Capturing the Eye of a Crocodile Fish


“Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes. Behold these eyes and thou shall recognise, The crystalline lattices of constellations to adore, Mirrored in the eyes of the piscivore.”

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Blue striped travellies cruising on the reef

The shallow sea flattens. Slowly, you descend and in the hustle-bustle of the reef, you cruise, weightless and neutrally buoyant. Thousands of fish move in and out of coral crevices looking at you. In that strange world, you are the outsider. You are the thing that does not belong, a bizarre alien, perhaps.

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Lyretail orange Anthias guarding territory on the reefs. 

You swim past a feather star and an octopus and are looking at the shapes and patterns of different corals when suddenly, you notice a crocodile fish nearby.

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An octopus watching hustle-bustle of the reef. 

It blends well in the bright colours of coral polyps and camouflages into its surroundings. You hold your breath for a moment and look carefully at the fish’s face, and you are rewarded with the rare gaze of a crocodile fish, as hypnotic as a revolving prism of a magic ball.

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A rare gaze of the crocodile fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti)

When your eye catches the eye of a crocodile fish, you see a pattern. You notice that the fish’s eyes have a spherical latticework of thousands of crystalline lines with two distinct layers—the inside is dark, and the outside is thin and light— both separate, yet holding each other.

Both layers are captivating, but for some reason, you are unable to decide which layer to look at. The outer layer looks like it’s reflecting, while the inner layer is absorbing. The outer layer meanders like a flowing river, whereas the inner layer gives the eyes an illusion of depth. You notice that the textured globe of those eyes is opaque, and there is a lot more happening in the eyes that you can feel but cannot see. The more you gaze into the fish’s eyes the more they seem to reveal.

 

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In the world of eyes, these are true standouts. 

 

You begin to understand that the light-carrying fibres of the outer layer must be arrayed to optimise the fish’s ability to capture fast prey of small fish. As you gradually shift your gaze, the shape of this dark pupil also shifts—like the eye of a predator dilating when prey comes into view.

Soon you start noticing other fine details—the infinite amount of spines on fins, the rough texture of the fish’s body, the bearded roughness of its face, it’s camouflage, shape and it’s size.

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The eyes of a crocodile fish. They have frilly abstract iris lappets, which help them improve camouflage.

You start to think of what you know of the fish. You know that these biological star sapphires take longer to mature than most other fishes, but considering that they don’t have natural predators, their lifespan is quite long by fish standards. Their larvae float for weeks before they decide to settle on a coral reef and it takes almost a year for them to reach adulthood. Considering its predatory nature, in that one year it must have snared hundreds of small crabs and fish, and will have survived a gauntlet of larger predators swimming above it on the food chain.

You realise that you have spent a lot of time observing this fish without taking a single picture. So you adjust and readjust the focal length, the shutter speed and the intensity of the strobe light. You look through the LCD screen of your camera. After going back and forth between clicking images and viewing them on the screen, you capture what you think is the ‘perfect image’ of the fish’s eye. Though aware of your presence the crocodile fish does not move even an inch. You realise that you are a matter of indifference to the fish, some alien, or just some strange fish emitting short bursts of light. That’s when crocodile fish lifts off, instantly darts in pursuit of capturing something only it sees.


 

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Case for coexistence between humans and crocodiles

An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth in December issue.

Vardhan Patankar & Vrushal Pendharkar

Away from the shores of mainland India, an unusual conflict has been unraveling in the picturesque islands of Andamans and Nicobars. These islands are one of last remaining bastions of saltwater crocodiles in Indian waters. Here, in the last six years, the encounters between humans and crocodiles are building into a potentially worrying situation.

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Saltwater crocodile juvenile in South Andaman islands

Since the tsunami of 2004, there have been 22 attacks, between 2005 – 2015, out of which 11 were fatal and other 11 were injuries. This in comparison to 20,000 deaths every year due to rabies in India is minuscule. Prior to the tsunami from 1986 to 2004, there were 20 reported attacks. So essentially, the attacks have more than doubled in a short time. According to Harry Andrews, an herpetologist with 20 years experience on the islands, the seeds of increasing human crocodile interaction were sown a decade before the tsunami. The influx of people settling on the islands from the mainland increased from 2,80,000 in 1991 to 3,60,000 in 2001. Current estimates are close to 3,90,000. To support more people mangroves, which is the preferred habitat of crocodiles, found along the 1982 km of coastline and freshwater creeks were cleared. More than half of population are settlers from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. They brought the culture of fishing along with them. With dwindling food resources and habitat, according to Andrews “it is becoming increasingly difficult for crocodiles to find space, especially during the breeding season when they prefer freshwater creeks and marshy areas to lay their eggs.” Most of the attacks have occurred during this time which coincides with the monsoons.

