Month: May 2011

The whistling thrush

The whistling thrush

mwthrush_toroost

The whistling thrush sings—the clouds approach—
Lilting tunes smooth—as the river’s flow
Is it for love, or gain—for intruder, reproach—
Who am I to say, or know?

The stream speaks softly—the banks glisten
With sparkling shingles—and damselfly wings—
Earthly purpose—no place for heaven
Is this the reason—the whistling thrush sings?

The voice of generations—across the firmament of time
Or ripple song—damselfly idyll anew—
With sprightly pose—the thrush sings sublime
A river-melody, an earth-harmony—I wish I knew—

The song-stream flows, slows—eternal
The sparkle-sun dips, slips—funereal
Is this the way—of space and time to go?
Who am I to say, or know?

Bats and batgirls

Bats and batgirls

Naan paer Claire. Naan vowvall araichee… I am Claire. I research bats.

It has a confessional ring to it, to my ears, every time I say it; and I do sometimes get looked at as though I’m insane as I try to explain why I try to study these animals that many people consider ‘useless’ and rather sinister, that can fly, live at night, and find their way in the dark better than most of us can in daylight. But to quote Hunter S. Thompson, ‘If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.’ The challenges and rewards of studying these elusive animals keeps me committed to wildlife rather than simply committed, and pays me to travel to boot. I consider that quite a bargain. I’d also like to try and share with you my ever-growing fascination with bats, and why I want to understand their world. Also, I’ll include cute bats photos of species we’ve caught in Valparai; all together now, awwwwwww!

Rhinolophus lepidus
Rhinolophus lepidus

In their defence, bats aren’t ‘useless’ at all; even if you accept the premise that we should only study species that benefit people (which I don’t), they do many useful tasks under the cover of darkness. In fact, they were recently voted the world’s fourth most useful natural group (after bees, fungi and protozoa) in a public debate at the Zoological Society of London. (The merits of determining an animal’s usefulness by public debate can be criticised elsewhere, but here they supported my point!) Bats can eat up to 3000 insects a night, including mosquitos and midges – a good thing, I think anyone who’s spent a lot of time doing fieldwork will agree – and in many places they have been found to eat crop pests as well, benefiting US agriculture to the tune of at least $3.7 billion a year. Even the tropical fruit bats, so often persecuted for eating fruit in orchards, play their roles; pollinating and dispersing the seeds of rainforest species, helping to keep these vital ecosystems intact. And as for the bats that everyone asks about – the vampire bats that evoke ruined castles, caped intruders and pale-skinned damsels in distress – well, there are a whopping three species that drink blood (out of about 1,200 bat species worldwide) and they all live in Latin America, where some feed on cattle, some on birds and goats and some on any sleeping mammals; so in India, the only bloodsuckers you need to worry about are the leeches!

And you do have to worry about the leeches - never go out in holey socks!
And you do have to worry about the leeches - never go out in holey socks!

As I have learnt more about bats during the first few months of my PhD, I have been amazed by their behaviour, and their unique place in the natural kingdom. There are over 1200 species of bats, and more are being discovered all the time, making them the second most speciose mammal group after rodents. They are, however not closely related to rodents at all; in fact, bats are considered evolutionarily far closer to carnivores, ungulates and cetaceans, although there is still some debate on their evolutionary past. They are the only mammals that can fly, and insectivorous bats echolocate to navigate in the dark and find their prey, making high frequency calls and listening for the echoes that bounce back. Certain species can navigate so precisely that they can pluck a spider from its web without getting tangled. Sometimes, people with good hearing can hear their low frequency social calls; if we could hear their high frequency calls, they would sound as loud as a fire engine’s siren! It is these calls that researchers record with bat detectors. A recent experiment showed that bats even manage to spread culture through calls, with naïve bats quickly learning to associate novel frog calls with food as they heard their neighbours hunting and eating in response to these calls (and presumably ‘ooohing’ and ‘aaahing’), even when the call was from a frog they wouldn’t ever eat. (Frog lovers; no frogs were killed in this study. Read about it in the links at the end of this blog!)

