Clouded Leopards

Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) are shy nocturnal creatures which spend days sleeping on branches of trees. In retrospect I realize that we were really lucky with wildlife sightings in Tripura. We saw two of these rare beasts in the Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary. Its habitat must have once ranged right from the central Himalayan range eastwards to Taiwan, across most of south eastern Asia and southern China. Now the population is fragmented; but a patchwork of forests and reserves from the Chittagong hills in Bangladesh, across Tripura and Mizoram, and into Myanmar holds a small number of these threatened animals classed as “vulnerable” by IUCN.

We spotted one sprawled across a sturdy branch near the bottom of the forest canopy above us. The grey pelt with the patches of darker fur give it its name. After a long unsuccessful wait to see its face we moved on, but luckily within a few hundred meters we saw another individual sleeping with its face towards us. We must have made some noise, because it raised its face a little, yawned, and then lay back down again. A list of sightings in the wikipedia page talk about a cluster of photos, apparently the first of this animal, taken in the early years of this decade, right about when we saw these animals. That makes me think that there must have been changes in land use just around then. The black topped road that allowed us to see these two magnificent cats probably were the first signs of human encroachment on their territory. It is sad to realize now that travelers like us are signs of the very destruction that we would like to prevent.

Day of lost species

November 30 is designated the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I think I will use this time to refresh my memories of Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus Phayrei, also called the spectacled langur). We saw a family group of six or seven (this included a juvenile) in Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary, sitting on a tree, munching away at leaves. At first we thought they were the familiar rhesus monkey, but when we looked at them we realized they were quite different. They are smaller, and the white fur around the eyes, the spectacles, is as distinctive as the moustache. The group size and behaviour was typical. When the juveniles are 4-5 years old they leave the group. Individuals can live up to an age of abbout 20 years.

Leaf monkeys developed in Southeast Asia about three million years ago and have radiated into about twenty living species, mostly threatened. The case of the Indian population of Phayre’s leaf monkey is typical. They are well protected in a few isolated sanctuaries, there are some international efforts at conservation, but the protected areas are small and well-separated from each other. As a result the populations are now quite inbred. The situation is not much better over the rest of its range: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Much of this region is densely populated, and forest land is being lost fairly rapidly.

The spectacled langur is classed as “endangered” by IUCN. If habitat loss continues, it will inevitably slide to “critical” and then to “extinct”. I have encountered many beautiful and strange species since 2005, when I started to visit wildlife reserves around India. Sadly, a large fraction of them are threatened.

Filling a gap in history

The island continent of India drifted for 70 million years through the Tethys Ocean. It separated from Gondwanaland about 120 million years ago and collided with the Eurasian continent around 50 million years ago. 70 million years is enough time for large families of animals to evolve and die. So there must have been families which arose in the Indian landmass and migrated to the rest of the world later. The first such family has now been identified.

These are the Cambaytheres, a genus of fossil animals found at the bottom of an open-cast lignite mine outside of Surat in Gujarat. These 57 million years old fossils seem to be the origin from which all modern even-toed ungulates radiated out. These include horses and zebras, tapirs, as well as rhinoceros. The Cambaytheres were first described in an article published 6 years ago but I read about it only recently from a monograph published this year. The Cambay shale deposits have also yielded a very rich variety of other fossils from those times, and I’m sure we’ll be reading more about new finds from them.

The monograph has a very clear statement that although the genus is not the direct ancestor to any extant even-toed ungulate, it is the best possibility for the last common ancestor of all of them. Previous claims to the origins of this family are based on fragmentary fossil remains, or, sometimes, on conjectural remains. By the early years of the 21st century the possibility that the ancestors of horses originate in the Americas, Europe, and Africa had already begun to seem remote. A lot of attention then focused on new findings in China. Now, with a large collection of remains, from three species of this genus, much more can be said. Mysteries which remain are the routes through which the animals dispersed across the world, and then radiated into a large number of species in a few tens of thousands of years.

Morph

The common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) is an unusual butterfly. It flies at night, and unlike many of its brightly coloured cousins, it is a shabby brown in colour. One of the first things I found about it was that it comes in two morphs. The dry season morph is really the winter morph, since it lasts from about November to about the end of April. The rest of the year you can see it in the wet season morph.

Through September and October, the end of the monsoon, I’d seen individuals which had strayed into our home, fluttering all evening around lights, and then resting quietly in the mornings. They still had their wet form, characterized by the large eye spots. There is a correlation between appearance and behaviour. These large dots are meant to deflect the attention of predators, and that’s an useful subterfuge since its activity can attract predators. The dry season form has the vestigial eye spots, as you can see in the photos, but they are characterised by the way they blend into fallen leaves. Walking through piles of leaves, you can flush them sometimes. I’ve seen them inside the house now and then, but they usually rest unobtrusively somewhere. Camouflage and this behaviour is their defense.

The word morph had me thinking wrongly about them. It is not the individual which morphs. M. leda is not a long-lived butterfly; it takes about a month, or less, to go from an egg to a pupa, and the adult lives for about two weeks. For it the universe has only one season. The conditions which prevail during the first month of its development choose the colours of the adult. Since environment plays such a big role in its development, you may wonder how much variation there is in colour from one individual to another. I haven’t noticed much variation in the wet season form (maybe I’m distracted by the eye spots), but going through my past photos I discovered that the dry season form is quite variable. Apparently an enthusiast has photographed more than a sixty different variants. Diet makes the butterfly!

