Posts Tagged 'Vanishing Species'

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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(Traditional Hindu Central Courtyard Houses of Goa)

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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(Traditional Hindu Central Courtyard Houses of Goa)

Western Ghats, India – Wildlife

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).

 

Vanishing Forests…Vanishing Species

 

“ This universe is the creation of Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all; Individual species must therefore learn to enjoy its benefits by forming part of the system in close relationship with other species; let not the other species encroach upon the other’s right”.
_ Isavasya Upanishad

Over the past century, India’s wildlife has dwindled to a mere fraction of its former strength and the flora and the fauna in the Western Ghats have not fared any better. Reduction in the forest areas means reduction of the wildlife habitat, which due to various factors has become fragmented. Conversion of forests into plantations, roads, railways, agricultural holdings, human settlements, hydroelectric project, irrigation dams, mining and location of industries in forest areas have all contributed to a very sizeable area of forests lost in the Western Ghats. The other factors which contributed to the depletion of wildlife are uncontrolled hunting, poaching and pollution.

Evergreen forests of Uttara KannadaPic by Mohan Pai

Deforestation has been one of the major causes for the depletion of wildlife. With the increase in human population and the growing need for resources, forests were cleared or encroached upon for agriculture, for human habitation, for grazing of livestock and for hydroelectric and irrigation dams. Thousands of square km of prime, evergreen forests have been submerged and destroyed in the Western Ghats for the sake of these development projects.

 

Lion-tailed Macaque

Industries also made heavy demand on forest resources such as wood for paper mills, exploitation of gums and resins, mining of forest land for minerals and ores, building materials, etc. Uncontrolled hunting of wildlife for pleasure, food, furs, skins, horns, tusks, etc. posed a serious threat to the survival of wildlife. The illegal trade in animal skins has been responsible for destruction of a large number of tigers, leopards, deer, fishing cat, crocodile and snakes as well as birds with beautiful plumage. Elephants were hunted for ivory. There are laws in the country to prevent such illegal trade, but these are often violated by unscrupulous elements, traders and exporters. Added to this is the practice of trade in exotic mammals, birds and reptiles and use of animals for biomedical research.


Pollution of air, water and soil due to various industrial activities apart from affecting humans affect the well being of animals also. Industrial effluents containing harmful chemicals discharged into the lakes, rivers and oceans adversely affect the aquatic life.
DDT and Dieldrin, used as pesticides also has major effect on birds, particularly sea birds. The egg shells of birds become thin, making them vulnerable to breakage due to the weight of the female while incubating them. Oil pollution is another serious problem affecting the seas through leakage from cargo ships and due to accidents.

Natural Extinction of Species

Despite, the seemingly complex and stable nature of ecosystems, a large number of animals which roamed the earth in early geological periods have become extinct. Extinction is a natural phenomena in the evolution of animals. Certain species disappear gradually as they are unable to withstand the competition from those that are better adapted. Sometimes a whole group of animals have become extinct as had happened with dinosaurs at the end of Cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago. Many mammals like mammoths and mastodons have also become extinct. Countless other forms of animals and plants have flourished and disappeared. We know about them from fossil records preserved in the crust of the earth. Extinction is irreversible. This has been part of the evolutionary process which has produced more advanced forms of life – a process that has occurred over a vast span of time over millions of years. The greatest contribution of Charles Darwin, who propounded the Theory of Evolution, in his logical explanation for evolutionary changes and appearance of new form of life – natural selection – the success of those organisms that are capable of adapting to the environment, to survive and reproduce.
Extinction of species has taken place over millions of years, long before the advent of man. Primitive man lived in harmony with nature and did not cause the extinction of animal species. However, the spread of civilization across the world and the progressive exploitation of Nature have had an adverse impact on wildlife. Hunting for animals, alteration of the environment, habitat destruction, pollution of the land, air and water, the human population explosion – all these have been responsible for the extinction of animal species in recent times. Since the 17th Century about 120 mammals and 150 birds have become extinct. The rate of extinction due to human interference has accelerated since the dawn of industrial age. In India, the Cheetah, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, the pink- headed duck and the mountain quail have become extinct in the last one century. Many mammals and birds have become rare and endangered and many a natural range diminished in size with increasing deforestation, often confining the animals to small territories.

Animal Association in Hindu religion

The wildlife always had an association with the folklore and the legendary belief of India. Some 30 different mammals are mentioned by name in the Samhita (the four principal Vedas). Among them is the elephant, the favourite of Indra, whose sanctity is enhanced by the belief that eight elephants guard the eight celestial points of the compass. The langur or Hanuman monkey is held in veneration because of its association with the warrior monkeys who helped Rama in his war against Ravana. The lion is one of the many incarnations of Vishnu. The tiger finds mention in the later Vedic texts. The mongoose features in Mahabharata as a teacher of wisdom to King Yudhistira.

