Sunday, April 26, 2009

Vanishing Species - Indian Giant Flying Squirrels

An article by Mohan Pai

Indian Giant Flying Squirrels

Petaurista philippensis

The Flying Squirrels are actually gliding mammals incapable of sustained flights.

The term flying is somewhat misleading, since flying squirrels are actually gliding mammals incapable of sustained flight. Steering is accomplished by adjusting tautness of the patagium, largely controlled by a small cartilaginous wrist bone. The tail acts as a stabilizer in flight, much like the tail of a kite, and as an adjunct airfoil when "braking" prior to landing on a tree trunk.
Though their life expectancy is only about six years in the wild, flying squirrels often live between 10 and 15 years in captivity. This difference is due to these creatures being important prey animals. Predation mortality rates in sub-adults are very high. Predators include arboreal snakes, raccoons, nocturnal owls, martens, fishers, coyotes, and the domestic house cat. They are also nocturnal.
Indian Giant Flying Squirrel is the common large flying squirrel found over most of peninsular India - all other flying squirrels are restricted to the Himalayas and the Northeast and one is restricted to the Western Ghats. Its coat varies from coffee-brown to a predominantly grey colour.
Deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen forests of Goa, Maharashtra, parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.
Red Giant Flying Squirrel
Petaurista petaurista

This dark red species is also called the Indian Flying Squirrel. Its elastic skin, which it uses to glide, is attached from wrist to ankle. It has large black-ringed, liquid brown eyes. The long slender tail is furred but not bushy and is carried curved on the back.
This squirrel runs up to the top-most branches of a tree before launching into a glide that can easily extend up to 100 m. While passing overhead it makes a noise like rushing wind. It has a monotonous call, which sounds like someone exhaling sharply.
Restricted to forests only, this squirrel is not found near human habitations. It inhabits the Himalayan foothills from J&K to Assam and Manipur.
Wooly Flying Squirrel
Eupetaurus cinereus

This is a high altitude flying squirrel with long silken hair, rather than wooly hair as its name suggests. Larger than the genus Petaurista, it also looks bulkier because of its dense fur. Its blue-grey coat is uniformly coloured, except for a paler tip on its long, heavily furred tail.
The Wooly flying squirrel does not hibernate like the other Himalayan flying squirrels. It reportedly prefers rocky caves to trees.
Coniferous, dwarf rhododendron and juniper forests, and the mountain steppe in northern J&K (Hunza, Gilgit) and Sikkim (2,800 m and above).
Reference: A Field Guide to Indian Mammals by Vivek Menon, Wikipedia
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Vanishing Species - Butterflies & Moths

An article by Mohan Pai


Butterflies & Moths

Malabar Banded Swallowtail

The metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly remains one of the most enigmatic feats of nature.

Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera which is a Greek word for ‘scales’ and ‘wing’, the most obvious feature that separates them from other order of insects is their scaled wings. There are around 1,60,000 different known species of butterfly and moth across all corners of the globe and only 10 per cent of these are butterflies. They can survive in an incredibly diverse range of habitats, from frozen Arctic tundra to high-altitude mountain slopes to humid rainforests. It is perhaps this diversity and adaptability that has enabled the Lepidoptera to survive on the planet for the last 140 million years. The first Lepidoptera were primitive moths and butterflies evolved around 40 million years ago. Butterflies and moths are members of the insect class, sharing the same key features of three pairs of legs and three body parts: head, thorax and abdomen. In addition to these features, Lepidoptera also have two pairs of wings, the forewings and hindwings, which are covered with scales. These scales reflect light, revealing the colours and patterns that are so important when identifying species. The pair of antennae on the head of the butterfly is the primary sense organ, receiving smells, pheromones and vibrations. A butterfly’s proboscis is its tongue, enabling it to suck up food, nutrients and moisture. It is hollow and contains two parallel tubes; the end bears the taste sensors. Different species will have different lengths of proboscis: some members of the hawk moth family have proboscis that exceeds their own body length and is capable of piercing fruit or beehives, whereas others such as the luna moths, have no mouth parts at all and cannot feed as adults. Another organ is the labial palps, used to clean the proboscis and eyes and to sense and taste food. The head also bears a pair of compound eyes, capable of detecting colour and movement. The jointed legs contain sensors at the ‘feet’ which enable butterfly to identify the plant it has just landed on, particularly important for females that need to lay eggs on a specific host plant. Probably the first point of observation when identifying a butterfly or moth is the colour and patterning that is displayed on its wings. When a butterfly is in flight this can be particularly difficult to do; it is when at rest that we get the opportunity to closely examine markings of a particular species. The majority of butterflies hold their wings closed above their bodies, leaving only the underside visible; some will hold their wings out flat, perhaps sunning themselves, affording us a glimpse of their brightly coloured upper side.

