London’s wild side

There is a nip in the air and gusts are shaking the trees awake. The morning sun is hidden behind an overcast sky whose sullen grey is mirrored by the lake stretched out before me. As I scan the Serpentine’s waters, something familiar catches my eye. A rufous-and-cream bird with a feathered ruff around its head is surfing the lake, preening its feathers. It’s a great crested grebe, a bird that has eluded me for a year. And here it is, smack in the heart of London.

When the grebe finishes preening it swims in a frenzy, as if looking for something—wait, there’s another nearby. The two swim towards each other and, before I know it, erupt into a courtship dance. 

Read about the pair of dancing grebes and other urban wildlife of London here.

Finding seashells on the seashore

The smell of sea hangs thick in the air as we gather round and listen to the dos and don’ts. “Don’t pick up anything even if it seems beautiful,” Sejal Mehta tells a motley group of students and professionals. “It might sting you and you might die.”

We have assembled to spot wildlife in a metropolis where the uninitiated might not expect to find any. After all, the city of dreams, Mumbai is famous for its Bollywood ‘stars’ – not the stars that live or wash up on its shores. The city is better known by its dabbawalas clad in white than the otherworldly creatures decked up in shells or tentacles. But this is why we are here. A citizen science initiative called the Marine Life of Mumbai has organized a shore walk to bring the city’s most underrated stars into the spotlight.

Mumbai’s unexplored shores have more than 50 species of crabs, Pradip Patade, the co-founder of Marine Life of Mumbai, tells me. Patade’s day job as a watersports instructor had primed him to launch the initiative. Every day at work he would come across creatures of all sorts on the beach and in the open waters. But 2013 became a turning point for him.

Patade was on lifeguard duty when several people were stung by stingrays, which come to shallow waters to give birth and sting when stepped on. Patade, shocked by the lack of knowledge about these animals, wanted to do something. So, he started sharing his marine finds on Facebook. Years later, the naturalist teamed up with two researchers and thus, Marine Life of Mumbai was born in February 2017. It started out as an online repository of information but then Patade and his team thought that taking people along on walks would make more of a difference.

image-1Barnacles are crustaceans that can be found aplenty on Mumbai’s rocky shores 

Two years and several shore walks later, Marine Life of Mumbai has filed 1300 records of 315 species on the citizen science app iNaturalist. Meanwhile, its band of volunteers has continued to expand. The volunteers help out as resource persons for the walks, Patade says, or with identifying species, writing content for social media, and running the website.

Writer and editor Sejal Mehta has been contributing to Marine Life of Mumbai for over a year. The intertidal zone, exposed at low tide, was completely new to her when she joined. Until then, Mehta’s notion of sealife was “dolphins and whales.” Today, she is introducing us to the intertidal zone and its denizens — with metallic sea stars dangling from her ears.

Life on the city shores

Mumbai’s coastline has a variety of habitats – sandy shores, rocky shores, mudflats and mangroves, Mehta tells us. Juhu beach, where we are, has three of these – sandy, rocky and muddy – along its six-kilometre stretch. I am thinking we are in for a treat when Patade hints at the unpredictability of wildlife. You don’t always see a tiger on a tiger safari, he quips.

Just moments later, though, he points at what looks like abstract sand art. Tiny orbs of sand are strewn all around us, some stacked atop each other into miniature sandcastles. The work of sand bubbler crabs, which live in burrows and come out to feed at low tide, we are told. The orbs and castles that dot the beach are essentially sand grains that the crabs have filtered for nutrients.

We didn’t see the crabs as they remained hidden in their burrows – thanks to the big friendly giants walking overhead. But now, it became impossible for us to walk without thinking of the many lives in the sand below our feet.

image-2Patterns indicate the presence of sand bubbler crabs 

As we try keeping up with Patade, we spot a pile of hermit crabs arguing over shells. When a hermit crab grows out of one shell, it has to find – and often fight – for another, bigger shell. The shell it abandons becomes available for a smaller hermit crab to move in. But without one, this soft-bodied crab is seafood for the hungry crows and shorebirds lurking nearby. Empty snail shells are prime real estate here, we realise as we leave the hermits to themselves.

And soon, we chance upon a sea anemone. It would fit on the palm of your hand, except that stinging cells line its tentacles. Waves come and go but the anemone remains firmly anchored to the spot – only its tentacles dance in tune with the ebb and flow. Some anemones form symbiotic associations with other animals such as hermit crabs, Mehta volunteers. But the most amazing thing, she says, is that they can multiply by splitting into two. Anemones can also reproduce sexually.

image-3

A sea anemone anchored in the sand          

Among the rocky outcrops off the sandy shore, we find barnacles attached to rocks, a baby octopus swimming in the tide pool, a moray eel seeking cover, colourful sea sponges on jagged rocks, crabs hidden in crevices, camouflaged sea stars, and tiny porcelain crabs dressed in stripes.

Mumbai-based photographer Pratha Narang says she didn’t know that a stone’s throw from her home, you could find so many small and wonderful creatures. “I was overwhelmed by their presence.” Other participants echo this. Teacher Kapil Joshi says he was amazed by the knowledge of the Marine Life of Mumbai group. “I am going to share it with my students at school.”

