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

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

Mites squatting on spider webs steal food

In caves in Brazil, there lives a newly-discovered mite that is a freeloader. Groups of these mites live on a spider’s web and steal its food. They are the first mites known to do this.

Leopoldo Ferreira de Oliveira Bernardi at the Federal University of Lavras in Minas Gerais first saw live mites dotting a spider web by the entrance of Brazil’s Lapa Nova cave in 2007. The relationship between mites and spider immediately intrigued him.

After observing the same thing in another cave, Bernardi and his colleagues designed an experiment. They placed live bait – a cave moth – on the web of a recluse spider where mites were present.

The spider immediately attacked the moth and began feeding. But in the next 5 to 40 minutes, mites, which were previously scattered all over the web, gathered to feed on the moth.

To know what happens next, please visit New Scientist here.

Photo credit: Professor Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira

Monkey mom eats mummified baby

Evalyne9bisPrimates are known both to grieve their loved ones and practice cannibalism, but for the first time, scientists have recorded a Tonkean macaque eating her dead baby.

Researchers studying macaques at the Parco Faunistico di Piano dell’Abatino animal sanctuary observed a new mother named Evalyne “caring” for her deceased infant for weeks, and then consuming its mummified body until nothing but a single bone remained.

Tonkean macaques—which are native to Southeast Asia—tote around their babies’ corpses for hours or, even days. It could be a manifestation of grief, or an absence of understanding that the offspring is dead.

“This kind of behavior has been documented in chimpanzees and a few other primates, with mothers carrying their dead infant until it disintegrates,” notes Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who was not involved in the new research.

To read more, go to National Geographic news.

Photo credit: Arianna De Marco.

Cracking the mystery of not cracking the eggshell

Greater Ani is not your regular cuckoo. Rather than dump its eggs in the nests of other species it builds its own and raises its young alongside other breeding Anis. The eggs bump into each other with quite some force as parent birds turn them during incubation. Now, researchers have shown that Anis have evolved eggs with the added protection of an uncommon mineral that keeps the eggs from cracking under pressure.

Vaterite, a form of calcium carbonate, sits on the eggshell of some birds in tiny spheres of varying size. It is less stable and abundant than calcite – another form of calcium carbonate that primarily constitutes the shell. Vaterite gives freshly laid Ani eggs their white chalky appearance. As incubation progresses, it gets scratched, exposing patches of the pigmented calcite underneath. When scientists studying nesting Greater Anis (Crotophaga major) in the Panama Canal noticed this change in the egg surface they decided to look deep into it.

Read the rest of the story here at Chemistry World.

Photo credit: Christina Riehl

Female dragonflies drop dead to avoid males

Moorland Hawker Dragonfly-1-Credit-Rassim KhelifaOnce a female dragonfly has mated, all she is interested in doing is laying eggs and getting on with her life. So, when stalked by an unwelcome lover (or two), she crashes to the ground and plays dead. When the duped males eventually leave, the female flies off. The behavior was reported recently in the journal Ecology.

This may seem counter-intuitive, for one “purpose” of a species is to leave as many offspring as possible. But female dragonflies “know” what’s best for them. And what’s that? Find out in my story for Live Science.

Photo credit: Rassim Khelifa

When life gives you ice, break through it

Animals struggle during winters. No surprise there. But it isn’t a shortage of food alone that bothers them. This January was pretty harsh with temperatures lingering below zero for days on end and that meant ice was everywhere. Even the city lakes were covered in ice. When it comes to birds, you may think “that’s no problem, they can fly.” But icy conditions made it really hard for some. From the antics that played out on the ice, it seemed highly sensible of these swans to break their way through the ice than to walk over it or take off on the slippery runway:

Swan photo and video are mine, all mine.

 

For these bees, being the firstborn girl is a curse

Some small carpenter bees have a clever way of getting help with their domestic chores, such as raising their young. The mom forcibly turns her firstborn daughter into a maid and babysitter. The mom does this by underfeeding that eldest bee. This daughter not only gets small portions of food but also a diet especially low in protein, new research shows. And before long, this bee is the runt of her brood — and bullied by her mom.

In bees and some other insects, growth of the young largely depends on how much food they get. So, by tinkering with their diet, a mother can control her offspring’s size.

