Monday, October 08, 2007

Species Roulette

Published in Outlook Oct 15th.

This is the untouched version -

The World Conservation Union’s press release a fortnight ago set the wires on fire - 180 species of animals and plants on the threshold of extinction were added to the global Red List this year alone. While the list of species in dire straits grows longer, we can at least celebrate the several new ones discovered in India within the last few years.

Birds are a thoroughly catalogued group through the efforts of the British Raj ornithologists. For much of the century, competitive bird watchers have had to be satisfied with no more than an occasional re-discovery, such as the Forest Owlet. For decades interested birders searched randomly for this species in the wilds across the country, with no success. When a group of American ornithologists arrived in late 1997 to look for the bird, they zeroed in on the four locations where it had been seen previously. They hit the jackpot in the forests just outside Mumbai!

But new discoveries? None for a very long time. Even the grand old man of Indian ornithology, Salim Ali, never had the honour of discovering one. So when Ramana Athreya walked out of Eaglenest National Park in Arunachal Pradesh two years ago with evidence of a new species of bird, the Bugun Liocichla, it sent an electric jolt of excitement among birders. The fact that a professional astronomer had this rare privilege caused much consternation among the more territorial ‘twitchers’. But then such is the game of Species Roulette – some play it hard, some win it cool.

The pretty little bird hit the international headlines (even sharing space with a topless (human) model on page 3 of The Sun). Such is the global clout that birds command, followed only by mammals. Discovering a large primate is a gilt-edged invitation to the Biological Hall of Fame. The last time a macaque was discovered was way back in 1903 in Sumatra. More than 100 years later, a burly macaque dashed across the road bringing biologists from the Nature Conservation Foundation to a screeching halt. A new monkey, the Arunachal Macaque, named for its home state, had just checked into the roll call of Indian fauna. But while we have just become aware of its existence, the local people were all too familiar with the monkey’s crop raiding propensities - an ironic situation where one man’s prize catch is another’s pest.

Far from the media glare, however, new species of reptiles are popping up from the remote forests of the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as in small fragmented forests of the Eastern Ghats of Orissa. This is truly the Age of Herpetological Discovery. While any other specialist would love to bask in the glory of finding at least one new species, researchers now discovering myriads of frogs face a problem peculiar to new parents – finding appropriate names (but in the hundreds)! Despite losing more than 80% of its forests, India is giving Costa Rica and Sri Lanka a run for their frogs.

The unique Pig-nosed Frog from the Western Ghats is the most significant of these discoveries. The only member of an ancient family, reportedly 50 to 100 million years old, it hunkered deep underground while the dramatic environmental and physical changes sweeping the earth wiped out whole groups of animals and saw new ones evolve. This dinosaur among frogs was only discovered in 2003.

Another herpetological breakthrough was the re-discovery of the Indian Egg-eating snake, a toothless, specialist egg swallower. It was first found in Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1863. Subsequently a few surfaced in Nepal and the Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttarakhand before disappearing altogether. Expeditions were proposed, old reports pored over as herpetologists planned to resurrect the enigmatic snake. In 2003, a specimen of the long lost Indian Egg-eater turned up in Wardha, Maharashtra without much fanfare. It’s not often that a species presents itself on a platter but it is up to the beholder to realize its true value. For about 14 years the species was staring us in the face – intrigued snake enthusiasts from various cities in Gujarat sent pictures seeking its identification. Then it had not occurred to any of the established herpetologists that the creature could emerge more than a thousand kilometers away from its known range. It was dismissed as an aberrant form of a tree snake until the sharp eyes of Frank Tillack, a professional German bricklayer and a self-taught ophiologist, identified the snake for what it was.

Yet another case of effortless species discovery occurred at the field station of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team in 2004. Lizard researcher Shreyas Krishnan woke up with a bad hangover one morning. Despite the heavy downpour he hobbled to the kitchen hoping a cup of strong tea would clear his head. When he heard a splash in the rapidly growing pond outside, he hoped it was a frog. If it was a lizard he was duty bound to take a look, an inconvenient proposition at the moment. A lizard it was, and one that neither he nor any of the numerous visiting herpetologists had ever seen before. Shreyas had discovered not only a species of lizard, but a whole new genus. As a bonus he had also discovered an instant cure for the worst hangover!

Wet squelchy forests are not the only frontiers of biological exploration; barren degraded forests are too. The spectacular Peacock Tarantula was named on the basis of a single specimen obtained at Gooty (Andhra Pradesh) railway station’s timber yard in 1899. Although the place has no habitat, naturalists doggedly searched the area for the spider. About 102 years later, a four-member team concluded that the tarantula must have arrived at the yard as a stowaway in a hollow log. They focused on old railway lines with suitable habitat for a large tree-dwelling spider. Finally, some distance from Gooty, they found the most beautiful spider in the world in a totally degraded forest. Within five hours. While this re-discovery went totally unnoticed in India, it set the network of European and American animal dealers buzzing. Within a year 12 specimens of the tarantula were smuggled out of the country and the babies hit the pet trade the following year. In 2005 when I visited an exotic pet expo in the United States each baby was worth US $ 350, down from $ 1000 in 2003.

The above examples are just a few highlights of recent developments. Scanning two Indian scientific journals revealed the discovery of 31 new species of fish, numerous insects and countless plants just within the last three years. The bottom line is anyone can find a new species; so put on your high-heeled boots, get out your wide brimmed hat and play Species Roulette. Imagine immortality: a tick with your name on it!

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