The sea urchin that won’t die

In the freezing, inhospitable water off Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, a wounded sea urchin the size of a walnut staggers across the seafloor. Its precious gonads and half its shell are missing, yet it clings to life for more than 43 hours. Lucky for scientists, they caught the nearly dead urchin on camera, allowing them to witness, for the first time in the wild, sea urchins’ stunning capacity for survival… Read the full story over at Hakai.

Update: This story was selected as a top pick in the Best Shortform Science Writing!

Image credit: Max Wisshak

Citizen science helps assess the state of India’s birds

The State of India’s Birds 2020 takes into account 867 of the 1,333 species that have been documented in India on eBird. According to the assessment, species adapted to living alongside humans are doing well, others not so much. Overall, migratory shorebirds and raptors have been hit the hardest. Read the full story here.

Of fiddler crabs and their fiddles

A male fiddler crab’s massive pincer serves a clawful of purposes. It’s useful in fighting off males and wooing females, but being big and heavy also makes it a liability. Fortunately, if caught by a predator, the crab can shed this hefty claw and scuttle to the safety of its burrow. Research shows this escape act might be facilitated by the fact that, after losing the claw, the crab runs almost a third faster.

Read the full story over at Hakai.

Fish eggs hatch after being pooped

Found in temporary desert pools and mangrove swamps, some species of killifish can go without water for weeks at a time. And their eggs are no different: no water, no problem! Now, scientists have found that the eggs of two killifish species are so hardy, they can withstand being digested by birds, too. The finding may be the first firm evidence supporting an idea that has long held sway in scientific circles—that birds disperse fish.

Read my full story about killifish eggs over at Hakai.

Image of a developing killifish embryo. Credit: Vinícius Weber

This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Egg theft might cause seabird decline

Among the 36 Lakshadweep islands dotting the Indian Ocean, one is particularly famous for its bird life. Pakshi Pitti is a flat sandbar that several species of seabirds come to for breeding. Devoid of predators such as rats and cats, and even humans, it is the perfect place for these birds to nest in.

Except, year after year fisherfolk from the nearby populated island of Kavaratti come to Pitti and plunder its wealth of seabird eggs. On every visit they make, they collect 14%–45% of the eggs. About 72% of the islanders of Kavaratti are involved in poaching and trading eggs from Pitti, showing that the network is quite vast.

The eggs are sought for their supposed medicinal properties, and their trade, scientists fret, could have a huge impact on the island’s seabirds, especially terns, whose numbers have plummeted from 20,000 in the mid-1900s to 970 in 2014.

Pitti was declared a bird sanctuary and afforded legal protection to stop this age-old practice of egg consumption. But a lack of regulation is defeating that purpose.

To know more, read my report published today in The Wire.

Photo credit: Ravichandra Mondreti

Little auks slurp like fish

The little auk is a small seabird that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. At only about 150 grams, this featherweight bird eats 20% of its body weight in prey each day. And this takes some underwater hunting skills. Diving up to depths of 27 meters, the bird spots and slurps its prey, much as fishes do. Read more about the world’s only slurping seabird here in my first piece for Hakai magazine.

Photo credit: Manfred Enstipp

How are India’s birds faring?

About 1,500 of the world’s 11,000 bird species are on the verge of extinction, thanks to human activities like agriculture, logging and hunting, according to a report by BirdLife International.

I decided to dig deeper and look at the status of birds in the context of India. After sifting through factsheets after factsheets, here’s what I found: Close to 90 of the 1,200-odd bird species are on the verge of extinction in the country. Of these, 16 are critically endangered, 21 are endangered and 52 are vulnerable. These include not just birds found only in India (or ‘endemic species’) but also ones that migrate to the country.

An additional 74 are near-threatened – they might soon be assigned one of the three threatened species status. Vultures, bustards, eagles, hornbills, woodpeckers, storks are all in trouble. So are robins, thrushes, buntings, babblers.

The state of a stout, white and brown bird, the great Indian bustard, is especially worrying. “It really is in a bad way,” Tris Allinson of BirdLife told me. “It could well be the planet’s next extinction,” he added. A few hundred individuals of the species remain. Though it was declared critically endangered in 2011, not much has changed in terms of protecting its grassland home. Wildlife sanctuaries have been established but a commitment to protecting India’s wider landscape of grasslands is still awaited. Since bustards tend not to remain within protected area boundaries year-round, grasslands outside sanctuaries need to be urgently protected by law.

Things have also become worse for other birds in India – several have been moved to higher threat levels. The endemic Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondamii) was vulnerable by 2008 and was uplisted to endangered in 2009; another endemic species, the Manipur bush-quail (Perdicula manipurensis) went from vulnerable in 2012 to endangered in 2013; and the migratory steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) was of least concern until 2013 and was uprated to endangered in 2015.

But there’s one recent downlisting that stands out: the endemic forest owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) was critically endangered until 2016 and was moved down to the endangered category in 2017.

For more, check out my article published here at The Wire.

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.)

Caterpillar vs. Beetle: Who wins?

I have a new video story up at Science magazine about an amazing moth caterpillar that fights off things that try to eat it, including beetles that are called ‘caterpillar hunters’. Check it out, folks!

The accompanying short story is available to read here.

Multimedia credit: Shinji Sugiura

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

India defers 100-year-old annual science meet

The Indian Science Congress has run into trouble – again.

First, in 2015, presentation of controversial pseudoscientific claims made headlines, and now it is the last-minute change in venue for the conference. The venue was moved from the southern city of Hyderabad to the north-east city of Imphal, which are miles apart. The reason given was protesting students.

For the piece, I interviewed 2009 chemistry Nobel laureate, Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, who has been vocal about the state of affairs in the Congress before. The other scientist I interviewed for the piece is Prof. P. Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science.

Prof. Balaram had written an editorial in the journal Current Science in 2012, in which he had cited several reasons for the downfall of the Congress. One was the importance showered upon its opening session, which is traditionally presided over by the prime minister of India. Another was the quality of its sessions.

You can read what the sources said in my piece for Chemistry World here.

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).

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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.