Animal Facts

Bird photography from my balcony
text and images : Sudhir Shivaram


Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica)


Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus)                  Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala)

Whenever the Banyan Tree beside my apartment starts fruiting it is time for me to capture the winged beauties. I was able to see and photograph a variety of birds recently which included Common Myna, Brahminy Starling, RosyPastor, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Jungle Myna, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Black Drongo, Coppersmith Barbet, Golden Oriole, House Crows, Jungle Crow, Purple Rumped Sunbirds, Great Tits, Asian Koel and also a Shikra. While clicking, you need to check for the direction of the sunlight and ensure the sun is behind you and the birds are front lit. Finding the right edge of the tree which has the fruits to attract the birds will be a challenge. Check for any distractions, wait for the correct head turn, and the bonus points will be when it opens the beak or goes for the fig. Since the light is going to be flat, you need to measure the exposure and use that in manual mode. There will always be fights between birds for these ripe fruits. You need to have a high shutter speed to capture any kind of action. The fig tree gives you ample opportunities for the correct image, but shooting a good image finally depends on you.

 

 

By a fig tree in Dandeli
text and images : Shrikant Ranade


Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica)

On a recent trip to Dandeli, in the north of Karnataka , wewere blessed to spend a day under a fruiting fig (Ficusmysorensis) and our photographs from this one day displaythe wide array of wild species that wanted to share the fig bounty.
We stayed at the Old Magazine House at Ganeshgudi, which is one of the best locations to see and photograph birds. On our guide, Jumma’s advice, we set off for the timber yard near Dandeli, in search of a fruiting fig tree, to get some good images of hornbills. We stopped on the way at a fig tree with around 80 hornbills on it. I have read about research from South-east Asia which suggests strong dependence of hornbills there on fig fruits.
We were in for a treat. The tree had two varieties of hornbills: the Malabar Grey Hornbill and the Malabar Pied Hornbill along with mixed parties of Pompadour Green Pigeons, Coppersmith Barbets (both in their nesting season), Brown-headed Barbets, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Hill Myna, all gorging on the same tree along with six Indian giant squirrels. We recorded at least 18 different species that visited the tree in about four hours. Truly a delight for
a nature lover!


Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus)


 

Unravelling the proverbial
fig leaf
Text: shardul s bajikar


A lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) feasts on the ripe fruits of a fig tree in the Anamalai landscape. Figs are crucial to maintain the constant supply of food resources and therefore vital for ensuring the survival of one of the rarest primates in the world

Right from the Bible to the Quran and across the many legends in Hinduism, figs find significant mention. We try and take a look at the mystery behind the little known relation between figs and their unique pollinators, the fig wasps, and how the interplay of the fig and wasp gives rise to a potential keystone resource in tropical ecosystems

