Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Research sheds light onto the debut of insect life on Earth

LAWRENCE — “Insects dominate our world,” according to University of Kansas researcher Michael Engel. Thus, anything scientists can learn about the evolution of insects leads to a better grasp of how biology in general has changed over time.

“More than half of all known species on the planet are insects, and they rule virtually all terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems,” said Engel, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Many insect lineages are ecologically ubiquitous — such as bees, ants, termites — and they impact our daily lives in a big way. They pollinate our crops; they are the sources of many of our medicines or other chemicals; and some are tied to the spread of disease.”

Understanding the factors that led to insect origins and fueled their successes, as well as what pushed particular groups to extinction, such as the influence of climate change, is vital to human health and security.
Engel has just co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Nature that sheds new light on the evolution of the Eumetabola, a scientific term for the group of organisms that includes most insect species.
“Beetles, bees, ants, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, fleas, lacewings, lice, thrips, aphids, true bugs and all of their close relatives are eumetabolous insects,” said Engel. “If you are talking about insects, then you are likely talking about a eumetabolan insect.”

The researcher, who also serves as a senior curator at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, said that in spite of the importance of this group of insects, their earliest origins have been difficult to pin down.
“There’s been a lack of identifiable fossils from the Carboniferous Period or earlier deposits,” Engel said. “Until now, the first definitive specimens assignable to the Holometabola, the big chunk of the already massive Eumetabola, were from the early Permian — but those aren’t the most primitive of their kind, except in a few cases, and pointed to much earlier diversification events. From the Carboniferous, the immediately preceding time period, we only had specimens of much more primitive insect lineages. “

The size of the fossils makes them difficult to detect, according to Engel.

“They’re tiny, so unless you are hunting for them, they would be easy to overlook,” he said. “Also, fossils from these deposits aren’t preserved with a strong contrast between them and the surrounding rock. Thus, it takes specialized lighting to get them to easily pop out.”

Nevertheless, Engel and his co-authors in Nature describe newly discovered specimens and fragments that can be confidently tied to holometabolan lineages. More significant, the specimens are not of the typical orders but are far more primitive.

“For example, there’s a species related to the lineage that eventually would give rise to the wasps in Triassic,” he said. “It wasn’t a wasp itself and instead would look more like some kind of generalized primitive group, but it already had a few of the evolutionary novelties that would later be part of the order of wasps, ants and bees.”
Among the other five species Engel and his colleagues describe in Nature, one is an early relative of true bugs and their relatives; one is an early relative of barklice, and then ultimately true lice; and one is an early relative of the lineage that would give rise to the beetles in the Permian.

KU is a leader in paleontology generally, and Engel’s lab is one of a few worldwide with expertise in the fossil record of insects — and, among those labs, an even smaller subset have sufficient expertise in the Paleozoic.

Engel said an understanding of ancient development and origins of insects is vital for an understanding of our modern world.

“Our own evolution — biotic and cultural — is inextricably woven into the lives of insects,” he said. “Insects have been on the planet for at least 410 million years and were first to fly, first to develop agriculture and first to form complex societies. We like to talk about the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’ or the ‘Age of Mammals,’ but all of these are greatly dwarfed by an overarching ‘Age of Insects.’ If humans vanished from the Earth it would have only a beneficial effect on the greater biota. If insects disappeared, then life itself would struggle to persist.”

Original Story

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sri Lanka on world map of biodiversity hotspots

Sri Lanka  on world map of  biodiversity hotspots
Sri Lanka is the home for a rich biodiversity, which is a part of its natural wealth. The country has a high endemism - 30% of its vertebrate animals and 28% of its flowering plants are found only in Sri Lanka. This diversity and the multiple threats faced included the country’s southwestern region among the ‘biodiversity hotspots’ designated about two and half decades ago.

Biodiversity hotspot concept emerged as an effort to identify conservation priorities and it was to define the areas that are the most immediately important for conserving biodiversity. The hotspots are locations that hold especially high numbers of endemic species, in a limited area of occupation which was under imminent threat.This concept was somewhat widely discussed in the conservation arena of the country and was used for decision making and policy issues related to biodiversity. 
A recent global study has pinpointed a list of most important protected areas specially for the conservation of bird, amphibian and mammal diversity. This is a result of the work of an international team, whose study was published in the world renowned journal Science few weeks ago. The most important issue is the fact that two Sri Lankan sites are among these ‘irreplaceable protected areas’.

New study

There is no doubt about the significance of protected areas for the conservation of biodiversity and conservation action which are centered on these at present. However, some of these protected areas may be highly important in terms when we consider the threatened biodiversity they harbor. This new study is an effort to identify such protected areas.  
‘Irreplaceable protected areas’ – the protected areas the researchers mention are defined as the protected areas most critical to prevent extinctions of the world’s mammals, birds and amphibians.Through their analysis, the researchers identified 137 protected areas situated in 34 countries, as “exceptionally irreplaceable”. These sites are the home for about 627 birds, amphibians, and mammals, and 319 of them are listed as globally threatened. More than half of the distribution of these animals is confined to these protected areas.This shows that the importance of these protected areas in terms of conserving these taxa of animals, but they have also calculated the overall irreplaceability based on the all species available in these protected areas.
These are being calculated comparing each protected area’s contribution for the survival of the species. Extensive data available for 173,461 terrestrial protected areas in the world and assessments of 21,419 species on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species have been used for this analysis.