As the tide returns, we reluctantly leave the company of the weird and wonderful behind. No one was bitten or stung but we all left starstruck, as it often happens in Mumbai.

image-4Porcelain crabs shed their limbs to escape predators – hence the name             

(All images are copyright of Richa Malhotra. This article was written for Mongabay-India.)

Bird Ballet

I had a dry spell for the whole of April. But the start of May has brought some good news – a new byline. This is a piece that’s very close to my heart because it is my first true attempt at nature writing. (I am a science writer, so of course I backed it up with science.) And to top it all *pause for effect* it carries some of my photographs. This story was fun to write as it brought together all the things I like – writing, writing about science, photography and birding! Isn’t that great?

So without further ado, let me quickly tell you what’s it about and then you’re free to go read it. (Or to keep the surprise element intact, skip to the end). It’s about Rosy Starling – a lesser-known species of starling that also murmurates like its European counterpart but hasn’t got as much attention. Earlier this year I went birdwatching at a lake not very far from where I live. And I found this huge conglomeration of rose-coloured birds resting on trees there. When dusk fell and it started to pour, the flock of birds took off and started swirling through the sky. It twisted and turned, split into smaller flocks and merged back again, singing all this while. The flock then returned and rain downed on the trees, preparing for a long night.

I describe this in a lot more detail for JLR Explore. Go, check it out.

The strange origins of alcohol intake

Birds do it. Chimps do it. Humans do it. We all booze. Some get tipsy, others don’t. Find out why in my latest story here at BBC Earth and if you make it to the end, you might even be rewarded with a smile. Now, I’ll drink to that.

champagne-rm

If you like it, share it. The story I mean (and maybe a drink, but please don’t drink and fly).

What’s behind the recent spate of discoveries?

Deepak Veerappan was in-between research jobs when, out of boredom, he started exploring the parched open lands in the south and west of India. He ventured out on his own into sun-baked landscapes in search of a “fan-throated lizard” – a small lizard with a large double chin. His post-doctoral position at the Indian Institute of Science, and thus funding, were yet to come but he had already laid the foundation of what would keep him busy for the next few years.

Only two species of the unusual lizards Veerappan loved watching had been known from India. From observing them in the wild, he knew there were actually more than two. This led Veerappan to discover five new species of fan-throated lizards – named so because the males have loose, stretchable skin hanging from their necks.

This spectacular find is one among a slew of discoveries we have seen so far this year in India. Wherever you look, be it the shores in the south or mighty mountains in the north, sun-scorched lands of the west or wet hills of the east, new species are being found everywhere. And yet scientists say there’s more to come. What on earth is going on?

To find out, read the full feature at The Wire.

Photo credit: Varad Giri

Secrets of the insect architects

Insects are skilled architects that build homes of all kinds, from basements to tree houses and even skyscrapers.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina)

This ant weaves a nest out of tree leaves high up in the canopy. To build one, a group of workers forms live ant bridges to bring the leaves together, while another fetches larvae from an existing ant nest.

Worker ants hold these larvae in their jaws and squeeze them while moving along the leaf edges. On squeezing, the weaver ant larva produces a fine silk fibre that glues the leaves. As more and more leaves are pulled along, a lump of fresh green leaves lined with a white silk mat is formed.

Know about other insect architecture in my story for BBC Earth.

Velvet ants are almost invincible

In a dry, open field in New Mexico, US, a hungry lizard spots a brightly-coloured, hairy insect scurrying across the sandy soil. Thinking it has found a meal, the lizard sprints to catch the insect. But once it has the insect in its mouth, it finds it is too hard to chew.

The lizard then moves the insect around to find a softer chewing angle but gets nowhere. Meanwhile the insect starts to squeak and finally stings the luckless lizard in its mouth. Alarmed, the lizard spits it out.

The insect, still squeaking, gets away unscathed. The lizard is left with nothing but a sore mouth and a foul taste.

This sturdy insect is a female velvet ant. These females have an arsenal of defences unmatched by their male partners, or any other insect. The question is, what terrifying predator forced the females to evolve so many defences? And if they are in such dire threat from predators, why are they brightly coloured?

Answer to these questions (and more) in my feature at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: Joseph Wilson

Climbing the science career ladder

The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) announced the winners of its awards for young scientists earlier this year. Introduced in 1974, the INSA Medal for Young Scientists has since been given annually to researchers below 35 years of age working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, medicine and agriculture. The INSA medal comes with a certificate and cash reward of Rs. 25,000 but also with a 3-year research support of Rs. 5 lakhs per year. The research support is not just monetary. INSA President, Raghavendra Gadagkar, explains in an e-mail to IndiaBioScience, “Within five years of receiving the award, the awardees are considered for a visit abroad with full support for presenCollageting research work at conferences, or participating in research projects.”

IndiaBioscience talked to three young biologists who won the INSA medal this year about climbing the science career ladder. The conversations touched upon various aspects that are part of a career in science, be it inter-disciplinary research, role of mentors, funding opportunities, setting up labs or the idea of an ideal post-doc.

Read the rest at IndiaBioScience.