Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Lynx

An article by Mohan Pai
The Eurasian Lynx
Lynx lynx isabellina

This cat appears in India only in the far north, bordering Tibet. Its recent records are only from Ladakh, where the species may not survive for long.
The Lynx, which occurs within our limits in the upper Indus valley, in Gilgit, Ladakh, and Tibet, is a race of the Lynx of northern Europe and Asia. It is distinctive in its pale sandy-grey or isabelline colouring, hence the racial name Isabellina.
The long erect tufts of hair on the tips of its ears distinguish the Lynx from other cats; From the carcal the Lynx is distinguished by its short tail reaching only half way to the hocks, and by distinct ruff or fringe of pendant hairs framing its face. In summer its coat shows a sprinkling of spots which may persist, but which usually disappear in the heavier winter coat.

Postage Stamp from the Soviet Union 1988

The Lynx shelters in the dense cover provided by willow scrub patches of reeds, and tall grass. It hunts such animals and birds as it can overcome, hares, marmots, partridges, pheasants, and takes its toll from flocks of sheep and goats. In summer it covers a wide range of altitude having been seen at levels between 9,000 (2,745 m) and 11,000 feet (3,355 m).
Its keen eyesight and hearing is proverbial. It is said to have 2-3 young, the mother usually hiding her litter in a cave or a hole among rocks. Half grown cubs have been seen in August.

Range map of the Lynx (IUCN)

It is a medium-sized cat. The Eurasian lynx is the biggest of the lynxes, ranging in length from 80 to 130 cm (32 to 51 in) and standing about 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder. Males usually weigh from 18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and females weigh 18.1 kg (40 lb) on average. The Eurasian lynx is mainly nocturnal and lives solitarily as an adult. Moreover, the sounds this lynx makes are very quiet and seldom heard, so the presence of the species in an area may go unnoticed for years. Remnants of prey or tracks on snow are usually observed long before the animal is seen.


While China and Russia had annual commercial exports of thousands of skins in the 1970s and 1980s, this trade has ended in recent years. However, illegal skin trade remains the leading threat to the species, together with habitat loss and prey base depletion.

References: S. H. Prater (The Book of Indian Mammals), Wikipedia, IUCN.


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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vanishing Species - Fireflies

An article by Mohan Pai

Fireflies, also called “glowworms” or “lightning bugs” are actually flying beetles and not true flies.
What are fireflies?
Fireflies are actually beetles! Fireflies are not really "flies" as entomologists know them, but are beetles in the family Lampyridae. "Flies" have one pair of wings (like houseflies) while all other winged insects have two pairs of wings, or, four wings altogether. In general, when the common names of insects contain the word "fly" as part of a one word common name such as firefly, dragonfly or scorpionfly, the insects are not true flies and belongs to another order of insects. When the word "fly" is hyphenated or follows the first word of an insect common name, it is most likely a true fly (and by definition, has only two wings.)
Lampyridae is a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged beetles, and commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous crepuscular use of bioluminescence to attract mates or prey. Fireflies are capable of producing a "cold light", containing no ultraviolet or infrared rays. This chemically-produced light, emitted from the lower abdomen, may be yellow, green, or pale red in color, and has a wavelength from 510 to 670 nanometers.
There are more than 2,000 species of firefly found in temperate and tropical environments around the world. Many species can be found in marshes or in wet, wooded areas where their larvae have abundant sources of food. These larvae can also emit light and are often called "glowworms", particularly in Eurasia. In the Americas, "glow worm" also refers to the related Phengodidae.

