Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rare spider spotted in a remote hospital in Assam through activities of a School Nature Club

An article was published recently in the Biodiversity Data Journal entitled, “Report of Platythomisus octomaculatus (C. L. Koch, 1845) and Platythomisus sudeepi Biswas, 1977 from India (Araneae, Thomisidae)”. The first species, P. octomaculatus, is being recorded after 120 years of its last report and its distribution has been extended to Assam in India from its previously known distributions in Java and Sumatra. The article was published by Ms. Swara Yadav, a zoologist from Satara, Maharashtra and Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel, the Medical Superintendent of the Makunda Christian Leprosy & General Hospital ( in the Karimganj District of Assam. Mr. Vinayak Patil from the College of Forestry in Dapoli, Maharashtra had also found another species in the same genus, P. sudeepi, and this observation is also discussed and reported in the same paper.
The Assam observation was possible through the activities of the “Makunda Nature Club”. Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel had been working in the Makunda hospital (a mission hospital situated in a remote part of Assam, bordering Mizoram and Tripura) since 1993. He started photographing and documenting biodiversity in and around the campus in 2009 (shortly after suffering a heart attack). Over the next 7 years, he documented over 5300 observations (of nearly 2000 different species) – all of them uploaded to iNaturalist with over 10,000 supporting photographs - Most of them are also posted to the different iNaturalist groups of DiversityIndia.
 In 2015, Dr. Vijay Anand founded the “Makunda Nature Club” – this is formed with some staff members (postgraduate teachers in Botany, Zoology and Biotechnology of the Makunda Christian Higher Secondary School -  a school run by the Hospital Society with over 900 children studying upto Class XII in Arts/Science) and about 30 student members. A seminar on Forest Conservation was the first activity – tree-planting and a talk by Padma Shri Jadav Payeng, the “Forest Man of India”. The club then organized a biodiversity documentation workshop conducted by Mr. Rohit George from Indian BiodiversityPortal (IBP) at Makunda and following this a “Makunda Nature Club” group was also formed on IBP to enable members to upload photos from their cellphones directly using the IBP App. Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni, an arachnologist from Pune who is also the Country Coordinator for India on the World Spider Catalog (he is presently pursuing his Ph.D in Arachnology at the George Washington University in the USA) then conducted a workshop on “Basic Arachnology” for the Club members. A few months later, Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni and Ms. Swara Yadav were  invited to Makunda to spend time with the Club members in doing a survey of spider biodiversity in the 350 acre campus of the hospital. Members learnt about spider families, habits and how to identify different species. The hospital purchased a stereo-microscope for the Club so that identification of spiders could be done in the school science laboratory. It was during this survey, that two specimens of Platythomisus octomaculatus were found (one by Antina Pasyad, a student from Class 8 of the school and the other by Rejoice Gassah, who has joined the hospital as a full-time staff of the Club – he was a student of Makunda’s School and is now pursuing his BA – both of them belong to the Jaintia tribe and their families live in jungle villages close to the hospital). One of the spiders had an egg-sac – members observed spider-lings emerge and grow over several days till they dispersed. Further scientific work on confirmation of the identification was done by Ms. Swara Yadav and Mr. Siddharth Kulkarni leading to the publication.
The Makunda Nature Club is probably the only (or one of the few) nature clubs in schools in India that inform and engage student members in actual professional scientific research in surrounding forests.  This creates an awareness of the different life forms that exist, their interdependence with each other and leads children to appreciate their beauty as well as the need to conserve forests and all the species that forests support. It also stimulates the curiosity of children and inculcates an interest to learn more about the species that are observed and adds meaning to the biology subjects that they study in class. A few children, having been exposed to observation and documentation of biodiversity may decide to pursue it as a career.
In 2015, Dr. Vijay Anand and some members of the Club found a male van Hasselt Sunbird (Leptocoma brasiliana) in surrounding forests – this species has now been found in the hospital campus as well. This was the first time this species had been photographed in present-day India and this observation was published in Indian Birds by Dr. Vijay Anand (along with Mr. Praveen Jayadevan, a researcher from Bangalore). We hope that in the years to come, more such discoveries would be made and citizen science initiatives such as the “Makunda Nature Club” would make significant contributions to existing knowledge on biodiversity.

New butterfly, spotted three decades back

Limenitis rileyi. Picture courtesy: British Natural History Museum, London
Guwahati, Jan. 31: A butterfly, spotted in Arunachal Pradesh nearly three decades back, has been finally described as a new species.

The Limenitis rileyi Tytler was sighted by London-based naturalist Purnendu Roy in Upper Dibang Valley district in 1987, and has now been reported in the current issue of Journal of Threatened Taxa. "This sighting of L. rileyi represents the first record of this species from India, thus adding to India's butterfly fauna," the article says.
The species was previously recorded in southeast Tibet, Myanmar and northern Vietnam.

Roy had found a single male specimen on July 19, 1987, at a height of around 1,800 metres near Anini in Upper Dibang Valley in a wet sub-tropical broad-leaf forest.

A neighbouring subspecies, L. rileyi xizangana Huang, was recorded in southeast Tibet in 1998. The Dibang Valley record lies between southeast Tibet and northeast Myanmar records and fills a gap in the distribution. No subspecies determination has been made because of the sample size of one. Records of L. rileyi from southeast Tibet and northeast Myanmar indicate a flight period of June to August at altitudes between 1,600m and 2,400m.

"When I collected the butterfly back in 1987 in Upper Dibang Valley, there was no freely available literature to identify this species. Even now it is not illustrated on the Internet to my knowledge. H.C. Tytler unfortunately did not illustrate the species when he described it in 1940 from northeast Myanmar. At the time it was bit of a dead end for investigation so I had left it tentatively identified to a related species L. mimica that occurs in Myanmar and China.

"In 2012, my partner Jo persuaded me that I should spend more time on butterflies again. After hearing about the work of Sanjay Sondhi of Titli Trust, I contacted him and offered to assist in the surveying of moths and butterflies at Pakke tiger reserve and Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary. It was after that trip that I decided to approach the British Natural History Museum, London, to assist in identifying what I could not identify in 1987. David Lees identified the species as L. rileyi. He also recognised that another specimen I had was not described before, which I named Callerebia dibangensis in 2003," Roy told The Telegraph.

He said the butterfly is found in wet sub-tropical Montane forests at around 1,800m. Such areas can be inaccessible in monsoon owing to landslides and with frequent rains it can be a lottery to observe butterflies. Consequently, species that fly in monsoon like this species, maybe overlooked, he added.

Roy said habitat loss is the greatest risk to any species. Where the species was collected, the forest is quite fragmented and so locally could be at risk. There are larger forests where it may be less at risk but these are quite inaccessible or in protected areas. "I think it is essential that local biodiversity is conserved and that we are not just left with islands of biodiversity, inaccessible to most people and more vulnerable. For the lower forests, the proposed Dibang Valley dam is a major threat. Despite being initially rejected by the forest advisory committee in 2013, it has been given the go ahead again and some of India's finest forests will be destroyed," he said.