Butterfly or Moth ?
In some respects the differences between butterflies and moths may seem rather arbitrary. Although moths are regarded as butterflies’ less colourful, less attractive cousins, there are great many highly coloured daytime-flying moths.

The Atlas moth -world’s largest moth.

Conversely, a large number of butterflies can appear rather dull and insignificant, and are often mistaken for moths. There are, however, a number of general features that separate moths from butterflies. Butterflies are diurnal – daytime – fliers, whereas the great majority of moths are nocturnal, flying and (if appropriate) feeding at night. They also differ structurally; when resting, the wings of butterflies are usually held together upwards over the back of the body, where as moths will fold their wings flat across the body, the hindwing tucked beneath the forewing. In flight, the wings of the moth are ‘coupled’ together with the use of special bristles on the hindwing which catch hold of the forewing, Butterflies lack this feature; instead their hindwing is expanded underneath the forewing, providing support with which to fly. The antennae of each also differ; butterflies have very slender antennae which are clubbed at the end; moths lack this clubbing, having either slim or feathered antennae.
Luna Moth

Butterflies also tend to have more slender bodies, whereas some moths can be very stocky and broad in shape .There are, of course, exceptions to all these rules: the colourful daytime moths of the Uranidae family and the Australian Regent Skipper butterfly with its moth-like wing-coupling device are just two examples among many.

There are four stages in the life-cycle of all Lepidopteras – egg, caterpillar, pupa and butterfly – and each stage is vital. Butterflies are not simply attractive pollinators of Garden flowers; their ultimate goal is to mate and successfully reproduce; likewise, caterpillars must not only feed and store up energy, they also have to ensure that they are not the victims of hungry predators. Laid singly, in small groups or in huge numbers, eggs can take either a few days or several weeks to hatch. They can be one of a number of shapes, colours and even sizes; some eggs are tiny, others surprisingly large. Eggs are usually laid on specific host plants by the female butterfly, which walks across the plant surface using the sensors in her legs to determine it is the correct one. Less fussy eggs can be released in flight, particularly those whose caterpillars feed upon grass. Once the egg hatches, the newly emerged caterpillar begins by eating the hard shell, then it gets to work eating its host plant. Caterpillars also appear in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colours. They are particularly vulnerable to predatory birds, other insects and lizards are among the many animals that prey on these butterfly larvae, and so there appearance is often determined by their need to protect themselves. Poisonous caterpillars may appear brightly coloured to ward off attack, or bear aggressive spines that can irritate if touched or ingested. The caterpillars of the Arctid moth family are particularly hairy and collectively referred to as ‘wooly bears’. Some caterpillars display very unusual and somewhat aggressive features, such as horns, alarming tail whips and false eyespots. Many Swallowtail caterpillars have an organ called an osmatarium, rather like an inflatable horn, which releases a repulsive scent. The caterpillars of the Puss moth has a number of these aggressive attributes, and can also spit formic acid for good measure. Many other caterpillars adopt rather more passive but equally successful methods of protecting themselves from predators, either adopting camouflage or simply hiding within or beneath the foliage. Caterpillars spend most of their time eating, and as their bodies grow they slough off their skin, rather like a snake. Most caterpillars will shed their skin several times before they are large enough to begin pupating. For most species, this means that the final skin-shedding reveals not another caterpillar but its chrysalis or cocoon. For others, particularly moths, the chrysalis is spun from single strand of silk, encasing the caterpillar in a protective shell so that it can begin its transformation. Once the caterpillar has revealed or spun its chrysalis, it enters the pupa stage. As a pupa, it is extremely vulnerable to predators since it is completely immobile; consequently pupae will adopt a number of strategies to protect themselves. Most pupae are incredibly well camouflaged, resembling dry leaves, twigs, fresh buds or even bird droppings such as those of the Swallowtail family. Some pupa casings are covered with spines while others containing a poisonous butterfly will advertise their inedible status. Many species pupate underground, within plant roots or even inside ants’ nests, such as the Large Blue butterfly pupa. It usually takes around two weeks for pupation to complete, although some species can take longer - several moths, or even two years, depending on external circumstances.