Summer is one of my favourite times of the year in the forest. No, it has nothing to do with the soaring temperatures and uncomfortable humidity; it’s the sheer variety of fruits that ripen in the forest then that marks this season as my favourite. Mangos, jamuns, karvandas, love apples, chironji, ziziphus, all of these give me enough reason to
drag myself out of bed, early in the unbearably hot mornings, to the nearest forested grove for the delectable tid-bits on offer.
Of course, there is much, much more to fruits and frugivory apart from my dietary fascination. To quote Pedro Jordano of the Donana Biological Station, Spain, “The pulp of fleshy fruits, with the soft, edible, nutritive tissues surrounding the seed is a primary food resource for many frugivorous animals, not only mammals and birds but also reptiles.” This justifies the consumption of fruit from the point of view of the animals, but there is another side
to it, which Jordano further elucidates by saying, “These animals either regurgitate, defecate, spit out or otherwise drop undamaged seeds away from the parent plants; they are the seed dispersers that establish a dynamic link between the fruiting plant and the seed-seedling bank in natural communities. Therefore, frugivory is a central process in plant populations where natural regeneration is strongly dependent on seed dissemination by animals.”
A frugivore can be any animal who eats fruits; a herbivore or an omnivore with a preference for fruits in their diet. Almost 20 per cent of mammalian herbivores of mammals are dependent on fruits for a considerable part of their nutrition; frugivory is considered to be common among mammals. There are a huge number of vertebrates that are known to be exclusive or primary frugivores, that is, fruits may consist more than 60 per cent of their diet. The phenomenon of fruiting is restricted to particular time periods in a year. Largely, it occurs at the end of the dry season (winter) and the onset of summer in the Indian jungles, sees a notable peak in fruit availability. But then if fruit availability is largely concentrated for less than one-third of the year, how do frugivores sustain for the rest of the time? That is the beauty of natural sciences: the answer to one question leads to several more questions, which also demand answers.
A couple of years ago, on a late summer afternoon, I was on my regular weekend dawdle in Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) with fellow naturalist Amit Panariya. A herd of about 20 spotted deer was quietly spending time beneath the karvanda bushes, doing an unfortunately stellar job of keeping us from the bush’s juicy, tangy black berries. Just then, the loud screech of an Alexandrine Parakeet perched atop a leafless tree grabbed my attention. I knew that this was some fig tree (Ficus sp.), full of ripening and over-ripe figs. The large parakeet plucked a fig from
the nearest cluster, dislodging others in the process. Looking around, I saw that the ground around the tree was littered with ripe half-eaten or carelessly dislodged whole figs. We watched the tree from a distance and counted different birds and animals that visited this fig tree. A lone Yellow-footed Green Pigeon remained a highlight but was frequently chased away by crows, leafbirds, Coppersmith and Brown-headed Barbets were often accompanied
by koels and even the Pied Cuckoo. The ubiquitous crows were determined to be the spoilers at this buffet, chasing away the well-adapted fruit-eaters, and making a mess of the remaining figs in the quest of eating every single one. To my surprise, even the herd of spotted deer that had denied me the berries of the karvandas were now moving in on the littered figs. By the time we left, the deer had polished off the figs and were waiting for the fig leaf crows to send some more their way. The next morning, I returned with ace botanist Santosh Yadav to look at the fig tree again.
Santosh identified the tree as Ficus mysorensis and pointed out to two more standing not more than 40 ft away. I noticed these had no fruits, and there were at least three other fig trees nearby (popularly known as Vadh or Badh or Ficus benghalensis) out of which only one showed the onset of fruiting with small, unripe fruits dotting its branches.
What made this phenomenon possible? Why did other fruiting trees fruit all at once while figs set themselves apart from other trees? This triggered my interest in figs and ever since 2004, I’ve eagerly lapped up as much information as I could on them, helped all along by the able guidance of Santosh Yadav and Dr Rajendra Shinde, Professor of Botany.

What’s so queer about the Genus: Ficus?
Ficus, as a genus of woody plants, is an assemblage of more than 850 species, which comprise trees, shrubs, reepers, epiphytes and they are clustered together under the family Moraceae. Commonly known as fig trees or just figs, this genus is largely restricted to the tropics and minor representations in the temperate zone. All figs are edible and are usually associated or consumed as bushfood, though Ficus carica is widely cultivated and consumed.
This intricate pollination phenology brings to our attention important things like: the interdependence of fig and the fig wasp, the reason for the different timelines in the maturity of female and males flowers and the reason why all figs do not produce fruit at the same time. It is this unique association between the fig and the fig wasp that makes sure there is always some fig fruiting at any given time of the year, ensuring that figs cannot be seasonal in fruiting.

Figs in conservation
While it is well observed that fruiting figs are a magnet for a diverse array of life forms, it is necessary to highlight the
importance of figs not only in forest ecosystems but also in urbanised environs. Eminent wildlife photographers, Sudhir Shivaram and Shrikant Ranade, narrate their experiences from spending a day understanding the fig-frugivore relationship, in the city by the former, and in the forests of Dandeli, by the latter. In this age of massive erosion of biodiversity, figs are crucial and potential keystones for nutritionally supporting an array of wild species. They will ensure that fruit-eaters continue to provide seed dispersal services to fruit-bearing tree species other than
figs and prove a vital link in stemming a cascade of extinctions. For me, figs will continue to be a mainstay in my forays into the natural world and I can only hope that protected area managers and conservation policy makers would find enough pertinent reasons to highlight conservation of wild figs as a cornerstone for protecting and conserving biodiversity.

“The archetypal fig tree population displays within-tree fruiting synchrony (with all the figs more or less at the same developmental stage) and between-tree asynchrony (different trees fruiting at different times of the year). This ensures outcrossing, and also provides the short-lived adult fig wasps with a continuous supply of potential hosts. This makes sure that the ripe fruit availability is maintained at a relative constant, throughout the year.” – Anstett et al.

Figs as food resource for humans
Figs are one of the oldest fruits, recorded in Aryan, Greek, Roman and Egyptian literature. In fact, the first fig tree ever recorded was between 2738-2371 BC and was believed to be sacred. The edible fig (Ficus carica) was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans (even before wheat and barley) as early as 9000 BC.

Who eats figs?
This was an important question answered by Daniel H Janzen about two decades ago. He had said, “Everybody.” More than 1,200 vertebrate species (mammals and birds) are known to primarily depend on figs for their nutrition. This tremendous diversity of fig-eaters arises from virtues like widespread distribution of the genus: Ficus; the perennial production of figs and considerable creativity in the packaging and presentation of figs, which makes them nutritionally rich and easy to consume.