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Captured saltwater crocodile near Alexandria island in South Andaman_photo credit: Andaman & Nicobar Forest Department

As a result of the tsunami 3,730 hectares of coastal vegetation of the North Andaman was denuded with 7.5 % of mangroves damaged along the creeks of Little and South Andaman. According to a report compiled by Ravi Sankaran, the late scientist who pioneered research in Andamans, in 2005 the tsunami caused 50% greater impact than anthropogenic disturbances on these islands. Due to the tectonic shifts of the earthquake which triggered the tsunami, areas like Diglipur and Mayabunder on, islands of North and Middle Andaman heaved up by 1.2 meters while the South and Little Andaman and Nicobar group of islands went down by 1.6 meters. In areas of Bamboo Flat and Saithankhari mangroves were damaged while inundation in low-lying areas and agriculture fields of Sippighat, Saithankhari, and Tirur, mangroves changed to mudflats. Mudflats and vegetation around them form vital basking and nesting sites for crocodiles. With an increase in mudflats, crocodiles are being frequently found in areas close to human habitations. Pankaj Sekhsaria, an author of Last Wave – a novel based in the Andamans, hypothesizes “where submergence took place and where wetlands increased these could be areas of conflict.”

 

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Trap being prepared to capture the crocodile at Junglighat area in Port Blair Andaman islands

The Loha Barrack crocodile sanctuary is a 22 sq.km area from Wandoor to Khurma Dera in South Andaman created for a protection of crocodiles in 1983. Islanders Mohan Halder and Subhash Dey, Panchayat Pradhans of Tushnabad and Chouldari respectively accuse the forest department of setting up the sanctuary without fencing the area and consulting the villagers. Out of the 11 attacks in the last 10 years, the now infamous attack on an American lady in 2010 is the only fatal count in clear open water while the rest of the ten have been in muddy creeks found across these islands. Mukanda Roy fell victim to a recent attack close to the Loha Barrack sanctuary on August 31. Other muddy water areas of attacks are Ograbraj, Manpur, Mundapahar and Hut Bay in southern parts of Andamans.

 

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Mangrove cover in middle Andaman islands

According to Vanjulavalli Shridhar, Divisional Forest Officer, Mayabunder, such attacks are due to “negligence of people who venture in crocodile inhabited areas in hope for a better fish catch.” Another reason for crocodile attacks is the common practice of improper disposal of solid waste directly into creeks, canals, and the sea. Untreated organic waste consisting of kitchen waste, discarded chicken, and fish, etc could also be a factor for attracting crocodiles close to human inhabited areas. Negligently dumped waste has also caused the local dog population to increase, luring crocodiles towards habitation. Unauthorized slaughterhouses in Ograbraj village are known to dump their raw meat waste callously in the waters. This village was the site of a crocodile attack on an elderly lady in 2012.

 

Such incidents are the recent phenomenon in otherwise largely peaceful cohabitation between these reptiles and settlers and indigenous people who have lived alongside for many decades. To mitigate any further escalation in a potential conflict, the administration has recently proposed several measures. Naveen Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forest, South Andaman, says, “joint patrolling team of panchayat members, police, and forest personnel are being formed to keep a watch on creeks and waterways close to human habitation.” He also suggested reducing dependence on creeks by drawing water through pipelines might help in reducing the conflict. Similarly, installing warning signages, deployment of lifeguards and erection of watch towers on sites frequented by people will serve as early warning systems. Directives to restaurants, resorts, and even fishermen to avoid dumping untreated solid waste in water and advisories to villagers to stop using creeks for bathing and washing utensils will go a long way in avoiding contact with crocodiles. Vanjulavalli has conducted door-to-door campaigns and held 15 awareness camps in the past two years to sensitize people in ways to coexist with crocodiles. In Australia and Sri Lanka where saltwater crocodiles are also naturally found extensive scientific research is undertaken. Accordingly, effective communication initiatives are undertaken involving various stakeholders like government agencies, business and tourism sectors, the media and public at large for effective conservation of crocodiles.

It is often that people living in close proximity with crocodiles bear the physical and economic costs of attacks. At a precarious time when space available to support increasing human and crocodile population is shrinking, will they continue to coexist as they have for centuries?


We would like to thank Dr.Pankaj Sekhsaria, Dr. Ravichandran, Mr. Ram Vikas, Mr. Jason John, Mr. SK Thomas, Mr. Arun Singh, Dr. Manish Chandi, Dr. Harry Andrews, Mr. Denis Giles, Mr. Zubair Ahmed and Mrs. Vanjulavalli for providing necessary information and pictures.

