Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Leaf Insects- marvel of nature in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary

The forests of the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary are part of the Western Ghats forests and are teaming with wildlife especially in the monsoons.
Most of this biodiversity of life forms is either ignored or goes unappreciated by visitors as well as nature lovers. From the forest floor to the undergrowth vegetation and the tree canopy, the multitudes of insects, some of which are unique and exceptional are found in these dense forests and need to be valued for their contribution to our ecological, aesthetic and economical factors.
In fact a small walk or nature trail can reveal these natural wonders and every single life form is a treat to watch and observe for hours on end.
The Leaf Insect is one such life form that is distinctive and exceptional in its shape and behavior too! Fondly also referred to as walking leafs they are closely related to Stick insects and are found in forest habitats in the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary. They belong to the Class Insecta and Family Phyllidae of which there are 35 plus known species so far to the world of science and all these are found in the tropical region of our planet. Scientists studying these insects have stated that these creatures have not significantly changed for the last 50 million years ever since they have first evolved!
Completely herbivorous and nocturnal in nature, these insects are normally found at eye level in undisturbed forest habitats as well as fringe forests near human habitation. During the day, they rest on leaves of plants that match their body patterns and some species have reached a remarkable degree of camouflage, making them highly indistinguishable for the untrained eye. Excellent mimics, the leaf insect has been observed to sway along with the leaves that it rests, especially when approached by a predator.
The specimen in the photograph was documented in the forests of Surla in the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary and is an uncommon species to come across due to its excellent camouflage and low numbers. Very little is known of the ecology and breeding behavior of these creatures and more studies in this aspect are the need of the hour. Species like the leaf insect are the true marvels of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Barred Wolf snake.

It has been a busy monsoon. Yes, accepted that the rains have been late this year around in the coastal areas of our state, but up here in the Ghats and beyond, the Rains Gods have blessed the land with a barrage of rain clouds, thanks to which a carpet of greens now surrounds my campsite and life forms seem to burst out of every nook and cranny! Leeches are at their very active best and accompanied by snails and centipedes have taken over the forest floor. Bush frogs and tree frogs, and a myriad form of insect life including cicadas, crickets and various sizes of beetles and bugs, all vying for territory and mates, rule the tree canopy while below the earths surface another world awakens from its slumber! These are my favorites…shieldtail snakes, burrowing frogs and of course caecilians, wonders of the amphibian world!
The monsoons are a herpetologists delight, and a time to work without rest, especially in the Western Ghats as these are times when reptiles and amphibians showcase themselves in their true sense…and can thus be documented and studied, observed and watched, for a period of 90 plus days, i.e. during the monsoons.
A bad back thanks to a 12 kilos backpack and an even worse cold has ensured that I am half my usual self on this particular night trail, but a break in the continuous deluge seems to get the better of my reasoning and we set out for a trail. Armed with a rubber waterproof bag holds a camera, a GPS and a notepad, I head out with Vaibhav to look for subjects for photo documentation as well study-this is the Mhadei region and documenting its diversity is more of a cause now.
Its been more than a decade, and after having trodden many paths and off beat trails, and lessons learnt include carrying out searches for reptiles, especially snakes in fringe forest areas, i.e. areas where the plantations end and forest habitats meet…as these are areas that time and again reveal hidden gems that sometimes have escaped our attention. We start searching near an abandoned cow shed, near a plantation and after just 20 minutes of rummaging into a interesting mixture of compost and hay, we stumble upon our first find…a Wolf snake. I carefully focus my torch to check out the species, with some rattling field identification methods in mind and voila… my subject rolls itself into a ball of black coils and tucks its head in between these coils! I almost scream in excitement while Vaibhav prepares to take readings. This is undoubtedly an addition to the list of snakes in this region…I say aloud…this is the Barred Wolf Snake (Lycodon striatus).
A slender bodied snake with a flattened head and a glossy black back inter spread with a series of white bars across its body, which diminishes towards the tail. This species has interesting faint yellow colored mid spots that resemble the shape of diamonds when observed from close and are a key to its field identification along with the characteristic white lip scales that this species possess!
Shy and nocturnal, this is of course a non venomous species of wolf snake with a very mild temperament and is known to hide its head under its own coils when provoked or disturbed, thereby turning itself into a peculiar ball of coils, unlike other wolf snakes which are known to have a rather furious temperament. Known to inhabit semi dry and fringe forest areas, the Barred Wolf snake has been reported in Goa earlier from the Mollem National Park by the then RFO Mr. Prakash Salelkar a few years ago along with many other reptilian wonders that he had brought to the notice of the Indian Herpetological Society then. Though known to be common in the country, there have been very few records of this species otherwise in this region and was for us an important step in the right direction to conserve and document Goa’s ophidian diversity.
And while the documentation of this species in the Chorla Ghats makes the number of wolf snake species found in this region to three, which includes the Common Wolf snake, the Travancore Wolf snake and the Barred Wolf snake, it is but important to understand that this diversity needs to be conserved at all costs. While the Chorla Ghats area in particular and the Mhadei Bio Region in general is being increasingly recognized by wildlife researchers as a hotspot for lesser known biodiversity, the documentation of this species has reconfirmed the need to extensively study and conserve this area for posterity!
With a hope to find the strength and time to document more species in this region and a silent prayer to Brahmini Maya, the local folk deity of snakes, we complete our data sheet and watch our subject melt into the leaf litter near a patch of grass. We have taken images and marked a GPS location, and are about to call it a night when Vaibhav whistles aloud again…another interesting find. But that is another story…for another day.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Birds of the Western Ghats-an audio visual cd

