National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.
 
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Sunday Article: Coral Reefs – “Living Organisms”

Coral Reefs
 
“The Living Organisms”
 

 
Some of the biodiversity of a coral reef, in this case the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
 
Called “rainforests of the sea”, coral reefs are living organism and the oldest, most productive ecosystems on earth.
 
Existing for more than 500 million years, Corals are marine organisms from the class Anthozoa and exist as small sea anemone-like polyps, typically in colonies of many identical individuals. The group includes the important reef builders that are found in tropical oceans, which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
 A coral “head”, commonly perceived to be a single organism, is formed from myriads of individual but genetically identical polyps, each polyp only a few millimeters in diameter. Over thousands of generations, the polyps lay down a skeleton that is characteristic of their species. An individual head of coral grows by asexual reproduction of the individual polyps. Corals also breed sexually by spawning, with corals of the same species releasing gametes simultaneously over a period of one to several nights around a full moon.

Although corals can catch small fish and animals such as plankton using stinging cells on their tentacles, these animals obtain most of their nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular algae called zooxanthellae. Consequently, most corals depend on sunlight and grow in clear and shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 metres (200 ft). These corals can be major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Other corals do not have associated algae and can live in much deeper water, with the cold-water genus Lophelia surviving as deep as 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). Examples of these can be found living on the Darwin Mounds located north-west of Cape Wrath, Scotland. Corals have also been found off the coast of Washington State and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.Corals coordinate behaviour by communicating with each other.
 
Globally, coral reefs are under threat from climate change, ocean acidification, overuse of reef resources, and harmful land-use practices. High nutrient levels such as those found in runoff from agricultural areas can harm reefs by encouraging excess algae growth.
 
Formations

Coral reefs can take a variety of forms, defined in following:

Fringing reef – a reef that is directly attached to a shore or borders it with an intervening shallow channel or lagoon.

Barrier reef – a reef separated from a mainland or island shore by a deep lagoon (Great Barrier Reef).

Patch reef – an isolated, often circular reef, usually within a lagoon or embayment.

Apron reef – a short reef resembling a fringing reef, but more sloped; extending out and downward from a point or peninsular shore.

Bank reef – a linear or semi-circular shaped-outline, larger than a patch reef.
Ribbon reef – a long, narrow, somewhat winding reef, usually associated with an atoll lagoon.

Atoll reef – a more or less circular or continuous barrier reef extending all the way around a lagoon without a central island.

Table reef – an isolated reef, approaching an atoll type, but without a lagoon.
Distribution
Coral reefs are estimated to cover 284,300 square kilometers, with the Indo-Pacific region (including the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific) accounting for 91.9% of the total. Southeast Asia accounts for 32.3% of that figure, while the Pacific including Australia accounts for 40.8%. Atlantic and Caribbean coral reefs only account for 7.6%.
  
 
 

 
Location map of coral reefs
 
Locations of coral reefs.
Although corals exist both in temperate and tropical waters, shallow-water reefs form only in a zone extending from 30°N to 30°S of the equator. Tropical corals do not grow at depths of over 50 m (165 ft). Temperature has less of an effect on the distribution of tropical coral, but it is generally accepted that they do not exist in waters below 18 °C., and that the optimum temperature is 26-27° Celsius for most coral reefs. The reefs in the Persian Gulf however have adapted to temperatures of 13° Celsius in winter and 38° Celsius in summer. Deep water coral is more still exceptional since it can exist at greater depths and colder temperatures. Although deep water corals can form reefs, very little is known about them.

Famous coral reefs and reef areas of the world include:

The Great Barrier Reef – largest coral reef system in the world, Queensland, Australia;
The Belize Barrier Reef – second largest in the world, stretching from southern Quintana Roo, Mexico along the coast of Belize to the Bay Islands of Honduras.
The New Caledonia Barrier Reef – second longest double barrier reef in the world, with a length of about 1500 km.
The Andros, Bahamas Barrier Reef – third largest in the world, following the east coast of Andros Island, Bahamas, between Andros and Nassau.
The Red Sea Coral Reef – located off the coast of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 
 Pulley Ridge – deepest photosynthetic coral reef, Florida 
 Numerous reefs scattered over the Maldives 
 Ghe Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia’s West Papua province offer the highest known marine diversity.
 

 Anatomy of Coral Polyp
 
 References: Wikipedia
 
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