Protected areas

According to the list of the identified protected areas, Sri Lanka has two sites, namely the Central Highlands World Heritage Site and Kanneliya Forest Reserve. These areas are well known protected areas in Sri Lanka in terms of their biodiversity as well as endemism. 
Central highlands complex is a world Heritage Site designated in 2010 and consists of three main protected areas – the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest.These forests include the largest and least disturbed remaining areas of the submontane and montane rain forests of Sri Lanka and these protected areas cover an area of 537 square kilometers. More than half of the country’s endemic vertebrates, half of the country’s endemic flowering plants are found in these forests and grassland ecosystems.However, these protected areas are threatened with anthropogenic causes. For instance, the Knuckles area is highly threatened with cardamom cultivation and the Peak Wilderness is threatened with encroachments.
Kanneliya forest reserve is located in Galle District in the southwestern region of the country. Kanneliya Forest is a part of the Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya International Biosphere Reserve under the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO in 2004.With a 62 square kilometer area, it is mentioned as the most extensive surviving block of low land rainforest next to Sinharaja forest. However the highest percentage of endemic woody species of any wet zone forest in the country (i.e. 60%) is recorded from Kanneliya. It is rich in faunal species too.

Clear message

The key message issued by this study is clear. These identified protected areas must be considered as crucial in conservation of biodiversity as they harbour a considerable high number of endemics and threatened animals – birds, amphibians and mammals as well as other species.Hence conserving those should be a high priority in those countries.
Dr. Ana Rodrigues, one of the authors of the above research paper pointed outin an email conversation that their main aim is to raise the profile of these exceptional sites, to improve their conservation prospects. This analysis provides practical advice for improving the effectiveness of protected areas in conserving global biodiversity. There are numerous challenges in the conservation of these protected areas, despite decades of conservation efforts worldwide.As we know, conservation itself is a struggle in the socio-economic context in the world, particularly in developing countries.
This research or its relevancy to Sri Lanka was not much highlighted in Sri Lankan media. This issue should be taken in to consideration of conservation authorities, when designing conservation strategies and action as the importance of these protected areas has been defined scientifically.
Pics by Bushana Kalhara

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tarantulas Loved to Extinction?

6 December 2013 6:15 pm
Spiders may not be the most cuddly of species, but some are so prized by collectors that their existence could be in peril. The pet trade is one of the reasons that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) this week took a step toward putting 11 species of tarantula on its list of endangered species. This slideshow highlights some of these colorful species and their natural history.
The spiders live in India and Sri Lanka, so the main impact of listing them would be to generally prohibit their importation or sale within the United States. Most of the species live in trees and are threatened by deforestation. Some will enter homes, where people kill them. All of them are threatened by collection for the pet trade. The reddish parachute spider (Poecilotheria rufilata), in particular, is difficult to breed in captivity, and requires wild individuals.
Brent Hendrixson, a spider biologist at Millsaps College in Jackson, says that habitat destruction is most likely the largest threat to the tarantulas. “It might be a stretch to say that overcollecting is driving the numbers down,” he says. “We don’t have any concrete data on exports from India or Sri Lanka in terms of wild-caught animals.” Most of the individuals in the United States have been propagated through captive breeding programs, he adds. The peacock tarantula (Poecilotheria metallica), in particular, is well suited because it is easy to breed and grows rapidly. They’re also stunningly beautiful.
In 2010, a group called WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe petitioned FWS to list species of the genus Poecilotheria and on Tuesday, the agency agreed that there’s enough science to warrant further review. That is supposed to take a year, but often stretches out longer. FWS willaccept public comments until 3 February.

Søren Rafn
The peacock tarantula (Poecilotheria metallica) is known only from a small forest reserve in Andhra Pradesh, India. Like others in the genus, they make funnel webs inside deep crevices of old growth trees.

BayLee's 8 Legged Art
The beautiful parachute spider (Poecilotheria formosa) lives in the Eastern Ghats in southern India and is poorly known. Males have never been discovered.

BayLee's 8 Legged Art
The reddish parachute spider (Poecilotheria rufilata) ambushes prey and has been seen capturing young bats. They are smuggled from India into Europe and America for the pet trade.

Found in the Kitulgala Forest Reserve of southern Sri Lanka, the fringed ornamental (Poecilotheria ornata) inflicts a painful bite. Like other tarantulas, its venom is not fatal to humans.

Brent Moore
The striated parachute spider (Poecilotheria striata) is popular among pet traders and collectors. It’s found across 2000 km2 of the Western Ghats in India, where its habitat continues to decline.

B. Smith
The wonderful parachute spider (Poecilotheria miranda) gets its name because males will sail down from trees to the ground. The population, in the Chhota Nagpur region of northeast India, is thought to be decreasing.

Laurence Livermore
The brown parachute spider (Poecilotheria subfusca) comes from south-central Sri Lanka. Scientists surveying their habitat from 2003 to 2005 found only 20 individuals.

Zoological Survey of India
The Rameshwaram parachute spider (Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica) was discovered in 2004 in a sacred grove on Rameshwaram Island in southern India. They ambush insects.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A new species of spiders discovered in Satara

In 2010, when two researchers were busy observing migratory birds at a dam near Satara, Maharashtra, they spotted a distinct spider with a red stripe on its back. However, they just took a picture of it and left. "When we later researched this particular spider, we found out that it was called the Red-back spider. It had its origin in Australia but they were few records of it in India. We reported its existence in Satara district and this gradually got us interested in spiders," says Sidharth Kulkarni, who, along with his colleague Dr V Y Deshpande, spends much of his time at the zoology department of the Yashwantrao Chavan Institute of Satara (YCIS) studying spiders. 