The involute receptacle nearly cuts off the flowers from the outside world thus making them available to just one type of pollinator, a group of tiny wasps suitably called the fig wasps(Fig wasps are about 1.5 mm long).

The correlation between the fig and wasp is so intricate that each species of fig is pollinated by a unique fig wasp
species! The female wasp (either one or more) enters the fig at a very early stage, pollinates some of the female flowers, thus triggering the ripening of the fruit and at the same time lays her eggs in other female flowers. Once she enters the fig, the female cannot leave, and dies within the fruit.

Having said that, what sets the figs apart from others is the fact that the fig never appears to bear flowers. This is a myth; they do bear flowers but these are just not visible to the outside world. The entire fig that we eat is a collection of these flowers (hundreds of unisexual flowers), which are enclosed within the overgrown basal tissue called the receptacle. The male and female flowers are separate, the latter even larger in number. To avoid self-pollination, the
female matures much earlier.


The eggs hatch and wasp larvae start feeding on the ripening fig and grow rapidly.

Once the female is fertilised (mated with) by the male, she leaves but not before she collects (voluntarily or involuntarily) pollen grains from the male fig flowers, who time their maturity to synchronise with the female wasp’s departure from the fig.

They pupate within the fig itself to metamorphose into adult male and female fig wasps. The male wasp is wingless; only the female is winged and she does travel some distances.

The adult wasps mate within the ripening fig and playing the role of a good husband, the male cuts open a small hole in the skin of the fig to free the female from the fruit.

The female wasp now searches for another fig tree, which is at the correct stage of fruiting to pollinate again, lay her eggs and therefore continues the cycle.

THE NOISEMAKERS

CICADA

The sound of the cicada’s love song can actually be deafening. It is the loudest sound produced in the insect world, with some species registering levels of over 120 dB. The male cicada has two cavities on the lower abdomen, which form air sacs, and there are two ribbed membranes on top which are called ‘tymbals’. Contraction and expansion of the tymbal muscles causes the ‘click’ sound which is further amplified by the resonance created in the air sacs.

GRASSHOPPER

It makes a sound for two reasons, either to attract a mate or to protect its territory. The grasshopper makes two kinds of sounds. They are called ‘stridulation’ and ‘crepitation’. In creating stridulation, the leg acts like a file with a row of pegs; the grasshopper rubs the leg surface against the thickened forewing causing a vibration to produce a sound. Some grasshopper species snap their hindwings rapidly as they fly and make a distinct crackling sound which is called crepitation.

HARVESTER ANT

On the surface, these remarkable nests look like a complex circular maze, with a central, slightly elevated entrance. But the actual nest that exists below the soil, is an elaborate structure that holds an entire colony and its food (mainly seeds of different grasses). The entire structure – made from mud mixed with the insect’s saliva – is always positioned on a slight slope to avoid water accumulation during the monsoons. The maze around the main entrance also facilitates flow of water away from the main entrance.

WEAVER ANT

From a distance, this looks like a huge mass of leaves that appears to be stitched together. Actually, the leaves are stuck to each other with white glue (silk) that is secreted by the larvae of the Weaver ant. Each ant has a part to play in the construction process: some pick up the leaves and hold the edges in position while the others squeeze the mature larvae for the secretion. Weaver ants are arboreal, so their nests are found on trees.

PAGODA ANT

Another species of arboreal ants, the Pagoda ants scrape the bark of trees, chew the leaves, mix it with their salivary secretions and regurgitate a paste to make the nests on trees. This paste hardens as it dries, the resulting shape resembling that of a Japanese pagoda. These nests are mostly found on the main tree-trunks or on the stronger branches. The nest is ovoid (egg-shaped) to direct rain water away. The Rufous Woodpecker also lays its eggs in these nests and raises its young here along with the ants.

POTTER WASP

These nests, like the name suggests, are shaped like pots with delicate necks. The wasp uses this home to lay eggs. Once the nest is ready, the wasp stores caterpillars in it after paralysing them and larvae can feed on this stored food once they hatch. Every larva has a separate chamber inside the nest. The nest is made from mud, which keeps the temperature and oxygen levels regulated.

HORNET

The largest among wasps, their nests are humongous in size, measuring several feet, made collectively by hundreds of hornets from a cellulose-like material. These nests can be on parapets, trees or any vertical overhangs in and around forested areas, and they house hundreds of these large wasps, not only their brood but also their food supply. These nests need constant ventilation; hornets gather at the opening and continuously fan their wings to cool the nest during hotter parts of the day. The idiom ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’ is quite apt as hornets are highly short-tempered and attack at the slightest provocation.

 

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