Japanese Firefly - pic courtesy: y. Furukawa
Why do fireflies glow ?
Light production in fireflies is due to a type of chemical reaction called bioluminescence. This process occurs in specialised light-emitting organs, usually on a firefly's lower abdomen. The enzyme luciferase acts on luciferin, in the presence of magnesium ions, ATP (adenosene triphosphate), and oxygen to produce light.
The behavioral function of the larval light has received considerable speculation and several plausible theories have been proposed. However, the most generally accepted hypothesis is firefly larvae use their luminescence as a warning signal that communicates to potential predators that they taste bad because they have defensive chemicals in their bodies. These larvae also increase both the intensity and frequency of their glow when disturbed.
Not all firefly species are bioluminescent as adults, but of the species that are, one or both sexes use a species specific flash pattern to attract a member of the opposite sex . These bioluminescent signals can take the form of anything from a continuous glow, to discrete single flashes, to “flash-trains" composed of multi-pulsed flashes.
In most species of North American fireflies, during a certain time of night, males fly about flashing their species specific flash pattern. Females of the same species tend to be perched on vegetation, usually near the ground, and if a flashing male catches a female's fancy, she will respond at a fixed time delay after the last male's flash. A short flash dialogue may ensue between the male and female as the male locates her position and descends to mate. The courtship patterns of Japanese fireflies seem to show many variations of this type of communication system, as well as courtship behaviors that include pheromones as well as photic signals. It is generally assumed that most non-luminous North American fireflies locate mates through the use of pheromones.
Aspects of male flash patterns are also thought to be affected by sexual selection. Female fireflies have been shown to prefer certain characteristics of a male's photic signal (such as increased flash rate) and respond preferentially to males that possess these "sexy" signal components.
Unidentified species from India, dorsal (left and ventral aspect).
Habitat and range
Most firefly larvae are found in rotting wood or other forest litter or on the edges of streams and ponds at night. Some Asian species are fully aquatic (due to the presence of tracheal gills) and live underwater, feeding on aquatic snails. The larvae of several tropical firefly species in the genus Pyractomena are strictly arboreal, feed on arboreal snails and pupate while hanging under living leaves - similar to a butterfly chrysalis.
Adult fireflies are found in the same general habitats as their larvae. Generally speaking, the highest number of firefly species are found in warm, humid areas of the world. Some species, however, are found in very arid regions of the world. In these arid regions, larvae and adults can be readily found following rains. The greatest number of firefly species (highest species diversity) are found in tropical Asia and Central and South America.
Natural history and behavior
Firefly Larvae are predaceous and have been observed feeding mostly on earthworms, snails and slugs. Larvae can detect a snail or slug slime trail, and follow it to the prey. After locating their future meal, they inject an anesthetic type substance through hollow ducts in the firefly's mandibles into their prey in order to immobilize and eventually digest it. Multiple larvae have also been observed attacking large prey items, such as large earthworms. Other observations suggest larvae sometimes scavenge dead snails, worms and similar organic matter.
Adult Fireflies also have mouth parts suggestive of predation (long sickle-shaped mandibles). Although it is widely known that fireflies of a few species mimic the mates of other species in order to attract and devour them, observations of adults feeding on other prey items are practically non-existent. It is likely however, that adults might feed on plant nectar in order to sustain their energy requirements in the adult stage, which can last several months or longer.
Aggressive Mimicry
Aggressive mimicry is a phenomenon where one organism (a mimic) tricks another organism (the dupe) into thinking it is another (the model), with the result being a negative outcome for the dupe, as well as the model. In the case of aggressive mimicry in fireflies, mated females that belong to a few species in the genus Photuris mimic the female responses of other fireflies in the same area in order to attract males of the mimicked species. When these males are tricked (or duped) into landing near these mimics to mate, they are pounced upon and eaten! Recent evidence also suggests that these female mimics are not only acquiring food but also defensive chemicals from their prey, which they themselves do not produce in large quantities.
References: Wikipedia, Firefly facts.htm.
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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Blue Whale

An article by Mohan Pai

The Blue Whale

Balaenoptera musculus

Critically endangered Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, almost as big as Boeing 737 and even larger than the biggest dinosaurs.

With lengths up to 100 feet (30 m) and weights up to 150 tons (136 metric tons), the blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived on this planet. An average individual is 70 feet (21 m) long and weighs 100 tons (90 metric tons). The female, which is larger than the male, gives birth to a calf that averages 25 feet in length and weighs about 2 tons. The calf drinks about 106 gallons of milk every day. An average adult has almost 2,500 gallons of blood and burns up to 3 million calories a day. Its heart weighs more than a ton and the tongue alone weighs about 2 tons! Linnaeus must have had his tongue in his cheek when he gave this species the Latin name "musculus," which means "little mouse."As the common name indicates, the upper parts of the body are mottled blue-gray. The undersides are whitish or light yellow. This whale has a relatively small dorsal fin and black baleen plates. The straight, column-like water spout can reach 20 feet into the air. Speeds of up to 23 miles per hour (20 knots) have been recorded for the blue whale.