 Image form Animal Discoveries 2012, ZSI

The two have now discovered a new species that belongs to the family of lynx spiders scientifically known as Oxyopidae. They have decided to name it Oxyopes Sataricus, after the Satara region.
The scientists, who are studying spider diversity in western Maharashtra, have worked together on chronicling the life stages of the Red-back spider Latrodectus hasselti, recording the scorpion-tailed spider for the first time in Maharashtra and some lynx spiders for the first time in India. "We are also hoping to study spiders as agents for controlling pests," says Deshpande. "Various spiders feed upon specific pests. Hence this research could bring out a natural and cost-free solution and possibly an alternative to chemical pesticides," says Kulkarni. 

Spiders belong to the class Arachnida and not Insecta. "The basic differentiation between these two classes is that the cephalic (head) and thoracic (thorax) region is fused in class Arachnida and called cephalothorax. Insects usually have antennae and three pairs of legs while in spiders, antennae are absent and they have four pairs of legs," says Kulkarni, adding that the ecological importance of the spiders is distinct from that of insects. 


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pictorial guide on insects released for Kalakkad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve

The Kalakkad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) , which is the natural habitat for rare species of insect, now has its population of butterflies and moths documented for the first time. 

A comprehensive pictorial guide on these insects is available for the benefit of visitors, adding to the data that already exists on the birds and animals found in the reserve. 

Retired biology teacher Geetha Iyer helped bring out the guide, replete with striking photographs of butterflies and moths she spotted around Thalaiyanai near Kalakkad, Sengaltheri, Nambi Temple, Maanjolai, Kuthiraivetti, Upper Gothaiyaar, Kannikatti and Kodamaadi. 

“I could see (butterflies and moths) right from the Tiny Green Blue (a tiny butterfly with a wingspan of 12 mm) to the Southern Bird Wing (having a wingspan of 190 mm) during my stay inside this sanctuary. Much more needs to be explored and documented,” Dr. Geetha says. 

The giant Atlas moth (with a wingspan of 210 mm) is also a denizen of the reserve, she points out. 

Though the butterflies and moths face no serious threat from predatory creatures, their habitat is at risk, she warns. 

“Several small species of animals and plants help create habitats in forests and maintain them. Many of them are unknown to humans,” Dr. Geetha observes. 

“This (documenting butterflies and moths) is one step towards the goal of holistic conservation of the sanctuary,” said Field Director (in-charge), KMTR, Rakesh Dogra, while releasing the guide in the presence of C. Gurusamy, Deputy Director, KMTR’s Mundanthurai Division and K. Sekar, Deputy Director, KMTR’s Kalakkad Division. 

‘Though the butterflies and moths face no serious threat from predatory creatures, their habitat is at risk’ 

‘Small species of animals and plants help create habitats in forests and maintain them’ 

Original Story

Thursday, October 24, 2013

IndianMoths Data Collection Update : October 2013

As most of you are aware of the iNaturlist project [] that we are working as a group. 

We are working on a target of putting together 5000 records by end of this year. Here is the progress so far: We have more than 3400 records in place and we have more than 30 members of the project and already have more than 1000 species posted. The curators Nuwan and Sachin are helping with the ids with major share of work being done by Dr. Roger. 

We have about 10 weeks left for the end of the year. And we have to put together about 1600 records, so about 160 per week. Most of the people interested in Moths have 100s of photos and even if we get 16 members who are willing to put efforts to sort through their photos and upload them as records, they will have to spend less than an hour a week to finish this target that we have. 

If any members unfamiliar with iNaturalist need help, we can certainly extend that. It is fairly simple to use website the records are going to be extremely useful for all us to understand out Moths. So please participate in this activity and let us keep our target.

Another interesting thing we are working on is to get updates about IndianMoths in single place form all the websites. Please check and let us know what more you would like to see and how we can improve it.

Eagerly waiting for all of you, specially members who have not done so yet,  to post records for the project.

Here are some recent records posted on the project.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Log a Frog, Share a Snake

Citizen scientists play a role in conservation by reporting wildlife sightings.

By Cullen Hanks and Natalie Reina
From a young age, University of Texas student Emily Powell has been fascinated with wildlife. As a child, she was constantly on the hunt for insects, lizards and frogs in her backyard, sparking a passionate interest in reptiles.

“I was always interested in finding wild animals, but I think I was also motivated when I was younger because I wanted to keep reptiles as pets, and my parents would not let me for years,” Powell, a biology major, says. “I contented myself with observing them in the wild.”
A field herpetology course taught by University of Texas professor Travis LaDuc introduced Powell to the Herps of Texas (HOT) Project on iNaturalist. The project is an effort to map the distribution of reptiles and amphibians through crowdsourced observations. The iNaturalist platform allows people to share their photos of plants and animals, and in the process, it gives them the opportunity to learn about what they are seeing and contribute to conservation efforts.


Texas indigo snake.

“During the semester, we logged over 300 observations of 87 species,” Powell says. “I have only been using it for five months now, but I have found it to be a very useful program.”

iNaturalist is the perfect tool for anyone who wants to know more about wildlife. The website allows users to post observations as well as explore other observations. In addition, the iNaturalist mobile app allows people to report sightings when they are far from a computer or even a cellphone tower.
When people post an observation on iNaturalist, the program asks them for four pieces of information: who, what, when and where. These basic ingredients of an observation aid identification and allow biologists to create large, meaningful sets of data that can support conservation efforts.
“Who” is the observer, the person posting the observation.

“What” is the species identification. Fortunately, the platform is set up for naturalists of all skill levels, so observers don’t need to know what species it is.

