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.

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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.)

More new species from India

Between 2008 and 2017, herpetologists found 35 new species of lizards in India. This year they’ve reported two more already. The two lizards look very similar to a species that was known before and were hidden so far because they were misidentified as this other species. Genetic tools allowed scientists to study the lookalikes and classify them as separate species. More importantly, the species were found in the parched wastelands of the country – suggesting that these places cannot be overlooked for their potential to harbour life.

To know more, read my piece for Mongabay here.

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Photo credit: Ishan Agarwal

Tick-borne monkey fever strikes again

  • Kyasanur forest disease or monkey fever strikes monkeys and humans bitten by virus-infected ticks.
  • The disease has spread through the Western Ghats and with increased awareness, more instances have come to light.
  • Detected in 1957 from Karnataka, it was officially reported in Maharashtra only in 2016. But scientists have now found evidence of previous episodes in the state’s rural population.

Kyasanur forest disease (KFD) is a tick-borne illness that was once restricted to the southern Indian state of Karnataka. It was first detected in the 1950s from Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, in the forest of Kyasanur, after which it is named. Back then the local community, noticing that monkeys were dying and making humans sick (whoever came in close contact with the sick monkeys), dubbed it the ‘monkey fever.’ But monkeys themselves, like humans, are hosts; the actual causative agent of KFD is a virus carried by ticks.

KFD rears its ugly head post-monsoon when young ticks, called nymphs, actively look for warm-blooded animals to attach to and feed on. With the bite of an infected tick, the virus gets into the bloodstream of humans, causing fevers, headaches, bleeding and, in some cases, death.

Over the past decade, KFD has been reported from the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – outside its original range in Karnataka. In Maharashtra, it was first documented in 2016.

Now, a team of researchers from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, have investigated the 2016 KFD outbreak in Maharashtra and found that it may not have been the first episode of KFD for the state.

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Bonnet monkey. Photo by Raju Kasambe / Wikimedia Commons.

First, the researchers estimated the KFD prevalence in Dodamarg cluster of villages at Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra. Using data from house-to-house surveys conducted by health workers and patient records from hospitals in the district, they shortlisted 488 individuals whose symptoms matched with that of the disease.

They further screened these individuals and confirmed 130 to be KFD-positive. Three of the 130 patients died. A vaccine against KFD is available but none of the patients had received it.

Vocation, living conditions linked to tick exposure

When researchers looked at the possible reasons for the patients’ exposure to ticks, they learnt that vocation and living conditions had a major role to play. About 93 percent of the KFD-infected patients had visited the forest in Dodamarg before coming down with the disease. They had ventured into the forests to work in cashew, betel nut or coconut farms, to collect firewood or to graze their cattle, and likely got bitten by ticks there.

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), “clearing of forest area for cultivation causes changes in tick fauna and is considered as an important risk factor for outbreaks.”

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Kyasanuru village on Google Maps.

Incidentally, Dodamarg borders Goa, where KFD struck in 2015, and Karnataka, where it continues to prevail. Its forests are also home to the red-faced bonnet monkey (Macaca radiata) and black-faced langur (Semnopithecus entellus) – species that are susceptible to monkey fever. “It is possible that the monkeys carry and spread ticks around when they move from one forest of the Western Ghats to another,” said researcher Pragya Yadav.

Monkeys do not play a direct role in the transmission of KFD, which is not aerosol-generated, Yadav clarified, but they do act as hosts. After a monkey dies from infection, the ticks drop off and scramble to find new hosts, which could be humans. “When they find a warm-blooded animal, they run like crazy creatures because they want to suck its blood.”

Sick of ticks before

Yadav and colleagues checked blood samples for antibodies against the virus in KFD-affected villages of Dodamarg. Overall, 9.7 percent of the individuals had antiviral antibodies in their blood. A study of healthy, uninfected individuals in KFD-unaffected villages 15 km away, surprisingly, showed a similar prevalence of antibodies.

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Black-faced monkeys in the Western Ghats. Photo by Jrimman / Wikimedia Commons.

The antibodies persist for at least two years after a tick bite, according to Yadav. This means that the two areas had been exposed to the virus before and 2016 was not the first time that Maharashtra had had a KFD outbreak. The previous cases probably went undetected, Yadav says, indicating that many people got tick bites, recovered and were doing fine.