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Is there a future for the wetland birds of Sippighat in South Andamans?

Zoya Tyabji & Vardhan Patankar

An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth

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Mixed flocks of birds glide contently through the wetland waters of Sippighat, their feathers glinting in the sunlight. Some fluffing, basking under the warm sun; whereas others camouflage within the weeds, diligently foraging. On one side, a fisherman casts his net, hoping to take home some baitfish; while on the other side, a truck carelessly unloads gravel into the water, reclaiming more wetland. A fleet of cars passes by the road adjacent to the wetlands. Despite the surrounding disturbance, the birds here persist.

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Wetland birds gliding in water of Sipphighat.

Troubled waters

Sippighat, situated 4 kilometres from Port Blair, the main city of Andamans, was different 12 years back from what it is today. Paddy fields, a few wetland pockets and a roadside village constituted the area. Around these villages, aromas wafted out as women cooked meals. Elders sat in their backyard, sipping hot tea whilst keeping an eye out on children running around. Dogs barked in a heated frenzy chasing poultry. Paddy field farmers worked in harmony with birds gliding in nearby wetland pockets.

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Sippighat before the 2004 tsunami was dominated by Paddy fields. Photo: Sameer Ghodke.

The scene changed on the morning of 26th December 2004 when the tsunami hit the islands. According to its residents, many houses were destroyed and paddy fields were inundated. Post- tsunami, the authorities assessed the damage and provided shelter and land compensation to the people affected. Over the years, residents moved on with their new way of life, inundated paddy fields transformed into wetlands and benthic fauna and flora slithered over the thin layer of soil, adding humus whilst indirectly attracting a variety of water birds.

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Fishermen casting their nets in wetland waters of Sippighat.

However, in the last 3-4 years, the tide has turned, so to speak. Due to a boom in development of the islands and an increase in tourism, the residents of Sippighat have realised the value of their lost land. The ecosystem has stabilised and amidst the cacophony of birds, land reclamation activities are underway. Eight sites are lost to land reclamation, and every so often, more sites are reclaimed. There is trash littered all over, debris from construction sites lines the borders of the wetland pockets. Eutrophication stems here, slowly seeping off the oxygen used by the life forms of this aquatic habitat. Being adjacent to the road, the noise levels are high.

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A view of Sippighat after tsunami

Despite these ongoing disturbances, the birds here persevere. A recent bird count established the presence of 34 species. The most abundant water birds are the Common Moorhen and the Lesser Whistling Ducks. The Cotton Pygmy Goose frolics with them. Purple Moorhens and Swamp Hens are seen around the edge. Amongst other commonly sighted birds are a variety of shorebirds—the Wagtails, Plovers, Snipers, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Yellow and Chinese Bitterns, and Kingfishers and Egrets. The White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon soar and hover in the sky. The celebrity birds found here are the Andaman teal and the Andaman Serpent Eagle—bird species that are endemic to the Andaman Islands.

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Purple moorhens foraging in waters of Sippighat.

Research in other areas has determined the impacts of habitat degradation on birds. Birds are known to tolerate some level of disturbance, but once it reaches a threshold, they can go through physiological and morphological adaptation that may lead to a fatal loss in population. Considering the high biodiversity of birds in the wetlands of Sippighat, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of land reclamation on them.

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Land reclamation activities and shabby garages next to wetland of Sippighat.

Many of the wetlands stand on revenue & private land holdings. According to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, any construction needs clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Interestingly, when the Government provided compensatory land, the residents willingly accepted the offer of alternate land. However, now the residents are returning to reclaim their lost land.

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Posters of Wetland birds put up by the Forest Department line the road of Sipphighat. Photo: Zoya Tyabji

Finding balance

What we need is a win-win situation, where residents benefit and the birds live in harmony. In areas where the value of wetlands is recognised, as a water filtration and or as a protector against floods and storms that are so prevalent in the islands; physical buffers are set to minimise edge effects and to mitigate water quality impacts. Walking lanes and birding viewpoints are built for tourists. Locals are encouraged to serve in the tourism industry. Such activities should be encouraged even in Sippighat. This will help the residents generate sustainable revenue without losing the wetland beauty to the concrete jungle.

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‘Live like you have a hundred years more to go: B.F. Chhapgar’.

As I walk into Cusrow Baug, ripples of sound from a piano, a guitar and a clock’s chimes all float through the air over the parked vintage cars and bikes. Old couples stand in their balconies, staring into infinity in the quiet, cloudy afternoon. I am here to meet the man who encouraged me to study marine biology, Dr. Boman Framji Chhapgar

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A view of Cusrow Baug Apartment in Colaba, South Bombay

In one of the many apartments of Cusrow Baug, I find him sitting in the dim light amidst piled-up books, newspaper cuttings and notes that he has gathered for sixty-odd years. Despite having lost much of his eyesight, the eighty-five-year-old Chhapgar, who has a formidable reputation as India’s first marine biologist, continues to write and remains an inspiration to so many naturalists and biologists.