Megaderma spasma
Megaderma spasma

Bats can live for well over twenty years, and my colleague Emma’s work in the UK has shown that in one species at least it is not until they are 4 years old that 100% of the cohort are breeding (think about what that means for any population decline). Mothers produce one pup at a time, generally only one or two a year depending on climate, feeding them on their milk; some species fly around with the baby attached to them, while others leave the babies in a group while they go to feed, and then return and identify their own pup out of potentially thousands of others. They have complex social lives, interacting with many other bats in the roost; vampire bats live so closely together that a full bat will feed one that has returned hungry from a night’s hunt, knowing that should it return hungry one day its roost mates will feed it in return. This is a very rare case of true reciprocal altruism to non-kin in the animal kingdom – although it appears it only occurs between females.

Miniopterus schreibersii
Miniopterus schreibersii

Bats live in trees, caves, tunnels, mines, house roofs and even make tents from palm fronds. Some Lophostoma bats live in termite mounds, possibly sending chemical signals that induce the termites not to attack them; the precise mechanism is still unknown. They feed on a range of foods from fruit and nectar to arthropods, frogs, fish and sometimes other bats, and some even take mineral supplements; a research team recently found that some fruit bats in Ecuador lick mineral clays to counteract the toxins found in energy rich unripe fruits.

juvenile Rousettus leschenaultii
Juvenile Rousettus leschenaultii

We have so much more to learn about these fascinating creatures, but we may be running out of time. In addition to threats from habitat destruction, hunting for food, medicine and fun, being killed by air pressure changes around wind turbines and the disturbance of mines and caves, an even more sinister shadow is spreading. Like Colony Collapse Disorder in bees, and Chytridomycosis in amphimbians, a killer disease is threatening bat populations across the USA and possibly the world. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has up to 97% mortality rate in some bat roosts, and has so far killed at least a million bats – a huge number considering that this disease was first documented in 2006. This disease leaves suffering bats with characteristic white fungal growths on their face, and they usually die soon after developing these symptoms. This is puzzling as most fungal infections do not kill their host. So far researchers have discovered that bats found dead from the disease tend to be in very poor condition, often found dead outside the roosts that they use to hibernate in for the cold Northern Hemisphere winters as if they had gone to search for food, so one theory is that the fungus irritates the bats and wakes them from hibernation causing them to fly around and use energy when food is scarce. The bats’ immune systems may be weaker when they are hibernating, allowing the fungus to take hold; or an as yet unidentified disease may be knocking out the immune system and killing the bat, with the fungus opportunistically taking hold.

Myotis horsfieldii
Myotis horsfieldii

Whatever the cause, White Nose Syndrome is being taken very seriously in the USA where it has emerged. The problem is how to tackle it. While in lab conditions simple fungicides such as Athlete’s foot powders seem to kill the fungus, the treatments can kill bats and possibly other cave life. So far, people are trying not to spread the disease further by thorough disinfection when entering and leaving caves, and many caves are closed to the public; but some bat species migrate hundreds of kilometres, so can potentially spread it across huge distances themselves. It has now been found in 14 American states and 2 Canadian provinces, and even – possibly – in Europe. Researchers in Europe have found bats that exhibited the characteristic white nose and tested positive for the fungus Geomyces destructans, the same fungus found in the North American bats, but appeared otherwise healthy. This has lead to the hope that European bats may be less susceptible to the disease, or have a lower mortality rate. Because the mortality rate is serious; if the current mortality rates hold, then America’s most common bat species will be extinct in the eastern US in twenty years, a terrible loss for America, and for the world.

Rhinolophus rouxii
Rhinolophus rouxii

***

Fortunately, WNS is unlikely to spread through much of India as the fungus prefers temperatures below 20°C and spreads through roosts where bats are hibernating against the cold. In the meantime, we aim to find out a little about what species the Western Ghats supports, their social lives, habitat requirements, genetics and calls, and how any parasite borne diseases spread through these populations. I also hope in coming years to assess their ‘usefulness’ in terms of eating coffee pests.