Yadav’s analysis of the 2016 outbreak was published online earlier this year. New cases of KFD continue to emerge everyday from the region as we near the middle of the peak season. Not only this, the virus seems to be spreading geographically as well. During 2016–17, Yadav says, already many villages of Sindhudurg were affected but now it’s being detected in more villages.

CITATION:
Gurav, Y.K., et al. (2018). Kyasanur Forest Disease Prevalence in Western Ghats Proven and Confirmed by Recent Outbreak in Maharashtra, India, 2016. Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. https://doi.org/10.1089/vbz.2017.2129.

(I wrote this piece originally for Mongabay-India.)

Why do fan-throated lizards come in such a wide variety?

Fan-throated lizards are a group mostly of colorful and some plain lizards that live on sandy beaches and barren plateaus of the Indian subcontinent.

Colourful or drab, all males have a special ornament to lure females – a loose flab of skin under the throat. Doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? But that does it for them. Here’s how: to draw the attention of females, males get their feet on a rock (or any raised platform), stretch their body and extend their loose under-throat into a fan. Hence the name.

1. A fan-throated lizard (Sarada superba)

The first species of fan-throated lizard was found in India back in 1829. Since, there have been rumours of more species in the scientific community but discoveries have been few. That changed in 2016 when scientists found 5 new species in one go. Now, they have found that there are at least 15 species, including the ones discovered in 2016.

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The sheer variety owes itself to changes in climate that happened millions of years ago – with the arrival of monsoons, rains became seasonal and grasslands expanded. This worked in favour of fan-throated lizards as they adapted to these changes and morphed into several species we see today.

I wrote about how a changing climate impacted the lizards for Mongabay-India today. You may also like my other pieces about these beautiful bright beasts published here at The BBC and here at The Wire in 2016.

3. Sitana sivalensis Credit - V. Deepak.JPG

Photo credits: V. Deepak

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

Meet the white-spotted bush frog, a species that is fascinating on several counts. For one, it breeds inside bamboos (yes, in the hollows of the fast growing woody grasses).

Image-2 Male vocalizing.jpg

To convince a female to have kids with him, a male frog first finds a nice spot – a bamboo stem with a tiny hole just big enough to get through – and then sings to impress.

If a female likes it, she enters the bamboo, lays her eggs and immediately calls it quits. Daddy babysits alone (and mamma moves on to make more babies).

Image-3 Male guarding eggs
A month later, their round see-through eggs hatch directly into mini versions of their parents, instead of tadpoles.
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The florescent froglets stay put for a while before going it alone. Until they leave, their doting dad guards them round the clock, forgoing his hunt for food. He eats insects that stray into the bamboo cavity – things like ants and flies.
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While daddy does his duty, he aggressively croaks to warn other male frogs against stepping on his patch.

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And with good reason: rival males can make a quick meal of his eggs. They are hungry and, it turns out, cannibals. Eggs, as is obvious, are rich in nutrients and if left behind by their dad, have little chance of survival. Scientists recently uncovered these aspects of the bamboo-breeding frogs using an endoscope – a medical device typically used to peer inside our bodies.

What makes matters worse for the frogs, besides cannibalism, is that they are a critically endangered species existing nowhere but in India’s Western Ghats, a chain of mountains alongside the country’s west coast.

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And given the harvesting pressure facing their bamboo nursery, the frogs need all the help they can get. Finding out where the frogs live outside of reserves can identify bamboo stands worth protecting. Another useful thing would be to stop cutting down bamboo during monsoons, which is when the frogs breed. You can do your bit by spreading the word on a more detailed piece I wrote about these frogs for Mongabay-India.

Photo, sound and video credit: Seshadri K.S. (Many thanks to him for sharing the multimedia and giving permissions for use)

Never seeing cane the same way again

The beautiful artisan cane furniture that we see around in a lot of homes all come from a humble palm called rattan. But the spiny, spindly tropical climber is being grossly misused and overexploited to meet our growing needs. It’s fair to say it is going down the route of timber. Forests have been shorn of rattans to the extent that some species are now on the verge of extinction. What can we do to save them (other than being less materialistic)? Find out in my piece for Mongabay-India, a newly launched site, here.

P.S.: After researching and writing this, I am never looking at cane the same way again.