Owl Butterfly

The lifespan of a butterfly varies from species to species. Some live for less than a week, others long enough to migrate through the winter months. But the typical adult butterfly will, during its lifetime, fly, feed, mate and migrate.Feeding butterflies use their probocis to suck up liquid nutrients such as flower nectar, tree sap, rotten fruit juices, honeydew, blood and faecal liquid and even in some cases, animal tears. Some male butterflies, such as the Blue Triangle, will feed from the mud found in puddles or on riverbanks, probably seeking extra nutrients necessary for reproduction.Reproduction can only take place when butterflies of the same species successfully identify one another. This can be particularly tricky when different species look similar or when environment makes it awkward to spot a potential mate. Some butterflies are dependent upon phenomones or scent to entice their partners, others will engage in elaborate courtship displays which communicate compatibility as well as general suitability. Mating pairs will clasp together, either landed or in air, and can remain attached for anything from twenty minute to twenty-four hours. The male then usually heads off in search of a new mate while the female begins to search for a suitable place to deposit her eggs.

The relationship between butterflies and their habitat is crucial; particular habitats are chosen by individual species because they have evolved adaptations suitable to those habitats.All Lepidoptera need warmth to provide them with the energy to fly; therefore butterflies are found in sunny, tropical and temperate regions. They will need specific foods both for breeding and for the adults to feed. Typical habitats will therefore be places such as open woodlands, where the sunlight can penetrate and where there are plentiful flowers, or meadows and grassland, heathland and coasts with their specific flora, or mountain slopes. Powerful butterflies will survive in forest or woodland canopies, living up at the treetops; weak fliers prefer to stay closer to the ground amongst shrubs and trees which will provide protection from winds. Butterflies found in woodland will often be coloured red, brown or grey, so they resemble dry leaves or bark; others are bright green, like fresh leaves. Butterflies are dependent upon these particular places, and the loss of native habitats can only have dire consequences for their numbers.With so many potential predators, butterflies and moths employ a number of techniques to aid survival. Many species are inedible, their caterpillars feed fro host plants that contain poisons, storing these in their bodies so that the adult butterfly can benefit from the chemicals. Poisonous butterflies advertise the fact to birds, lizards and other insects with their brightly coloured and patterned wings. Many edible butterflies take advantage of these poisonous species by copying their appearance; this technique is known as mimicry. Butterfly will mimic others for one of two reasons; either to appear to be poisonous when not, as does the non-poisonous mimic of the Monarch, the Viceroy, or to emphsize their own poisonous status.Edible species that do not mimic use other tactics. Many will adopt camouflage as an effective technique to avoid becoming prey; the Indian Leaf butterfly is an excellent example of this, as are a number of moths, including the Brindled Beauty.

Mud puddling - Indian Swallowtails

Others will use their wing markings to confuse or frighten predators. Distinctive markings suggest an even larger predator at hand; the owl face seen by the enemy is simply the wings of the Owl butterfly, the snake’s head among the leaves is actually the hooked forewing of the Atlas moth. Eyespots are particularly effective way of confusing and warding off enemies; Some butterflies, such as the Blue Morpho, have a solid colour on their upper side but large eyespots from below which startle a predator when they are flashed unexpectedly. Butterflies that use eyespots to frighten their enemies, such as the Peacock, can often find themselves with ragged wings as a result of inquisitive pecks from confused birds. Although dangerous, these pecks warn the Peacock of danger, giving it time to fly away.

The Big and the Small Butterflies

Butterflies come in various sizes. The smaller Blues are no larger than afingernail and the largest Swallowtail is larger than the smallest birds. The timiest butterfly in the world are the Grass Jewel (wingspan 15-22 mm) and the Tiny Grass Blue (wingspan 16-22 mm). Both these butterflies occur in peninsular India. The world’s largest butterfly, Queen Alexandras’s Birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae measures about 250 mm between its wingtips. Among the Indian butterflies, Southern Birdwing is the largest with a wingspan of 140-190 mm.