In our pursuit of these wonderful little animals, we’ve faced many and diverse challenges. We’ve had nights with no bats. We’ve had to climb down rope ladders to get to the bats, and waded through thigh high water full of bat dropping, weeds and no doubt horrible parasites to position the harp traps (sorry Occupational Health and Safety!). We’ve run away from elephants, and stood with our hearts in our mouths as Anand, our incomparable field assistant, shooed away huge male gaur as if they were naughty goats. We’ve fallen in innumerable rivers, got hideously muddy and had our legs mauled by leeches. We’ve sat at a roost while Rhinolophus rouxii flew up to our harp traps and wheeled away at the last minute, and sworn in frustration as even those that fell in to the bags managed somehow to fly back out again, refusing to sit and roost quietly like most of our species. We’ve got drenched in thunderstorms, sunburnt (well, we sometimes have to go out in daylight) and even had Nilgiri langurs try to urinate on us from a great height. Our GPS messed up and eventually died in the middle of an acoustic transect, as we stood in the dark and howled at the gods of malfunctioning technology. We’ve been overwhelmed with awkward questions when going for anti-rabies shots, including being asked ‘where do you want the shot…hand or buttock’ in a room full of gawking strangers. And I won’t even go into our problems with the forest permits…except to wonder how we were meant to study bats with a permit that allowed us into the reserve from 6am to 6pm.

Climbing down to the harp traps
Climbing down to the harp traps

But yet there have been many highs as well. We’ve caught close to 200 bats, collected disgusting but scientifically fascinating parasites from over 100 of them and recorded many of their calls. We’ve also collected lots of rather malodourous bat faeces, which we can use to see what they’re eating. We’ve seen some lovely species, from the big, gentle fruit bats Rousettus leschenaultii to the funny little Rhinolophus lepidus with their yellow noseleaves. We’ve also enjoyed some beautiful country on our transect walks – when we could take a moment to look up from the acoustic detectors and recorders and gaze up at the fireflies flashing in the dark trees, silhouetted against the night sky. We’ve been privileged enough to watch families of elephants feed and sleep, to see a leopard cat look into our eyes from just a few metres away and to meet some truly wonderful people in the course of our work. Despite the many scars we’ve sustained, I want to leave you with another Hunter S. Thompson quote – ‘So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?’

For further reading, here are some interesting links:

http://www.batcon.org/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/06/060619235450.htm

http://davidsbatblog.blogspot.com/

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/06/panama-bats/christian-ziegler-photography

http://www.topnews.in/health/why-fruit-eating-bats-gorge-veggies-inedible-parts-22120

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/04/bat-value

http://www.megabats.org/index.html

Snared

Snared

– By Ranjini Murali

Under the harsh rays of the mid-morning sun, he almost looked like he was resting in the shade. However, the resigned droop of his head and the large group of people crowding around him, less than five metres away, made the picture of him resting seem terribly amiss. And on careful observation, I could just make out the snare, tightened around his wrist, cruelly pulling up his muscular golden arm.

leopard_teaestate

Anand had been called by the managers of a tea estate, just on the outskirts of Valparai, informing him that a leopard had been caught in a snare there (on 25 March 2011). I had tagged along with Anand when he went to oversee the situation. This leopard had been caught in the snare for more than thirty hours already. He had evidently struggled and was bearing the marks of those excruciating thirty hours. The fur on his left arm, from the elbow to the wrist, had been peeled away by the snare, leaving the area red and inflamed. The snare had probably first caught around his upper arm, a little above the elbow, then pulled along the length of his fore-arm finally tightening around his wrist. His left eye was red and swollen, probably hit by a stray branch, while he had struggled. In spite of being trapped and hurt, he seemed to radiate power and none dared get too close. Cameramen hustled around trying to get the best footage, while the guards tried to keep everyone at a distance so as not to alarm the leopard. The leopard, too exhausted to lift his head, gently closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. My heart twisted as I watched him. So much power and grace caught like that, for no fault of his.