“If you are unsure of what species you saw, you can upload the photo, ID it as ‘frog’ or ‘bird,’ and mark it for an expert to help you,” Powell says. Once the photo appears on iNaturalist, the comments section becomes a forum where others will chime in to identify the animal. When identified, the species observation is automatically linked to the profile page where you can learn more about it.
“When” is the date. Recording the date of observation is important with reptiles and amphibians, since they’re active only during certain seasons. The iNaturalist app can extract time, date and location information from data associated with smartphone pictures.

“If I am pressed for time, I’ll just snap a picture of the animal, record the location and save it to add later,” Powell says.

“Where” is especially valuable, as it helps biologists better understand what habitats support wild populations. The location is also essential for creating automated checklists for counties, parks and states on iNaturalist, a valuable resource for the amateur naturalist. The iNaturalist app automatically assigns the location using the phone’s GPS, or observers can mark the location using a Google map on the iNaturalist website.


State herpetologist Andy Gluesenkamp (with phone) and TPWD biologist Cullen Hanks record an observation of a yellow mud turtle using iNaturalist.

Harnessing the power of the crowd, iNaturalist is constantly updating the profile of each species based on new observations coming in.
“You can find range maps of animals in books,” Powell says, “but iNaturalist is much more reliable because you have proof that the species was seen in that location recently.”

iNaturalist users can include additional details about the animal in the “description” tab. They can list the number of animals, the habitat in which the animal was found, the animal’s identification marks, the weather, behavior and more. These details enrich the experience of other iNaturalist users and add value to research. For example, if the animals have young, the population or the habitat may be more valuable to conservation efforts.

The HOT Project on iNaturalist was started in September 2012 as an experiment, but it has exceeded the curators’ best expectations. In the first year, the project has accrued 250 members and documented more than 4,000 observations. Perhaps more significantly, the project has documented more than 200 species, which is more than 90 percent of the reptiles and amphibian species found in Texas.

The success of the project has been due in large part to the high caliber of the three curators (well-respected professional herpetologists from major research and conservation institutions) who are managing the project: Toby Hibbitts, curator of amphibians and reptiles at Texas A&M University; La­Duc, assistant curator of herpetology at the University of Texas at Austin; and Andy Gluesenkamp, state herpetologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. This team has not only introduced the project to the naturalist community, but also has been very active in providing feedback on people’s observations. Every observation submitted to the HOT Project is validated by at least one of these three expert curators (in addition to the feedback from the iNaturalist community).


Texas horned lizard.

So why are these professional herpetologists taking time to check all of these observations? One major reason is that they enjoy it.

“As a child, I was always thrilled to see reptiles and amphibians in the wild,” Gluesenkamp says. “That passion has never waned, and much of what I do as a parent and as state herpetologist involves sharing my love of nature with others.”

Another reason for their participation is the sense that this project could have a revolutionary impact on research and conservation for herps in Texas. While the first year has been an impressive success, it is still only scratching the surface of the power of the crowd to generate and identify observations. To understand that potential, we can look at what has been accomplished for birds with an online platform called eBird.

Started in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird is an online bird checklist that allows birders to upload observations via smartphone or computer. By unlocking the power of the crowd, eBird has compiled more than 140 million observations of birds from around the world. In Texas alone, birders have reported more than 7.5 million observations.
eBird has proven to be an invaluable resource for birders, as well as for research and conservation. Even though the data is not collected with a standardized methodology, the sheer volume of observations allows researchers to discover patterns in populations that were not detectable before. For example, although ornithologists thought there was a single population of indigo buntings in the United States, they have discovered that there are actually two populations with very different migratory strategies.

“If the HOT Project results in just 1 percent of the volume that eBird has achieved, it will have a profound impact on our knowledge of reptiles and amphibians in Texas,” Gluesenkamp says. “It has already started to refine our understanding of the distribution of wild populations through observations beyond the expected range.”

For example, the recent observation of an unknown rattlesnake posted to HOT proved to be of one of the easternmost occurrences of the ornate black-tailed rattlesnake. With enough observations, this data can be used to model the distribution of each species using geographic information systems, or GIS. These models will fine-tune range maps and highlight regions where populations were thought to exist but actually may not exist.

On a finer scale, these models are helpful for identifying habitats that are essential to certain species. This will provide powerful baseline data for understanding how species could be affected by changes in habitat or climate. This is why all observations are valuable, and no species is “too common” to report.


Red-eared slider.

The power of the crowd will also be an important early detection system for changes in ranges and colonization events. This is especially important with non-native and potentially invasive species. Already, the project has detected undocumented non-native species like a bearded dragon found in a Fort Worth park. In such cases, early detection can be critical to responding to the introduction of a non-native population. The project has also helped map the distribution of known non-native species like the Cuban brown anole. Should this population start to really grow, the project will detect it.
Of course, any observation of a rare species is valuable. In many cases, species are thought to be rare because of a lack of information. As an example, the Texas tortoise is considered a declining species, but the HOT Project could show that it is more common than once thought.

On the other hand, an observation of a truly rare species is a significant conservation opportunity. Rare species are often passed off as common species because they are not often encountered, but such an observation is likely to be recognized in the HOT Project. For example, the spot-tailed earless lizard has not been detected throughout the southern half of its range despite a concerted effort to find it. A single observation would offer an opportunity to study where the lizard is persisting and to better understand the reasons for its decline.

No matter how common or rare the species, the observation is valuable.
“Using iNaturalist makes me feel I am doing my part to provide information for researchers and conservationists,” Powell says.