Dr. Chhapgar with his book, Understanding the Sea_Picture_Dinaz Vandrewalla

Dr. Chhapgar with his book, Understanding the Sea.

As a teenager, Chhapgar divided his time between scouring libraries and exploring the forests and seashores in and around Bombay. After completing his schooling in 1944, he graduated with honours at the age of 17 from St. Xavier’s College in 1948, with Microbiology as his principal subject.

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Dr Chhapgar in 1951

In 1951, he enrolled as the first student in the life sciences postgraduate course at the University of Bombay, and in 1954, was awarded the Shri Vicaji D.B. Taraporevala Senior Research scholarship.

Later, in 1957, he obtained a second Bachelor of Science in Zoology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bombay. The very next year, he was selected for the UNESCO Marine Biology Refresher Course, which gave him an opportunity to travel abroad. He participated in the International Indian Ocean Expedition (1961 – 65) with cruises on U.S.S. ANTON BRUUN and I.N.S. KISTNA, and on the first cruise of India’s oceanographic ship O.R.V. SAGAR KANYA to Kenya in 1983. Chhapgar recollects, “This was the first few years after India got independence, so we had the independence to do whatever we wanted.” He registered for his PhD in 1972, and completed it in a short span of four years by 1976.

Chhapgar’s work is globally recognized and valued. He was elected Life Fellow of the International Oceanographic Foundation for his contributions to the advancement and extension of knowledge in oceanography and the marine sciences”. Not just that, his portrait is included in the Gallery of Carcinologists in the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. In India, he served on the Board of Governors of the Maharashtra Nature Parks Association and on the executive committee of the Bombay Natural History Society. In 1994, he was awarded the Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping in an aquarium.

Dr. Chhapagar receiving Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping.

Dr Chhapgar receiving Dharmakumarsinhji Trophy for ornamental fish keeping.

Chhapgar, along with his colleague Mr Sane, also founded the Indian Fisheries Association, which was set up with the mandate to address grass root-level problems of fisheries and aquarium maintenance in India. Chhapgar feels that the straitened circumstances of early independent India engendered camaraderie amongst researchers, which has faded away now. He says, “Passion was what drove our work in science. We earned little, and at times we did not earn anything at all, but we still continued working.”

An author of the classic Marine Life of India, Chhapgar once told me,“Books have always been my stimulant … they are like an injection.”

In a career spanning over six decades, the biologist has written over ten books, hundreds of scientific papers, described three species of crabs, two mantis shrimp (Stomatopods) and fishes under the pen-name “Beefsea”. The discovery of new species won him a place in Blackwelder’s Directory of Zoological Taxonomists of the World (1961).

His books, filled as they are with interesting facts and information, are masterpieces of contextualization. They are not only about fish or octopus or crabs or snails, but about their—and our—shared ecology.

It isn’t Chhapgar’s illustrious career, however, that sets him apart. It is his passion for marine life, practical accomplishment, intellectual depth and of course his sense of humour, which is as ironic as it is infectious. He possesses this unique quality of connecting with people from all walks of life and has the ability to give sound advice on any subject, from religion to relationships. It is Chhapgar’s individuality that led him to literally take the plunge into the water and explore marine organisms in their natural environment at a time when the science of identification was still based in the collection of dead specimens. Perhaps the first person to use SCUBA apparatus to study marine life in India, Chhapgar is a keen observer of nature, who has carried out studies on marine fish and observed the changes in their development both in their natural habitat and in the aquarium.

File photo of Dr. Chhapgar with fish catch

File photo of Dr. Chhapgar with fish catch.

I know well that I am just one among many whom Chhapgar has inspired. M.R. Almeida, (Senior scientist and a renowned botanist) has even named a variety of Sidaacuta Burm., a plant he discovered in Lakshadweep after Chhapgar as S. acutavarchhapgarii. As I sit with Chhapgar in his balcony sipping hot tea, I realise why.

Though almost blind, he remains comfortable and content. His visual impairment and its associated adversities have not diminished his appetite for knowledge, and, in fact, have led him to gain a sense of acceptance of his successes and failures. Chhapgar was an avid reader and also a poet. It is perhaps out of habit that every few minutes he turns towards his bookshelf. As he began losing his sight, he not only memorised the sequence in which his books are stacked, but also the exact location of everything in his home.