The deer is always associated with Brahma, the creator, and is the constant companion of Mahadeva. The wild boar is referred to as ‘Boar of Heaven’. It is told how in the primordial floods Vishnu taking the form of a boar, raised the submerged earth from the waters and supported it on his tusks.

Lord Ganesha, Hanuman, Narasimha, are deities worshipped all over India that have animal association. Different animals and birds are also venerated as vehicles of different deities. Nandi, the bull for Shiva, deer for Brahma, eagle for Vishnu, peacock for Saraswati, tiger for Durga, horses for the Sun God, and so on.

The earliest known record of measures taken for the protection of animal life comes from India. The oldest record which we have today is the Fifth Pillar edict of Ashoka the Great by which game and fishery laws were introduced into northern India in the third century B.C. In this inscription the Emperor had carved on enduring stone a list of birds, beasts, fishes and possibly even insects, which were to be strictly preserved. The mammals named are bats, monkeys, rhinoceros, porcupines, tree squirrels, barasingha stags, brahminy bulls, and all four footed animals which were not utilised or eaten.

Gaur 

The edict further ordains ‘that forests must not be burned, either for mischief or to destroy living creatures’. Centuries later, the Mogul Emperors, sportsmen, men of action and born observers that they were, displayed a deep interest in the animal life of the country.

Their writings are full of descriptions, some in great detail, of the animals, the plants and the flowers of the country over which they ruled.
The animal life of the Indian peninsular region is characterised by the absence of many of the Indo-Malay species which are so abundant in the hill forests of the Himalayas. It is the home of the true Indian fauna of which the spotted deer, the nilgai, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, and the sloth bear are typical representatives. They are found no where else. Other species like the gaur, the sambar and the muntjac (barking deer) occur both in India and Malay countries.

The Western Ghats, in sharp contrast to the adjoining dry zone of the Deccan present a region of great humidity and heavy rainfall. The forests covering the western slopes are at times very dense and composed of lofty trees, festooned with perennial creepers. Bamboos form a luxuriant undergrowth. In parts of the range the forests are more open and the banks of clear streams running through them are covered with spice and betel groves.

Malabar Giant Squirrel – Pic by Vivek Kale

The Nilgiris, an offshoot of the Western Ghats, rise precipitously to form extensive grassy downs and tablelands seamed with densely forested gorges or Sholas. They are composed of evergreen trees with dense undergrowth.

Sholas similar to Nilgiris occur in Anaimalais, Palni Hills, Kudremukh and other south Indian ranges. They provide the main shelter to wild elephants, gaur and other large animals of these hills. The most interesting feature of the higher level forests of Nilgiris is their affinity to the Assam hill ranges.

Many of the trees found in these high ranges and some of the forms of animal life are common to both the areas. The forests of the Western Ghats and the south Indian hill ranges have a richer fauna than the remaining areas of the peninsular region.

Tiger 

Among the species limited to these forests are the Nilgiri langur, the Lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri brown mongoose and the striped necked mongoose, the Malabar civet, and the spiny mouse. In the higher levels of the Nilgiris and the Anaimalais are found such characteristically Himalayan animals as the tahr, the pine marten and the European otter.

Endemic species of the Western Ghats

One hundred and twenty species of mammals are known from the Western Ghats of which fourteen species are endemic (found only in that area). The mammalian fauna of the Western Ghats is dominated by insectivores (11 species), bats (41 species) and rodents (27 species including porcupine). Few studies have, however, paid attention to the community structure and organisation of these small mammals in the Western Ghats, although there have been attempts to review our understanding of the status and ecology of smaller cats and lesser carnivores.

 

The Great Pied Hornbill


Rare, Endangered Species of the Western Ghats


Endangered animals are those whose numbers are at a critically low level and whose habitat is so drastically reduced or damaged that they are in imminent danger of extinction.

Slender Loris

In animal population, the tempo of decline accelerates after a gradual fall to a low level; once the local population of a species is much reduced its ability to recoup deteriorates progressively, and with the fall in numbers often the factors of depletion gain lethal potency.

Dhole (Indian Wild Dog)Pic by Maximus

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) maintains a Red Data Book providing a record of animals which are known to be in danger. In India, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, provides four schedules categorising the fauna of India based on their conservation status. Schedule I lists the rare and endangered species which are afforded legal protection. It is revised from time to time representing the exact status of the species. At present estimate, 81 species of mammals, 38 of birds and 18 amphibians and reptiles are considered to be endangered in India. Conservation efforts have restored the status of some of these animals, like the tiger, rhinoceros, crocodile, etc.

Mating Frogs – Pic by Mohan Pai

Note: This chapter is condensed for the blog. The original chapter in the book gives detailed information about the endemic and other species.

 


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