Sunrise

Sunrise in Masai Mara shows the seemingly unending plains, with thousands of blue wildebeest and plains zebras grazing together. I want to be traveling again. A series of place names run through my head as I see these old photos. This image should do nicely for the announcement that I will take a blogging break for a couple of weeks. Things that I postponed for a year need to be done. In the last five days I have not been able to connect to around a third of the blogs that I tried to visit. I hope this glitch is fixed by the time I am back.

Free as a bird?

Yesterday evening we decided to get a coffee, walk with it, drop into a shop to buy a replacement charger for a phone, perhaps pick up some bread for the coming days. It took almost half an hour to get a coffee, because the queue was long. A couple in front of me was told that they had to mask themselves if they wanted service. They pulled their masks out of their bags and put them on their chins. We took the coffees out.

The phone shop was so full that they were not allowing more people in. There was a little cluster of people waiting at the door. We went on to the bakery. It was empty; a lone person at the counter served us. This was the only sign that we were in the middle of an epidemic.

The newspapers have been full of the news that Mumbai’s case count is declining, COVID care centers are winding up, and that more commuter trains are running. The anthropause is over. I can now hear the distant sounds of cars from the balcony. The sky is turning the grey that Mumbai’s pollution usually makes it.

The worst of the pandemic may be over, but the epidemic is just smouldering. It can catch fire again. The complacent behaviour which we saw yesterday is just the oxygen that such a fire needs.

Resting red

Dragonflies could be seen in large numbers at the beginning of October, just after the rains. I’ve been meaning to start identifying them, so when I spotted this in Bhandup pumping station, I took photos from two different angles. It was good that I did that, because I found that the colours of the body, wing, and eyes are needed to complete an identification.

Scarlet skimmers (Crocothemis servilia, aka ruddy marsh skimmers) are common across Asia and are found, as its name suggests, in wet lands. Dredging many websites I found the perfect tool: Subramaniam’s field guide published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. This was a perfect fit: blood red face and eyes, shading to purple at the sides, blood red thorax, reddish hue on the legs. The colour of the thorax told me this was a male; females are paler, and shade towards an yellow. In confirmation of the ID, the wings were transparent, with an amber-red base, and the wing-spot was brown.

I’m glad I made a start; reading descriptions in a field guide also tell you what to look for in future. I should have taken a shot from above, to see more clearly the dark stripe which ran along its back. That identifies it as belonging to the subspecies C. servilia servilia. Its lack would have told me that the dragonfly belonged to a different subspecies, identified only forty years ago.

Cabbages and kings

In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.

“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.

Green jewel bug

A bright green spot flew in front of me and landed on a tree which gives a characteristic redolence to this time of transition between sharad and hemant, the night-blooming jasmine (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, parijat in Hindi and Odia, shiuli in Bengali, xewali in Assamese). When it landed I could see that the shiny green spot was a green jewel bug (Chrysocoris stollii, aka the lychee shield bug). I haven’t identified any of the other 450 jewel bugs, so I can’t be certain. But this had characteristic markings, and the colour, of what I was told was the C. stollii.

Of course one can do better these days, I realized as soon as I wrote that sentence. A little search with the help of google mamu told me quickly that the markings on the back were not of the C. pulchellus or C. patricius. I’m glad I did that check, because I found that in 2017 I’d posted misidentified photos; those smaller bugs were probably C. patricius. I’m also pretty certain now that this is not the C. purpureus, since that should be purple, as its name suggests. Could it be the C. hahn? The pictures I came across are confused, and I can’t figure out whether this is different. But let me go with C. stollii, for now, especially since it is supposed to be the most abundant of jewel bugs in India.

So what do I know about it? It is a bug, not a beetle, although the green shield could mislead you. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there is no mid-line parting on its shield; a beetle will have a divided back. You can also try to distinguish them by counting the number of segments on legs and antennae. Since it drinks sap from plants, it is considered a pest. My fund of knowledge runs out pretty fast. I must look for more bugs, this is a season for insects anyway.

Outdoor, indoor

The seasons keep changing. Varsha, sharad, hemant… How gender imbalanced! Four seasons give names to men: Sharad, Hemant, Shishir, Vasant. One to women, Varsha. And no one names their babies Grishma. Anyway, the pandemic which started in vasant has now lasted till the change between sharad and hemant.

This is the time of the year when this night-flying butterfly makes an appearance. Like all its cousins, the moths, it is lured indoor by our lights. You would have a hard time telling this wet-season morph outdoor at its normal perch among rotting leaves on the ground. The dry season morph is equally invisible among fallen dry leaves. I suppose it is the humidity during pupation that determines which morph emerges from the chrysalis.

But mostly this is a time when moths fill your house. In recent times in Mumbai I’ve been seeing a lot of the underwing moths, their drab upper wings closing over bright orange hind wings as they come to rest. But here are three beauties which I haven’t been able to identify. They are all small, between half a centimeter and half an inch! The photos show their sizes relative to each other accurately. You need magnifying glasses or a macro lens to examine them, but it pays off.