Today, Chhapgar’s curiosity is still like that of an insistent child. He shows no signs of burnout and refuses help from relatives and friends. He continues to have long discussions with colleagues on advances in the field of marine biology and when alone, he listens to the radio. He continues to write from memory, cooks his own food, goes for walks and welcomes everyone who comes to his door. And he says he enjoys doing it all.

Chhapgar’s appetite for life is humbling. For him, science isn’t a set of minor achievable goals, and nor can its practice be limited to just one discipline. I often remember the leathery skin of this face, the years of experience it shows, and what he said to me with a glint in his eye: “I follow one simple rule in life. Instead of living each day like there is no tomorrow, live like you have hundred more years to go. Wouldn’t you then follow your passion?”

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An edited version of this article first published in Sanctuary Asia www.sanctuaryasia.com/…/10196–a-hundred-more-years-to-go-a-tribut…

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The Bay Island Lizard: My Work Companions

A cottage built in Karen style architecture at ANET field station in the Andamans.

A cottage built in Karen style architecture at ANET field station in the Andamans.

I sleep in a comfortable machan style cottage, with a tin roof overhead and wooden chatai windows and walls that open on all sides. A dozen or so areca nut trees, a few bamboo groves and various native trees surround my cottage, giving me an excellent opportunity to observe my surroundings without any obstruction. Though most nearby areas have been converted to agricultural land, the Andaman Nicobar Environmental Team’s (ANET) field station and a few nearby areas still hold some forests. The local snakes, lizards and birds are a permanent feature of any field station. And amongst them, the short-tailed island lizards, belonging to the genus Coryphophylax, are my daily work companions.

The island lizards as my dialy work comapnions

The island lizards as my daily work companions

Every day, three to five lizards visit my cottage and give me company as my work progresses. Sometimes I see them staring at an infinite infinity

My ‘herpetologist’ friends explain that they are diurnal and floor dwelling, which means that they spend their days on the ground or on tree trunks, and nights on leaves or branches, sleeping. Chasing each other is primarily to defend territory or attract a mate. Granted that the purpose of chasing is to attract females, or defending territories, what is the purpose of many quick neck movements, and why do they sit for hours doing nothing but staring at me?

Bay island lizard perching on the leaf.

Bay island lizard perching on the leaf.

In my opinion, no comprehensive explanation is possible. And even though I make inferences of why they are doing what they are doing, I guess only the individual lizards know what is going on inside their heads. After all, with the vast and varied differences in sense perceptions and emotive expressions that exist between ourselves, and the bewildering diversity of the rest of the living world, what we derive is just a possible explanation of any act.

When I chat with my learned friends, I am awestruck by what they infer from every move the lizards make. They use complex words to explain simple behaviour. One circumstance that needlessly complicates the observation of animals is the assumption that every significant action of an animal must have a purpose. I am quite sure, that like us, animals also indulge in a range of moves and activities without having any set purpose.

Bay island lizard

Bay island lizard

For me, the lizards visiting my cottage is the purest form of pleasure, and I’m glad that I am able to observe them and enjoy their company without trying to discover meaning and purpose in every move that they make. My very separateness from these lizards enriches me and allows us to work better under the same roof.

After all what else do you need from a work companion?

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Edited version first published @ http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/features/10184-the-bay-island-lizard-my-work-companions

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Jewels of the seabed

Edited version: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/jewels-of-the-seabed/article7758383.ece

All that glittersSea slugs compensate for their small size and soft bodies by advertising their poisons through colour.Photo: Vardhan Patankar

All that glittersSea slugs compensate for their small size and soft bodies by advertising their poisons through colour.Photo: Vardhan Patankar

If you dive deep into the oceans, you could be treated to a view of colourful sea slugs. While you admire the patterns and hues, be informed – the colours are their armours.

Enchanting to anyone who dives beneath the ocean’s surface, colourful sea slugs are a diverse group of marine animals that are found all over the world. The photos speak for themselves; take a closer look and prepare to be assaulted by an assortment of patterns and hues ranging from black-and-white to psychedelic colours.

Unlike the dull brown slugs that we see on land, sea slugs are amongst the most spectacular and diverse creatures that can be found across the world’s seas, from shallows and reefs to murky sea beds nearly a mile under the sea surface. They are mollusks, belonging to a group called Ophisthobranchs.

Gaze at the bright blue, vivid violet, flaming yellow, plum-like purple on sea slugs, and you will be left awestruck by the range of colours at display. If you could ask a sea slug the secret of their beauty, they’d tell you that their colours are there for a reason: to protect themselves from predators! Isn’t that strange? How could colours keep them safe in an environment swarming with voracious feeders, from sharks to barracudas and much more?