TPWD Citizen Science projects

TPWD is involved in several citizen science programs. These programs make up TPWD’s Texas Nature Trackers, associated with the Texas Master Naturalist program. Unlike iNaturalist, these programs are tailored toward specific animals, but like iNaturalist, these programs help us learn more about animals and their habitat distribution. The animals include tarpon, mussels, horned lizards, box turtles, whooping cranes and many more. Here are a few of the programs:
Texas Nature Trackers:
Texas Horned Lizard Watch:
Texas Whooper Watch:
Texas Mussel Watch:
Tarpon Observation Network:
Box Turtle Survey Project:

Original Story:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Three new species pages, and notes on Erionota torus from Kerala

Krushnamegh Kunte reported on ButterflyIndia yahoo group:

We have three new and exciting species pages on the website:

Erionota torus – Rounded Palm-redeye:

Lethe ramadeva – Single Silverstripe:

Allotinus unicolor – Plain Mottle:

Of these, E. torus is of special interest. This species was not known from peninsular India until now. The credit for this discovery goes to David Raju, who in August found its caterpillars devastating banana plantations around Thattekad in Kerala. Since then, several people have found the caterpillars in other parts of Kerala, so this is currently quite widespread in the coastal strip. Vivek is in the field surveying the current range of the species and damage done to the banana plantations, so we will know more about this soon. The case of Erinota torus is taxonomically interesting as well. People on Facebook have been using various names for it: Erionota acroleuca, Erionota acroleuca apex, Erionota hiraca, Erionota hiraca apex, Erionota hiraca apicalis, etc. I knew about the Kerala records from David’s first sightings and many people had asked me about this species in the past 40 days, but I wanted to confirm the species identity before I created the species page. I knew since last year after seeing specimens in the BMNH that Evans’s (1932, 1949) morphological key to Indian Erionota was not useful in separating the species. It is unfortunate that many people still blindly use these morphological keys without double-checking with other resources and without realizing that the only way to distinguish these species is by dissecting the male genitalia. To confirm the species identity, Kalesh and I recently dissected four males that we raised from caterpillars. Their genitalia match those of torus and no other species. Two of the dissections are available on the species page for your reference. From the variation that I have seen in torus in recent weeks and among all the species in the BMNH last year, it is clear that the external differences mentioned by Evans to separate torus, thrax, and hiraca (=acroleuca) are not reliable in distinguishing these species. The characteristics mentioned by Evans included the color of the UPFW apex, convexity of the FW termen and perhaps the color of the antennal club. That is, there is too much variation in these characters within species so that one cannot reliably distinguish between them from external characters alone. We will post images of male genitalia of other Indian Erionota on the website in due course.

Lethe ramadeva is very exciting due to the rarity of this species. I wonder whether this is the first ever photographic record of the species.

Congratulations to David and Anurag for these important and exciting discoveries!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Species of Legless Lizard Found at LAX

A bustling airport would hardly seem the place to find a new species of reclusive animal, but a team of California biologists recently found a shy new species of legless lizard living at the end of a runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

What’s more, the same team discovered three additional new species of these distinctive, snake-like lizards that are also living in some inhospitable-sounding places for wildlife: at a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley and on the margins of the Mojave desert.

All are described in the latest issue of Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California,” Theodore Papenfuss, one of the scientists, was quoted as saying in a press release.

Papenfuss, an amphibian and reptile expert at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, made the discoveries with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton.

“These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown,” Parham said.

Legless lizards look a lot like snakes, but they’re different reptiles. The lizards are distinguishable from their slithery relatives based on one or more of the following: eyelids, external ear openings, lack of broad belly scales and/or a very long tail. Snakes, conversely, have a long body and a short tail.

Legless lizards, represented by more than 200 species worldwide, are well adapted to life in loose soil, Papenfuss said. Millions of years ago, lizards on five continents independently lost their limbs in order to burrow more quickly into sand or soil, wriggling like snakes. Some still have vestigial legs.

Though up to 8 inches in length, the creatures are seldom seen because they live mostly underground, eating insects and larvae, and may spend their lives within an area the size of a dining table. Most are discovered in moist areas when people overturn logs or rocks. It’s interesting to consider the LAX-based lizard’s life, considering all of that airplane rumbling overhead!

The researchers are now working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to determine whether the lizards need protected status. Currently, the common legless lizard is listed by the state as a species of special concern.

“These species definitely warrant attention, but we need to do a lot more surveys in California before we can know whether they need higher listing,” Parham said.

Papenfuss noted that two of the species are within the range of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which is listed as an endangered species by both the federal and state governments.

“On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection,” he said. “On the other hand, there may be ways to protect their habitat without establishing legal status. They didn’t need a lot of habitat, so as long as they have some protected sites, they are probably OK.”

Image: Theodore Papenfuss and James Parham/UC Berkeley

Original Story

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Butterflies on your mind?