For many, many years ancient sailors had rare encounters with these gigantic ocean mammals and were terrified by their overwhelming size and powerful tails. You can understand a little of the fear and trepidation they might have felt upon seeing these huge, mysterious creatures for the first time. Today we know them to be virtually harmless to humans and that they have quite a bit in common with us – they, too are warm-blooded mammals that must breathe air. They are highly social animals with complex languages and intelligence. Most importantly, they are not monsters at all, but gentle giants we have come to respect, admire and protect.

Size comparison against an average human


Blue whales diet consists mainly of krill, a tiny shrimp that lives in tremendously large schools in almost every ocean of the world. Krill is probably one of the most plentiful food species (outside of insects) anywhere on earth. It's got to keep up with the blue whale's big appetite. A big blue can eat over a thousand krill at one time swallowing them with a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant! Blue whales eat the krill using a special type of filter on their mouths called a baleen. By gulping enormous amounts of sea water containing the live krill the blue whale closes its mouth and flushes the sea water back out through the filter leaving the krill behind for it to swallow. Small fish and plankton are also favorite food items of the whale. It takes about 8,000 lbs/3600kg of fresh seafood a day to keep the blue whale well fed.


Probably the most spectacular thing about blue whales that's bigger than big is the sounds they make. Scientists have measured the low-frequency (deep rumbling) sounds they make when they communicate with each other by using a decibel meter. Some of their vocalisations have been recorded as loud as 188 decibels and can be heard as far as 530 mi/848km away. To give you an idea of just how loud 188 decibels is a commercial jet taking off makes a sound of 120 decibels. That makes whales, by far, the loudest living thing anywhere on earth!


Found in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian Oceans, with a range that extends from the periphery of drift-ice in polar seas to the tropics . Three main populations persist: one in the southern hemisphere, one in the North Pacific and one in the North Atlantic ).

In India, the Blue Whales have been washed ashore in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

Red area indicates the range of the Blue Whale

Life History

Blue whales migrate several thousand miles to wintering grounds and fast for the duration of their stay; the fat on their body is enough to see them through the whole winter. The mating season occurs for 5 months over the winter. A single calf is born after a gestation period of one year. It nurses for 7 months and will reach sexual maturity at 5-15 years of age. Females give birth every 2-3 years.


The blue whale is currently one of the world's most endangered whales. It was not hunted until somewhat modern techniques made them more easily attainable.

Blue Whales were abundant in nearly all the oceans until the beginning of the twentieth century. For over 40 years, they were hunted almost to extinction by whalers until protected by the international community in 1966. A 2002 report estimated there were 5,000 to 12,000 Blue Whales worldwide, located in at least five groups. More recent research into the Pygmy subspecies suggests this may be an underestimate. Before whaling, the largest population was in the Antarctic, numbering approximately 239,000 (range 202,000 to 311,000). There remain only much smaller (around 2,000) concentrations in each of the North-East Pacific, Antarctic, and Indian Ocean groups. There are two more groups in the North Atlantic, and at least two in the Southern Hemisphere.

Blue Whale skeleton, outside the Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Major Threats

The main threat in the past was direct exploitation, which only became possible in the modern era using deck-mounted harpoon cannons. Blue whale hunting started in the North Atlantic in 1868 and spread to other regions around 1900 after the northeastern Atlantic populations had been severely reduced. The Antarctic and North Atlantic populations were probably depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling ceased, but are increasing . Blue whales have been protected worldwide since 1966, although they continued to be caught illegally by former USSR fleets until 1972. The last recorded deliberate catches were off Spain in 1978.

References: Dept. Of Environmental Conservation, New York State, Wikipedia, IUCN Red List.


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