Small carpenter bees are a type of solitary insect. No hives for them. Adult females carve a tunnel into the dead, broken stem of a flowering plant. The bees don’t eat that chewed wood but throw it away. Inside her tunnel, a mom will fashion a comfy nest in which to lay eggs and nurture her young. Ceratina calcarata is a common species of small carpenter bee in eastern North America. Only about the size of an eraser at the top of a pencil, females of this species nest in spring.

Read more about the fate of the firstborn girl over at Science News for Students.

Photo credit: Molly Jacobson

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

The tadpoles that swim in sand

In 2014, 14 new species of “dancing frogs” were discovered in the Western Ghats, a wildlife-rich mountainous region along the west coast of Peninsular India.

5. Tadpoles of Micrixalus herrei

These Indian dancing frogs are named for the antics males get up to when they want to grab the attention of a female.

Perched on a wet rock in a noisy, fast-flowing stream, a male sings and waves to the females. He lifts and stretches a leg to flag his white, webbed toe.

Any rival males on the territory are literally kicked out by the singing-and-dancing male.

It now turns out that this foot-waving, which was observed in nine species of the genus Micrixalus, is not the only bizarre trait that runs in the family. For the first time, researchers have found the tadpoles of a dancing frog, specifically the Kallar dancing frog (Micrixalus herrei).

Unlike most tadpoles, which live in water, they live underground until they develop into froglets.

Read more about the tadpoles here at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: SD Biju

Beautiful bright beasts

One new genus and five new species of fan-throated lizards have been found in the drier parts of India.

Fan-throated lizards are small ground dwellers. The males flaunt a multihued, fan-shaped fold of skin on their throats during the breeding season.

Because they live in dry and barren soils, when the midday heat starts to get to them they skitter about on their rear legs. Fan-throated lizards are restricted to parts of South Asia. Little has been known about them since the first species was reported in 1829 from India. After this, only six more species have been found: three from Nepal, two from Sri Lanka and one from India.

Know more about the lizards at BBC Earth.

Photo credits: V. Deepak

Meet the Western Ghats’ new freshwater crabs

Five new species of brightly coloured freshwater crabs have been found in the Western Ghats, India’s wildlife haven. Of these, two species belong to the genus Ghatiana (discovered in 2014) and the remaining to Gubernatoriana (known since 1970).

Behind the discoveries are an undergraduate student and researchers from the Zoological Survey of India and the Indian Herpetological Society. They described the five new species, named Ghatiana atropurpurea, Ghatiana splendida,Gubernatoriana thackerayi, Gubernatoriana waghi, and Gubernatoriana alcocki, in the journal Zootaxa on February 23.

Prior to this, 36 species belonging to 14 different genera were known from the Western Ghats in the family of freshwater crabs called Gecarcinucidae. So the latest discoveries bring the total species count to 41.

Read all about the new crabs at The Wire.

Photo credits:  Shailesh Bhosale

Found: Snake that remained hidden for 145 years

Indian researchers, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London, have found a new species of burrowing, non-venomous snake that has smooth, shiny scales.

The species remained misidentified and stashed among museum specimens for a long time before scientists thought it might be distinct. To confirm their doubts, they looked in the wild – and unlike many museum finds that are extinct by the time they are discovered, this one still existed. And it continues to do so in the semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India.

Read the full story at Nature India.

Photo credit: Varad Giri

A map that tells where elephants are

Ecologists have mapped Asian elephants in the Indian state of Karnataka down to the smallest forest administrative unit. The detailed map, which shows where elephants exist inside and outside protected areas, could help conservation planning and minimize human–elephant conflicts.

Karnataka has the largest population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in India. But recent decades have witnessed increased pressure on their habitat and clashes between people and the jumbos. A detailed map of elephant distribution is crucial to understand where humans should get priority, where elephants should and where they can coexist. Yet, there is no microscopic map of Asian elephants anywhere.

Read the rest over at Nature India.

Photo credit: Subhra Priyadarshini

The 16 most amazing nests built by birds

Birds build some staggering structures, from nests the size of walnuts to makeshift rafts and even apartment complexes.

European Bee Eater (Merops apiaster):

This bird digs a horizontal cavity into the sand on a river embankment. To build a nest, a bee eater hovers over a suitable site, drills a hole with its bill, alights and then excavates a burrow using its feet to scoop out sand. The bird chooses the nest site with the utmost care, as the soil has to be soft, yet safe from caving in.

Read about other utterly amazing bird nests over at BBC Earth.