A play of evolution

To understand this you’d have to look at their history. The ancestors of sea slugs discarded their hard and protective shells millions of years ago, and today’s sea slugs are just soft organs, muscle and skin. So how do they protect their soft, vulnerable bodies?

This is how. They make themselves distasteful to any animal that tries to eat them, and advertise this in their colours. The message to predators is loud and clear: “Don’t eat me , I’m poisonous !” Although almost all sea slugs are colourful, different kinds have different ways of protecting themselves.

Store poison

Some are tough-skinned and bumpy, whereas others are armed with toxic ink jets or even stinging cells. Their food (sponges, fire corals and anemones) contain poison. After digesting their food, sea slugs store the poison, and secrete it from their skin cells or glands when eaten. This means that any animal that tries to eat a sea slug probably makes a face similar to yours when you are made to eat vegetables like bitter gourd!

Pretty interesting, right? Well, this is only a small sample of what is known about sea slugs, and in fact there is a lot that is still unknown. Researchers are still discovering new species and behaviours with flamboyant displays of colours. For me, seeing these fabulous animals underwater is like seeing abstract paintings: allowing you to experience the extraordinary sea slug in an astonishingly unusual way.


Spectacular sea slugs

  • There are over 3,000 species of sea slugs, and new species are still being discovered.

  • Sea slugs have a foot, and they leave a slimy trail, just like land slugs.

  • They have a short lifespan; some live up to a year, others only a few weeks.

  • Sea slugs are both genders at the same time – so they are hermaphrodites .

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Edited version: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/jewels-of-the-seabed/article7758383.ece

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A day of dugong!

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Every year, we dedicate the 2nd to the 8th of October as the ‘Wildlife week’. It is during this period that we reflect on our countries’ rich biodiversity and the services it provides us. While we celebrate this week here, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, there is a greater reason to fete our success and evaluate our failures in protecting our very own State animal, the dugong.

The dugong or ‘Panisuwar’ has a long history of existence in these islands. Old fishers recollect sighting herds of 10-15 dugongs just a few decades back when there were over two hundred animals inhabiting these waters. Most people in the islands believe that dugongs are found only in Dugong creek in Little Andaman. Contrary to this, dugongs have been and continue to be reported (although few in numbers) from islands in North Andaman (Reef, Sheame and Landfall), South Andaman (Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Chidiatapu), Ritchie’s archipelago (Neil, Havelock and Inglis), Little Andaman and around the Nancowry group of islands.

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Sadly, hunting in the past and accidental entanglement in fishing nets has led to drastic declines in dugong numbers making it rare to sight an animal in the wild in recent years. Recognising this fact, in 1992, the Ministry of Environment and Forests amended the status of the dugong, giving this marine mammal legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. In 2002, the dugong was declared the State animal of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At the national level, a Dugong Task Force was constituted in 2008 and in 2011, a project was approved to recover the species under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, for a period of five years.

The Department of Environment and Forests here in Port Blair along with scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore have been working together ever since, to develop a management and protection plan for the animal. Over the years, this effort has been headed and managed by officers at the Department like Mr. D.V. Negi, Mr. G.N. Sinha, Mr. S.S. Garbyal, Mr. K. Ravichandran, Mr Ajai Saxena, Mr A.K. Paul and Mr B.P. Yadav.

As researchers of the project, we identified important dugong habitat during the first two years of the project. Over 50 seagrass meadows are present in the shallow waters of the island, but animals appeared to feed in only eight of these meadows. The selective diet of the dugong and presence of their preferred seagrass species at these sites is the main reason. We monitored seagrass meadows over two years and learnt that dugongs repeatedly feed in these sites throughout the year, rarely abandoning the site. Only seventeen individuals have been sighted till date, of which three were mother-calf pairs. The low numbers are alarming and monitoring and protecting these select habitats and the remaining individuals has become important for the animals survival.

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Boat island

It has been four long years since the start of our joint efforts. While we have gathered the basic information needed to protect the species and manage its habitat, there have been several roadblocks. These have been mainly due lack of continuity in sanctioning of funds, delays in fund release when sanctioned and insufficient funds when released. While these hindrances have not discouraged efforts from the department, it has surely affected the momentum of work and increased the time frame for achieving the set goals.

Dugong Feeding at Neil Island- Vardhan PatankarAfter a year’s lag, this financial year seems promising, with the Ministry sanctioning funds. In the months to come there are plans to identify clear terms of management intervention, establish a monitoring programme for the species and its habitat, and help further clarify aspects of the species biology, behaviour and ecology, that would be critical for its rational conservation.

