The forest owlet: discovered, lost to science and rediscovered

Some owls are so small, they are known as owlets. The forest owlet, a species unique to India, is one such owl. It was discovered in 1872 when F. R. Blewitt collected the first specimen of the bird in present-day Chhattisgarh. Six more specimens of the “Blewitt’s Owl” were collected until 1884 from Maharashtra and Odisha by two other collectors. Then, more than a century went by without a single legitimate record of the bird.

Alleged forest owlet records that came after 1884 — eggs, photographs, skins, or sightings — didn’t really belong to the forest owlet. One record, dated 1914, was indeed of the forest owlet but it was fraudulent — its label had been fabricated and the specimen tampered with. A collector had stolen one of the 19th-century specimens from the Natural History Museum in Tring, UK, and labeled it with a made-up collection date and location. This led to search efforts in the wrong location. With no sightings in this and other places, many believed that the bird had gone extinct.

Had it though, gone extinct? Find out in my story for The Swaddle.

Image: Farah Ishtiaq holds a forest owlet while studying the species in the late ’90s (Courtesy of Ishtiaq)

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.

The art of making paper birds

A hummingbird hovering in the air laps up nectar from a coneflower. Newborn bulbul chicks beg their mother for food. A male kingfisher offers fish to a female kingfisher, perched on a mossy piece of driftwood. These are some of the natural history moments captured by artist Niharika Rajput in her lifelike paper sculptures.

I interviewed the artist for Atlas Obscura about her artistic process and all things birds.

Image credit: Niharika Rajput

Plastic-free seals

Whales, seabirds, turtles, crabs, and worms—all kinds of marine animals are afflicted with plastic pollution. But seals living in the eastern Canadian Arctic seem to have so far escaped this modern plight. When scientists examined the stomach contents of the Arctic’s ringed, bearded, and harbor seals, they found krill, fish, kelp, roundworms, and even rocks. But not plastic…

Read the story at Hakai.

Image credit:  Madelaine Bourdages

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

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.

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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.)

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

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.

#WorldFrogDay

It’s World Frog Day! And I am celebrating by curating all the articles I have published on frogs so far. Maybe something from this round-up will pique your interest:

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

These frogs breed hidden in bamboos and they are – wait for it – cannibals

Salamander ate a frog for its final meal

A fossil salamander that lived at least 34 million years ago is in such good condition that the remains of a frog it ate are still in its digestive tract

Tadpoles piggyback on strangers to avoid getting eaten — by siblings

When frog fathers go missing, their young can get in grave danger. To escape the deadly jaws of their own siblings, the young turn to strangers.

Traffic noise impacts frog survival

Next time you honk, spare a thought for these frogs (and your fellow humans).

What’s behind the recent spate of discoveries?

From frogs to lizards, how do we keep finding new species?

The tadpoles that swim in sand

Indian dancing frogs are unusual enough with their habit of waving their feet in the air. Now, it turns out their tadpoles are peculiar as well.

What’s driving the endangered purple frog to extinction?

Hint: Us.

DJ frogs remix tunes on the hop

Male Gracixalus treefrogs woo females with original compositions.

Treasure trove of new frogs found in India

The country is home to dozens of species of bush frog, each with a distinctive pattern of colours.

Viral outbreak threatens the survival of amphibians

A viral outbreak is killing amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, in Spain.

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.)