Published: 15th September 2013 12:00 AM
Last Updated: 13th September 2013 11:11 AM
    Vijay Barve (Photo: Vinod Kumar T)
It was love at first sight. Vijay Barve remembers all too well, the first time he saw the pupa of a common crow butterfly. It was like a shiny gold pendant, glimmering on an oleander plant, he recalls. Before this, he had witnessed a butterfly lay eggs. And that was, probably, the moment that would direct the course of his life. The boy who had begun to observe the lifecycles of butterflies soon joined the ranks of bonafide butterfly lovers and made it his life’s mission to spread awareness about the ubiquitous, brightly winged insect.
It is hardly surprising that Vijay grew up to be a butterfly expert. Childhood comprised of weekend bird watching trips with parents who were avid nature lovers. Raised to admire and observe the natural world, Vijay’s nature education was quite thorough.
A master’s degree in computer science from Pune University, followed by a stint with a scientific and research organization FRLHT (Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition), further cemented his closeness to nature. At FRLHT, Vijay was involved in the distribution mapping of medicinal plants. And with plants came butterflies as a particular butterfly makes its home only on a certain plant to lay eggs. Broadening his scope of interest, Vijay did a course in entomology from the Bombay Natural History Society, of which he is a life-long member.
In 2001, Vijay started the Butterfly India Yahoo group. This e-initiative gave a platform to butterfly lovers (it has 1,500 members at present) across the country to share pictures and information.
“We may have butterfly experts like Isaac Kehimkar, Krushnamegh Kunte, Peter Smetacek and many others in India, but it’s Vijay who brought us together,” says Kolkata-based butterfly specialist, Arjan Basu Roy. “If butterfly watching/photography has become a popular form of nature study in India, significant credit goes to him.” Vijay also launched DiversityIndia Yahoo group that focuses on small invertebrates.
Besides this, Vijay has also created and has been managing cyber communities of naturalists interested in different biodiversity such as SpiderIndia, DragonflyIndia, IndianMoths, AmphibianIndia, ReptileIndia, InsectIndia, InvertebrateIndia, WildflowerIndia, GernCareerIndia and GreenLifestyleIndia.
Things thus chugged along in the virtual world, until Vijay and his friends came up with the idea of butterfly meets. “It was sometime in 2004 when we had the first butterfly meet, one in Kerala at the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary and another in Mumbai,” says Vijay. “Meets such as these fulfill a useful purpose—of bringing like-minded people together to do some fieldwork which led to sharing and learning techniques of identification, photography,” he explains. 
A job shift saw Vijay making his way to the University of Kansas, USA, where again he was able to coalesce his interest in biodiversity with his work. One experiment that he fondly remembers is the radio tagging of laboratory-raised monarch butterflies, a pioneering effort for sure. The monarch butterfly undertakes a spectacular migration, traversing thousands of kilometres from Canada to Mexico. “With our refined tracking system, we were able to track them for 10 miles,” he says.
Butterfly conservation, says Vijay, is essential. “The butterfly is an indicator species, it is sensitive to the environment. Greater numbers of butterflies in a region signify that the ecology is in good shape,” says Vijay, who lists the Blue Mormon butterfly as his favourite.
Vijay feels the best way to create interest in butterfly conservation is through the media and by constructing butterfly parks.

Original Post

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Indian Arhopala + 753 species pages on the Butterflies of India website

India has a staggering 49 species of Arhopala (Oakblues). Many of them have not been seen in recent decades, and many of them have never been photographed. We have been slowly and steadily building a collection of Indian Arhopala on the Butterflies of India website, and now we have 20 species represented:

These include Animish Mandrekar’s only second record of the species Arhopala curiosa (Curious Oakblue) in the world and the first record of the species from India:

And Shantanu Joshi’s only 2nd record of the species Arhopala dispar (Frosted Oakblue) from India:

We have also crossed 750 species pages on the website (currently at 753). They are listed here in a reverse chronological order:

For the past few weeks we have been uploading 200 images per week, so we are making progress on that front as well. Do let us know if you have any interesting or good images to upload on the website, especially if they are going to add species to the website. This will make the website more widely useful.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

National Butterfly of India

Last updated: 24th May 2013
[This is work in progress and to be updated soon with more details]

A few years back, I remember discussing with few friends that why don't we have invertebrate taxa as National symbols rather than just having Tiger and Peacock. Recently same topic was raised by some members on ButterflyIndia yahoo group. Over past week or so, many ideas are being shared and discussed.

First thing I did was to take a quick look around, to see if some countries actually have "National Butterflies" designated. I was pleasantly surprised to see that our neighbors Bhutan and Srilanka have done so in recent years.

National Butterflies of Countries

Bhutan Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis ludlowi)

Sri Lanka  Sri Lanka Birdwing (Troides darsius)

Source: Wikipedia

Malaysia Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana)

Source: Wikipedia

Japan Japanese emperor (Sasakia charonda)

Source: Wikipedia

Costa Rica Blue Morpho (Morpho menelaus) *
Source: Wikipedia

* Source of information doubtful

[If you know of any more, please share the information in comments section and I would update it here.]

As for India, most people seem to agree that we do need a designated National Butterfly. Now the question is what should it be? Very quickly members have started sharing the view and ideas, including candidate species.

Mr Anuj Jain shared his experience with similar process currently in Singapore. 

Mr. Maan Barua has been working on flagship species and has worked on particularly flagships for invertebrate conservation (Barua et. al. 2012) using butterflies. 


  • Beautiful / Colorful
  • Common throughout
  • Endemic
  • easy to recognize
  • Conservation status / conservation action

Proposed Species (so far)

  • Kaiser-i-hind (Teinopalpus imperialis
  • Common Mormon (Papilio polytes)
  • Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae)
  • Crimson Rose butterfly (Pachliopta hector)
  • Peacock Royal (Tajuria cippus)
  • Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis)
  • Paris Peacock (Papilio paris)
  • Krishna Peacock (Papilio krishna)
  • Malabar Banded Peacock (Papilio buddha)
  • Blue Nawab (Charaxes schreiber)
  • Southern Birdwing (Troides minos)
  • Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya)
  • Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates)
  • Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor)
  • Yellow Gorgon (Meandrusa payeni)
  • Common Birdwing (Troides helena)
If you have more suggestions on species, criteria for selection or any other suggestions, please leave comment on the blog.

  • Barua, M., Gurdak, D. J., Ahmed, R. A., & Tamuly, J. (2012). Selecting flagships for invertebrate conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation. doi:10.1007/s10531-012-0257-7

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Video : Temporal study of Chrysalis Development

I came across this  3-D scans of a butterfly chrysalis video on Google+ and was amazed by the work done using Micro X-ray technology  The research opportunities are limitless with these new techniques.