Besides increasing our understanding of the dugong, there are also huge practical challenges to conserving the species. Fishing nets and high-speed boats in dugong habitat and hunting by communities who believe in the totemic and cultural value of the animal are a few of these. A major community-based conservation programme with the joint effort of all stakeholders over an extended period is a must and. The declaration that accorded it the status of the State animal will otherwise, amount to nothing more than a mere symbol.

An edited version of this article published in Andaman Chronicals:

Elrika D’Souza & Vardhan Patankar

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Floaters on Cinque

Guest post by Nitya Prakash Mohanty

Scenic Cinque island

Scenic Cinque island

Crackle. Crackle. Popcorn? Hunger clouds my thoughts. I flash my torch at the slippery rocks below to compensate for the yet to rise the moon. Hundreds of molluscs scatter on my approach. The surrounding sea and the distant calls of spotted deer remind me that I am far away from home and certainly away from popcorn. The lights of a ship blink in the distance as I turn a corner to the smell of fresh fried fish. Camp sweet camp. I put down a red floater I had found washed onto the beach, the other one in the pair missing, and proceed to my tent. By the time the camp light is turned off, it would have been the time for people in cities to switch on their television after a day’s work. Here, on the uninhabited islands of Andaman in the Bay of Bengal, things are a bit different.

Pristine Cinque

Pristine Cinque

Islands are known for the oddities of life forms they display and to me, the oddities of humans they beckon. The appeal of islands does not end at the isolation that they offer, but the simplicity of life that comes with it. People who choose the island life come in for a shock every time they set foot on the distant mainland, where life bustles along at 20 rupees for water and with a food chain as a symbol of development. These disenchanted souls find some perspective in the Islands, where footwear is not bought but found washed ashore, where the All India Radio replaces the 100 TV channels package and where the tides are as important as electricity. While the rest of the world tries to drown out the rest of the world with its headphones and blinkers, here, camping on an island, it is all about listening and observing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamping in an uninhabited island like Cinque can be quite uneventful sometimes. Strangely, this does not bother anyone. Uneventful nights are filled with arguments on the make of the ship on the horizon and uneventful days are made enjoyable by an intensive search for usable items washed ashore. On one such search, my quest for the missing red floater of the pair I found earlier proves futile but my companions find a fish net on the beach. I can see the satisfaction on their faces. Well aware of their inclination towards fishing, I expect at least a few species on my plate for dinner. Things take an unpredictable turn as we reach the camp and the net is cut in half. Before I have the time to lodge my displeasure at this barbaric infliction on the nylon made provider of food, it is transformed into a pair of something better. Hammocks! Forgetting the safety of the tent for the night, I make myself comfortable on a hammock, with a thermocol for a pillow. The night sky becomes increasingly darker as the wind rocks me to sleep.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wake up to a gradually increasing noise in my ears. I look around and then look up. A Coast Guard chopper is above us, doing a headcount. Non-threats they decide, having judged from the way we have set up camp out in the open and our non-fishermen and non-tourists appearances. Routine stuff. The sun is quite high up in the sky for six in the morning, shining bright on us, ten longitudes away from and forty to forty-five minutes earlier than the mainland. We proceed to the forest to sample for lizards, carrying the last of our fresh water in two bottles, intent on making it back on time for the boat which is supposed to pick us up. By the time we are back, the boat has docked. We quickly pack up our tents, bring down the hammocks, make sure there is no plastic left behind and are ready to leave. The tide is coming in, the radio plays its morning program and we finish loading the boat. The captain is about to start the noisy engine when one of my companions, who had gone to fetch the anchor from the beach, runs towards us shouting. He looks as if he has found some long-lost gem, maybe buried in the sand by the invading Japanese army during the World War II. He makes it to the boat before his lungs give up and say, “Here. Weren’t you looking for this?” A pair of red floaters dances in front of my eyes. It’s a perfect match.

Posted in Travel

How I wish I was a fish!

Hawkfish--patient stalkers o

Hawkfish–patient stalkers

Wouldn’t you love to be a fish – gorgeously coloured and interestingly shaped, spending your life jumping from one coral to another…just like a hawkfish?

With a wonderfully apt name, these patient stalkers of prey behave like hawks. They rest and wait for that opportune moment when they can dash out to grab their meal. On spotting something good to eat, they quickly dart from their resting spot, capture their food and retreat to hiding place. A variety of animals falls victim to the hawkfish, from small crustaceans to other fish.

They stalk, wait, dart and capture, just like hawks. And they are spiky and gorgeous too

They stalk, wait, dart and capture, just like hawks. And they are spiky and gorgeous too

Hawkfishes patrol their homes, while usually stopping on a piece of coral, a tree-like sea fan, or anemone. They need a solid surface to rest on because, unlike other fishes, they lack a swim bladder (an organ that allows fishes to stay afloat in the water column). This means that they truly swim or sink! Their chubby bodies, curious eyes and unique colouring attract the attention of every human diver. But the long and sharp spines on the top of their fins keep large predatory fishes away.