With such a large number of of different species of butterfly and moth in existence, it is hard to believe that they are seriously threatened. However, a number of fascinating and beautiful butterflies are in peril, from either habitat change or over zealous collectors. Loss of native habitats is the most serious threat. On a large scale, massive deforestation, such as in Central America and Asia, is affecting many different species. However, even on a small scale, many butterflies rely on plants that we consider weeds, such as nettles, thistles or dandelions. The use of pesticides can have a harmful effect on some species, and pesticides that target destructive butterflies, such as the Gypsy moth, are also responsible for the near-eradication of other, innocent species. There are some conservation measures in place: many species are legally protected from collectors; others have been reintroduced into native environments. However, many butterflies and moths remain under threat of extinction.

Indian Butterfly Families

The Swallowtails Papilionidae

The swallowtail butterfly family, consists of about 550 species of which 84 are found in India. Most swallowtails are large, brilliantly coloured and extremely beautiful. Butterflies from this family are commonly found in both tropical and temperate habitats.

The Brush-footed Butterflies
The Brush-footed family is the largest butterfly family in the world, consisting of several thousand species. The butterflies are medium to large sized and can be extremely diverse in nature. In India there are about 480 species from this family. This family includes the subfamily Danainae, the milkweed butterflies.

The Whites and Yellows
Butterflies from this family are predominantly White or Yellow in colour along with black markings.Their flight is rapid and they move erratically from plant to plant. 81 Species from this family are found in India.
The Metalmarks
The metalmark butterflies get their name from the small metallic looking spots that are commonly found on their wings. In India these butterflies are commonly known as the Punches & Judies. There are about 1000 species of metalmark butterflies worldwide of which only 16 are found in India.

The Gossamer-Winged Butterflies
Butterflies of this family are small, mostly under 5 cm. Their flight is rapid and erratic and very close to the ground. Subfamilies include The Blues, Coppers, Hairstreaks and Harverstes.
The Skipper Butterflies
A family of generally small butterflies with short stout bodies and a characteristic rapid, skipping flight. They actively feed on flower nectar and most species have proboscises that are much longer than butterflies of any other family. Skippers are very difficult to identify in the field and require close examination and study for specie level identification.

Acknowledgement: ‘A Concise Guide to Butterflies & Moths’ by Elizabeth Balmer, ‘Butterfles of Peninsular India’ by Krushnamegh Kunte,


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Friday, April 10, 2009

Vanishing Species - Sambar Deer

An article by Mohan Pai

The Indian Sambar Deer
Cervus unicolor niger

The largest Indian deer that carries the grandest of horns.

The Sambar is the largest Indian deer and carries the grandest horns. Height at shoulder can be up to 150 cm. A full grown stag weighs between 230 - 325 kg. The male members of this species have antlers that can grow up to a length of 1 m. The coat is coarse and shaggy, males have a mane about the neck and throat. The general color is brown with grayish tinge. Females are lighter in tone. Older stags become very dark, almost black.Sambar is found in the wooded areas of India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka. It is the most common deer species in the world, covering many countries in Asia. It is also one of the larger members of the deer family. Their population is large and spread to almost every corner of India.
Sambar prefers staying in the forested hill-sides preferably near cultivation. They are almost nocturnal, feeding mainly at night and retiring by daybreak. Their diet is mainly grass, leaves, various kinds of wild fruit. The capacity of so heavy an animal to move silently through dense jungle is amazing. Sambar takes to water readily and swims with the body submerged, only the face and the antlers showing above surface. These animals have a life expectancy ranging between 16 - 20 years.
Their breeding period is mainly during the months of November and December. The gestation period is 6 months. The males by this time have shed their antlers. A new pair start growing almost immediately. It is during this period of their life cycles when they are seen less frequently. The males mostly lead solitary lives and are rarely seen associating with each other, except on some occasions during the rutting season. Sambar stags fight for territory and attempt to attract hinds by vocal and olfactory display. The stag’s harem is limited to a few hinds.
They are the favorite prey species of the tiger. The Sambar has extremely sharp senses of hearing and smell. Its alarm call which is a loud “dhonk” is taken very seriously, unlike that of the spotted or barking deer, by anyone interested in knowing the whereabouts of a predator. A repeated call is accepted as a definite indicator.