Development throughout the metamorphosis process is seen so nicely. Enjoy.

Thanks to Ed Young for sharing this.

The complete article explaining this is on National Geographics

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May 2013 Update on IndianMoths group data collection efforts

IndianMoths project on iNaturalist is making good progress and we are happy to note that since the last post, we have almost doubled members (20+) and records (2000+). We have some new members like Purnendu and Rohit adding large data sets and members like Nuwan, Dr Vijay Anand and chiefredearth continuing to add records meticulously. 

Here is the updated map of the records:

We still need to cover a lot of ground. Let is start with east coast. Members from Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal, please post your records. 

We are hoping to get many more records pouring in, once monsoon hits western ghats and also with National Moth Week programs. If you have not decided yet, look at this map and decide of you want to join an event in your area or organize one.

View NMW DiversityIndia in a larger map  

Let us all contribute and try to surpass the target of 5000 records by end of 2013. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Plight of the Honeybee

Billions of dollars—and a way of life—ride on saving pollinators.

A beekeeper pulls a honeycomb from a hive.
A beekeeper pulls a section of honeycomb from a hive.
Photograph by Gianluca Colla, National Geographic

Jennifer S. Holland
Published May 10, 2013
Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.
Bees are back in the news this spring, if not back in fields pollinating this summer's crops. The European Union (EU) has announced that it will ban, for two years, the use of neonicotinoids, the much-maligned pesticide group often fingered in honeybee declines. The U.S. hasn't followed suit, though this year a group of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the EPA for not doing enough to protect bees from the pesticide onslaught.
For the last several years scientists have fretted over the future of bees, and although research has shed much light on the crisis, those in the bee business—from hive keepers to commercial farmers—say the insects remain in deep trouble as their colonies continue to struggle.
The current crisis arose during the fall of 2006 as beekeepers around the country reported massive losses—more than a third of hives on average and up to 90 percent in some cases. Bees were flying away and simply not coming back; keepers would find boxes empty of adult bees except for a live queen. No bee corpses remained to tell the tale. The losses were unprecedented and fast.
Now it's five years later, and though colony collapse disorder (CCD)—the name given to the mysterious killer condition—has dwindled in the manner of cyclical diseases, bees are still battling for their lives and their colonies are weaker than ever. The latest data, from the 2012-2013 winter, indicate an average loss of 45.1 percent of hives across all U.S. beekeepers, up 78.2 percent from the previous winter, and a total loss of 31.1 percent of commercial hives, on par with the last six years. (Most keepers now consider a 15 percent loss "acceptable.")
Unprecedented Pollinator Crisis
Why keep worrying over the fate of a bunch of pesky stinging insects? Bees in their crucial role as pollinators are paramount. Western nations rely heavily on managed honeybees—the "moveable force" of bees that ride in trucks from farm to farm—to keep commercial agriculture productive. About a third of our foods (some 100 key crops) rely on these insects, including apples, nuts, all the favorite summer fruits (like blueberries and strawberries), alfalfa (which cows eat), and guar bean (used in all kinds of products). In total, bees contribute more than $15 billion to U.S. crop production, hardly small potatoes.
No, we wouldn't starve without their services—much of the world lives without managed pollinators. But we'd lose an awful lot of good, healthy food, from cherries and broccoli to onions and almonds. Or we'd pay exorbitant costs for farmers to use some other, less efficient pollination technique to supplement the work that healthy natural pollinators could do. Plus, bee health can tell us a lot about environmental health, and thus about our own well-being.

Collecting honey from a honeycomb of the giant honeybee using smoke.
A man uses smoke to harvest honey from a honeycomb.
Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

Today's pollinator crisis, which has also hit Europe and now parts of Asia, is unprecedented. But honeybees have done disappearing acts on and off for more than a century, possibly since humans began domesticating them 4,500 years ago in Egypt. In the United States, unexplained colony declines in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s baffled farmers, and in 1995-1996 Pennsylvania keepers lost more than half of their colonies without a clear cause. The 1980s and 1990s saw various new parasites that hit bees hard; Varroa and tracheal mites became major killers, and they continue to plague hives and keep beekeepers up at night.
When CCD appeared, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture joined forces to study and fight the assailant, but a half-dozen years later they still lack a smoking gun. Recent work reveals higher loads of pathogens in the guts of bees from collapsed colonies versus healthy ones—making viral infections a likely culprit.
But this isn't a case of one cause, one effect. Bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorpof the University of Maryland likens the situation to HIV/AIDS in humans. "You don't die of AIDS; you die of pneumonia or some other condition that hits when your immunity is down," he says. Today's bee mortalities may be behaving slightly differently. "But we're pretty sure in all these cases, diseases are the tipping point" after bees' immune systems are compromised.
So what makes bees vulnerable to those diseases, what's killing their immunity, continues to be the $15-billion question.
Problems Piling Up
Zac Browning is a fourth-generation beekeeper based in North Dakota. His mostly migratory commercial operation runs about 22,000 hives in three states—meaning he trucks his bees to different locations at different times of year, renting out their pollination services to big farms like those producing almonds in California and canola in Idaho.
CCD devastated his hives a few years back, but "we've seen losses more recently from everything imaginable," he says. "Pests, parasites, pesticide exposure, starvation, queen failures, you name it."
In addition to these problems piling up, "our inputs have gone up one-and-a-half times in the last decade," he says. "We now have to try to sustain bees [with extra food] when natural food is scarce, dearth periods that didn't exist before."
Part of the problem is keepers have to boost hive numbers to meet demand, "but the carrying capacity of the environment hasn't changed." In fact, it's gone down. The amount of undeveloped land with good bee forage just isn't enough to sustain the masses, he says.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that colonies with access to the best pollens (with more than 25 percent protein plus essential amino acids), which occur in diverse plant habitats once common across the landscape, are more robust and more resistant to disease than those in pollen-poor environments.
The Threat From Pesticides
Another adversary in the bees' battle, as the EU reminds us, is pesticides. Pesticides themselves aren't necessarily a death sentence for bees—and debate rages over whether, when properly applied, these chemicals can be used safely among pollinators. But exposure to them seems to open the door to other killers.
For example, bees exposed to sublethal doses of neonicotinoids—the type the EU is banning and that are used routinely in the U.S. on wheat, corn, soy, and cotton crops—become more easily infected by the gut parasite Nosema.
Meanwhile, last year a French study indicated that this same class of chemicals can fog honeybee brains and alter behavior. And a British study on bumblebees, a natural pollinator in decline in many places, reported neonicotinoids keep bees from supplying their hives with enough food for queen production.