leopard

The range officer and the wildlife vet finally arrived at the scene. As they moved close to the leopard to tranquilize him, he let out a tremendous roar which made me jump out of my skin. Had I said he seemed defeated? Of course not! Even after thirty hours, this guy still had plenty of fight in him. They managed to get a good shot and soon the tranquilizer put the leopard to sleep. The vet, Dr Manoharan, undid the snare and attended to his injuries, which luckily were not too severe. The leopard had dislocated his middle finger and had congestion in his eye but other than that he was fine. He was a young male, around two years, who had probably just learnt to hunt. He may have been looking through the undergrowth for small game when he was caught in the snare. Dr Manoharan then covered the leopard with a gunny bag and left him to recover.

And now the big question—what was to be done with the leopard? Anand and the vet started to discuss the possibilities. Both were very keen the leopard be left where he was. None of his injuries were too serious and he was young, so he was expected to recover quickly. But if the leopard was left here, would that be in the best interest of the leopard, and what of the people living around? The managers quickly interjected here and said there were no houses close to this area and very few people came here. In fact, the tea pluckers came only once in two weeks—an ideal place for a snare. Luckily, the tea pluckers had come shortly after the leopard had been caught. If not, the leopard might not have made it.

Back to the situation at hand. He had not eaten or drunk water in two days and would probably be unable to hunt for some time yet. Should a live chicken and some water in a trough be left for the leopard to help him recover his strength? No one seemed to know exactly what to do. Anand then called on the expert Vidya Athreya for advice—she has been working on human – leopard conflict in Maharashtra for some time. She said to leave the leopard where he was and to not feed him anything as for one he would probably be too scared to eat and would run straight into cover and for another, he might develop a taste for chicken, which would cause more problems than it would solve. She also said to inform any people living around that there is an injured leopard in the area and to be on their guard. Based on her expert advice, the decision to leave the leopard in the same area was made. The Chief Wildlife Warden was then called and informed regarding the decision. After understanding the situation, the go-ahead was given.

A quick note here—the Ministry of Environment and Forests has recently published a very useful guide on human-leopard conflict management, which is invaluable in such situations. We were lucky to be able to call on an expert for advice but in many cases that may not be an option. This guide gives a detailed account on how to handle such a situation.

I like to believe the best decision possible was made in a bad situation. Right from the managers informing the authorities of the situation to the guards preventing on-lookers from getting too close to the leopard to Dr Manoharan performing such an admirable job, everything seemed to have gone as best as it could have in a situation like this. The compassion and the efficiency of Dr Manoharan, really has to be remarked upon. He was keen at looking at all angles before deciding upon the best course of action and he was very open to taking advice from an expert. I was surprised by the compassion shown by the people watching the drama unfold. Around me, I could hear them say in Tamil, “So sad for the leopard, it’s so beautiful”.  In fact, certain people had hired taxis and come all the way from Valparai to try to catch the glimpse of the leopard.

In the recent past, Valparai has been witness to a few incidents of conflict with leopard. Three children have died in the last few years. In spite of this, it was truly heartening to see the peoples’ eagerness to save this leopard. However, like all stories, the media and politicians have made the leopard situation in Valparai seem worse than it actually is. They claim leopards to be practically prowling in peoples’ backyards but after actually living in Valparai for some time, it is quite obvious most people have not seen even one leopard in all the time they have lived there.

Today, whether it was curiosity or compassion that drove the people, I think either can be harnessed for conservation purposes. Most of the time, I like to believe, people do the best they can, given what they know. A little education here can go a long way. In the face of all the terrible stories of death and burning of wildlife, it was very affirming to come across a tiny positive story. Today probably will not make a difference in the bigger conservation story but it was nice to be a witness to an act of compassion, at the very least.