The best part is that every individual hawkfish gets to experience being male as well as female in its lifetime. This phenomenon is called sequential hermaphroditism — starting life as one sex and turning later into the other. Hawkfish start out as females and turn into males as they get older.

The best part is that every individual hawkish gets to experience being male as well as female in its lifetime. This phenomenon is called sequential hermaphroditism—starting life as one sex and turning later into the other. Hawkfish start out as females and turn into males as they get older.

A hawkfish waiting patiently for its prey.

A hawkfish waiting patiently for its prey.

Male hawkfish guard specific areas on the reef and the only fish welcome in a male’s territory are female hawkfish. The search for a partner begins prior to sunset, with the females visiting the territories of males. The male then checks out all females and tries to attract as many as possible, one after another. After few days the female releases her eggs into the water column. The eggs develop into larvae, which float in the water for weeks. As babies (also called ‘fry’), they live inside coral crevices and finally grow up to become guards of the reefs.

Having an almost perfect luxurious lifestyle, these fish live a life that anyone would wish. If you get a chance to visit a coral reef, do observe the curious behaviour of a hawkfish so that you can marvel and rejoice at their odd behaviour and their luminous beauty.


  • Though their mouth looks small, it can open up quite wide, so hawkfishes can swallow food items almost as big as their own bodies.
  • Their favourite food items are crabs, small fishes, squids and small shrimps.
  • They closely resemble Rockfishes, Scorpionfishes, and Lionfishes (all in the fish family Scorpaenidae) except that they lack prominent head spines.
  • They are very common in the shallow seas of the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic. In Indian waters, they can be seen in the reefs of the Lakshadweep Islands and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

An edited version published in The Hindu School.

 

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Rainbows are real

I was told that certain objects cannot be touched. They are there to be appreciated, to be adhered to and revered. I think of such objects. The arc of a rainbow comes to my mind. It appears out of nowhere like a random thought, emotion or memory—ready to disappear at any moment.

I think back to when I was four or five when I saw a rainbow for the first time. Of my mother telling me that the appearance of one signified the marriage, somewhere, of a peacock and its consort the peahen. My father explaining its dimensions and easy ways to remember its colours.

There was a distinct gap between the story my mother told me, and what the rainbow actually is. As a five-year-old child, I was unable to comprehend fiction from fact. In the ninth grade during physics classes, we had to make a rainbow, by bending the path of light through a prism. In later years I used a spectrophotometer for my research, which uses the principles of a rainbow.

From then till now I have seen rainbows an endless number of times, and every time I see one, a strong feeling of nostalgia grips my mind. Part of the nostalgia is because of my mother’s story, and part of the illusion that it is always perched on the horizon, far away and distant.

However, unlike the usual faraway rainbow, the rainbow I saw in my dream appeared different. Its colours were as insistent as a child’s water colour drawing, faded here and there, but scattered along the edges. It appeared slowly against the backdrop of the morning sky. First to appear was the friendly violet, followed by an iridescent indigo, a shy green, deep blue, yellow, orange, red—a visual cacophony, with a scrambled mixture of wavelengths. Each colour brought along different emotions and thoughts, all coming together with some solid purpose.

Though they were just colours spread against the sky, its material looked solid and unbreakable, purposeful and pressing as if it was made to last. It’s rough gateway shone through a radiant slice of paradise. I gazed through and through the rainbow, standing, sitting, kneeling without any notion of future or past. As I gazed into the rainbows dazzling light, I saw the deeper beauty that I had not glimpsed before. Its surface seemed to dance in rhythm with the cluster of thoughts that had opened up everywhere.

Flowers and insects, the horizon and the sun, the moon and the stars, light and dark, red and blue, yellow and green—each closely bound together, almost prophetically joined. A congregation of images and feelings, the marriage of a peacock and peahen, of fantastic permanence amidst the rapid change of tempest—as if the rainbow was unreal and my mind alone projected different colours onto the sky. An ordinary rainbow projecting unordinary thoughts, a sheer spasm of joy and me sitting at the edge of this convergence, feeling an equal degree of pleasure and reverence, which an unlettered peacock may also have felt at the sight of this rainbow.

At that moment, I almost touched its beams, smudged its colours and left behind a cluster of thoughts. The rainbow as well as, my insistent dream cleared, what was left was the bright blue sky.

I realised that thoughts are just puzzles with missing pieces—ready to appear and disappear like the fading of a rainbow.

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