This Cd is a first of its kind Audio Visual kit of bird calls recorded by Mr Sharad Apte, bird song recordist and birder from Nasik.This CD is available in English and Marathi and is available at Earthworm. for details contact

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revisiting Surla

Its that time of the year again. When it rains...and the forests of Chorla Ghats respond. Everything changes. Endless layers of slate gray clouds form over thick dense forests and incessant sheets of rain come crashing down on us feeble beings. Yes its that time of the year again when nature lovers and herpetologists alike done their gum boots and rainwear and go wildlife watching out in the rains.
We chose Surla.817 meters above sea level, Goa’s remotest village and a hotspot for herps, i.e. reptiles and amphibians. Having surveyed the area 7 years ago as part of a project on Man-Reptile interactions, this was familiar territory. And yet I knew things must have changed now! Being part of the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary the forests that surrounded Surla were typical of the Western Ghats landscape and thus a repository of an array of biodiversity.
9.00 pm on a night devoid of any stars so far as the rainclouds seemed to have taken over. Kishore drops us in the middle of nowhere at Dhavlemandnecho Sado and heads for home for a hot water bath. Standing in knee-deep water, our headlights illuminate the chocolate brown forest floor and the wet green forests seem to herald our arrival. Vaibhav flashes his trademark smile and I grin back in return-we’re back. Armed with huge umbrellas, a snake hook, bags, and the works and a gap of 7 long years seem like a lifetime away from this place.
As cascading sheets of water thrash our rainwear, we drain out all the noises and listen in awe at the innumerable calls of frogs that seemed to fill the misty air of Dhavlemandnecho Sado almost as if to welcome our arrival. Mycrohilids, Indiranas and Philatus I say to myself, bothering little to go to the species level and yet keen to view some of the elusive species in these parts, including the now famous Malabar Gliding Frog, which I had first reported from this area to the wildlife community of Goa!
With every passing moment, we uncover species after species of herps some of which are new to our eyes and need expert identifications. Scanning the forest floor, amidst leaf litter and at eye level amongst branches and shrubs, we for once abandon our formal survey techniques and enjoy the rains and its subjects. Looking at an ‘Indirana’ species of frog camouflaged on a laterite plateau we wonder whether this is an addition to the existing checklist or not, while my subject quietly gives me the slip and moves away!
With Vaibhav by my side and the Rain God as my inspiration we wade across puddles, squat amongst flowing streams and climb rock faces to search for herps .Its been over 3 hours now and we are not finished. Juggling between an umbrella, a white LED Maglite and my trusted Canon SLR,I have managed to freeze images of herps in this side of the wilderness. But amongst frogs, lizards and 3 species of snakes (including the Pied belly shieldtail and the Travancore Wolf snake) we’ve found plastic, broken glass bottles, empty gutka packets and discarded food plates…remnants of a stark reality-all is not well at Surla. With crowds of visitors coming from Karnataka as well as Goa in search of a picnic spot and local liquor on weekends to revel in the rains, the unique habitats of the picturesque village of Surla are deteriorating at a fast pace. In fact some of the damage done is irreversible as far as niche habitats are concerned and even in the darkness of the night we see areas where visitors have lit fires and in the process burnt trees and undergrowth, littered in small caves and under large tree canopies and left their marks on rock faces and streams. It is regretful that we do not realize the importance of specialized habitats like these and conserve them for posterity!
Yet all is not lost. With help from the Vivekanand Environment Awareness brigade, local youth are creating awareness in a small way. The Goa Forest Department too seems to be helping this initiative and I hope this brings about a change before it is too late.
And this is true for every wilderness area in the state. As responsible citizens we all need to understand that visiting any forests whether for adventure or study or just fun, is acceptable only when minimal impact is done to the area and this is a social responsibility of us all. The sooner we realize this the better this would be for us all as well as for our wild habitats that span across the state.
As we head back, crossing gushing streams and peeping inside a cave, a sambhar calls in the valley below even as a combination of mist and fog assault our vision in a patch of thick undergrowth of mixed moist deciduous forest. It is 1.35 in the night. With each passing second we are convinced that this is a special place and needs to be conserved. With a commitment to return once again and to spread awareness about Surla’s forests, we trudge along the offbeat path and into the village where an anxious Kishore transports us back to civilization once again.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vanamahotsav week program at Earthworm.

Plants play an important role not only in our ecosystem, but also in our daily lives. It is commonly understood that plants provide of oxygen, food to all life forms, and absorb pollutants. Little however is known about the ecological importance of indigenous species and the benefits of planting them not only to people but also to our local fauna. Planting exotic species in many urban as well as forest habitats in the state has resulted in alteration of habitats and loss of primary green cover.
On July the 5th, we welcome all nature lovers, tree huggers and green thinkers to our burrow at Green valley for a talk by Shri Rajendra Kerkar on ‘Indigenous Plants and Trees- their cultural and ecological significance’.
Shri Rajendra Kerkar, environmentalist and historian has written extensively on the role of plants and trees in our culture and ecology and has advocated plantation of local species across the state for over a decade. We at Earthworm want to carry this thought forward by organizing a talk of his knowledge and experiences on the subject.
The talk cum power point presentation is arranged at 5.00 pm -7.00pm at Earthworm, Green Valley, Alto Porvorim Goa and a limited number of indigenous plant saplings will be for sale.
For details contact- or call on 083224107871.