Pic courtesy:
These deer are seldom far from water and, although primarily of the tropics, are hardy and may range from sea level up to high elevations such as the mixed coniferous/deciduous forest zone in the Himalayan Mountains sharing its range with the Himalayan musk deer. These deer are found in habitats ranging from tropical seasonal forests (tropical dry forests and seasonal moist evergreen forests), subtropical mixed forests (conifers, broadleaf deciduous, and broadleaf evergreen tree species) to tropical rainforests. Their range covers a vast majority of territory that is classified as tropical rainforest, but their densities are probably very low there. In these areas, the deer probably prefer clearings and areas adjacent to water. In Taiwan, sambar along with sika deer have been raised on farms for their antlers, which they drop annually in April to May.
This deer has been seen congregating in large herds in protected areas such as national parks and reserves in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The subspecies of Indian sambar in India and Sri Lanka are the largest of the genus with the largest antlers. Populations that inhabit the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo seem to have the smallest antlers in proportion to their body size.
References: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater, Wikipedia


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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vanishing Species - Mouse Deer

An article by Mohan Pai

The Indian Mouse Deer

Or Indian Chevrotain

(Tragulus meminna)

India’s smallest deer, the Mouse deer is a very timid and nocturnal animal difficult to spot in the wild.

This species was widespread and successful from the Oligocene (34 million years ago) to the Miocene (about 5 million years ago), but has remained almost unchanged over that time and remains as an example of primitive ruminant form. Chevrotains have a four-chambered stomach to ferment tough plant foods, but the third chamber is poorly developed. Like other ruminants, they lack upper incisors, and give birth to only a single young, rather than having pig-like litters. The dental formula of chevrotains is the same as that of some smaller deer.

“Chevrotain" is a French word "chevre," which means "goat," and it is then made diminutive to denote a "kid." It is not closely related to a goat. "Deer" comes from the German word "Tier," which simply means "animal." The brown coat is speckled with white markings. The body is stocky, with rounded hindquarters. The legs are slender and the feet are four-toed, but the outer toes are small. It has 34 teeth. The upper canines in the male are longer and more pointed than those of the female. This animal grows to about twenty inches long, thirteen inches at the shoulder, and they weigh about six pounds. This nocturnal animal is very timid and disappears in dense vegetation at the least hint of danger. It is thus very difficult to observe in the wild. It is solitary, except for the mating period. Its diet is quite varied, and includes both plants and small animals.

The chevrotains have primitive features, closer to non-ruminants such as pigs. They do not have horns or antlers, but both sexes possess enlarged upper canines. The male's are prominent and sharp, projecting either side of the lower jaw. Chevrotains have short, thin legs which leave them lacking in agility but also helps to maintain a smaller profile which aids in running through the dense foliage of their environment. Other pig-like features include the presence of four toes on each foot, the absence of facial scent glands, premolars with sharp crowns, and the form of their sexual behaviour and copulation.Chevrotains are solitary animals, and usually interact only to mate. The young are weaned at three months of age, and reach sexual maturity at between five and ten months, depending on species. Parental care is relatively limited. Although they lack the types of scent glands found in most other ruminants, they do possess a chin gland for marking each other as mates or antagonists, and, in the case of the water chevrotain, anal and preputial glands for marking territory. Their territories are relatively small, on the order of 13-24 hectares, but neighbors generally ignore each other, rather than competing aggressively.

Pic: Courtesy Wikipedia

Distribution and habitat
Within India, the Indian chevrotain is commonly encountered in a number of forest areas along the Western Ghats, in the Eastern Ghats up to Orissa, and in the forests of central India. The Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve at the extreme south of the Western Ghats appears to be one of the best localities for the species and may represent a major population stronghold. The species may also be frequently met with in most other protected areas along the Western Ghats such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, Silent Valley, Mudumalai-Bandipur-Nagarahole, Bhadra, and Kudremukh. Krishnan (1972) notes that the species is seen almost commonly around Karwar and in some forests of south India having also observed the species in the Simlipal hills of Orissa in the east. Along the Eastern Ghats populations of mouse deer occur in the forest tracts along the Nallamal hills and Srisailam Nagarjuna Sagar and also in in Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh.The Indian chevrotain is found in tropical deciduous and moist evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of the Peninsular Indian hills, plains, and plateaux, extending into montane forests up to around 1850 m elevation. They are reported to favour rocky habitats, grass-covered rocky hill-sides and forest seldom far from water, and often occur along forest streams and rivers.

Acknowledgements: Wikipedia, Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater, America Zoo.


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