A queen bee.
A man shows his hive's queen bee.
Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

"Honeybees are complex," says Browning. "If you reduce their lives by even just a few days, the colony itself never thrives, never reaches its maximum potential. Sublethal effects that don't kill adults outright may still render hives weak and lethargic. And those hives might not survive the winter."
What takes down the individual bee doesn't necessarily wipe out the colony, vanEngelsdorp explains. And pesticides, like other factors, do their worst when combined with other chemicals or stressors, not necessarily all by themselves. "It's synergism," he says. "One plus one may equal 10 with the right two products or insults together." (Samples of bee-collected pollen typically contain residue from numerous pesticides.) In the end, then, an immune-suppressed colony faces a downward spiral, unable to cope with stressors that weren't a problem during healthier years.
The chemicals of modern agriculture have long been vilified, and they certainly represent a vital and active line of inquiry: The number registered for use in the U.S. exceeds 1,200 active ingredients distributed among some 18,000 products, and state pesticide use records are mostly unavailable, leaving a lot of question marks. No one knows much about how low-level exposure to various chemicals over time or how various combinations affect the insects. Meanwhile, migratory colonies likely have very different chemical exposure than those who stay put. The landscape is messy.
A New Concern
In newly worrisome findings, a study from a team at Penn State has revealed that "inert" ingredients (adjuvants) used regularly to boost the effectiveness of pesticides do as much or more harm than the active "toxic" ingredients. In one study adjuvants were shown to impair adult bees' smelling and navigation abilities, and in a separate study they killed bee larvae outright.
The formulas for these other ingredients "are often proprietary information and not disclosed by the companies," says Penn State's Maryann Frazier, who wasn't an author on the study, "so they cannot be independently tested and assessed for toxicity. When [the] EPA screens pesticides for registration, they only consider the active ingredient," she says.
In addition, "there are no requirements by [the] EPA for companies to test the impacts of pesticides on immature stages of pollinators," she says, "only adults."
The EPA participated in a stakeholder conference last year to discuss honeybee health (a report is just out from that event). An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but noted that the agency has been working to speed up its review of research related to neonicotinoids and their effect on honeybees. It is also tweaking existing regulatory practices to address various concerns including pesticide dust drift, product label warnings, and enforcement of bee-kill investigations.
Barrage of Stressors
So in addition to a changing climate and bizarre local weather systems, bees are threatened by chemical exposure in untested and unregulated combinations, disappearing foraging habitat with increasing monoculture that requires trucking bees from place to place, and fungal and viral intruders, plus the dreaded Varroa mite.
Meanwhile, nature is not sitting still. The diseases that are taking out immune-suppressed bees are quick to evolve resistance to farmers' attempts to protect their bees. "Based on our management surveys last year, not one commercial product against Varroa worked consistently," says vanEngelsdorp, citing numerous examples.
With the barrage of stressors bees face, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they're no longer as resilient as they once were. And honeybees, vanEngelsdorp points out, are among the most robust pollinators. The native insects, such as bumblebees, stingless bees, and flies, may be in worse shape, though their plights—and role in the ecosystem—are far less well known.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit against the EPA is just revving up (the first hearing was March 15), and scientists continue to push hard to get more information on the unregulated ingredients in agrochemicals that are proving harmful. "Unless we can get at what's actually being used on fields, we can't analyze their effects," says toxicologist Chris Mullin, a co-author of the Penn State adjuvant study. And some products, he says, "are nearly 100 percent adjuvant. Illogically, they are considered safe until proven otherwise."
Other voices have risen strongly against current land use practices. "Honeybees need habitat," Browning says. "That's any floral source with good nutrition. And that's not wheat, corn, or soy, crops that take up well over 60 percent of U.S. farmland." We've traded bee needs for biofuel, he laments, and we're paying the price.
"We also need good cooperation from [the] EPA—and from farmers and pesticide applicators—to implement and enforce best management practices," he says. Also on his wish list: a better battery of tools to effectively combat the Varroa mite, the bane of all beekeepers.
"Bee culture has adapted to fit monoculture, and that's not healthy," says Browning. "If we can instead invest in good sustainable practices in agriculture, we can still thrive."
But his confidence in the future, along with that of many of his fellow beekeepers, is declining with his hives. "We're just about tapped out," he says. "Without some real action we'll see this industry dwindle away." And as the industry goes, so go the little yellow insects that put so much good food on our plates.
Jennifer S. Holland, a contributing writer to National Geographicwrote aboutpollinators in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic.