When Darwin sent his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his publishers, they sought pre-publication advise from some trusted reviewers. One wrote back saying that the book was too long, and Darwin should be asked to cut out the uninteresting stuff about Galapagos and expand the section on the breeding of pigeons. The reviewer was one of the many pigeon fanciers of his time. Although it is not such a big sport any longer, racing pigeons still fetch millions in prize money. Pigeon races apparently count among their avid followers the Queen of England.
I’d taken the featured photo several years back in Yuksom in Sikkim. It seemed to be a colour variant of the common domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Looking at the photo now, I remembered that this could well be the first species ever to be domesticated. I’d seen dovecotes in every old structure I’ve visited: from the rock caves of Cappadocia to those in ancient India. There are learned papers on the changes in the brains of domestic pigeons which allow them to home unerringly. This ability kept them in military service from the earliest recorded times to as recently as the second world war, when several million homing pigeons were used by armies (some were given medals). For a couple of tens of thousands of years humans have bred pigeons as food, as racing animals (twice as fast as thoroughbred horses), and for military communication.
It was a straightforward matter to rule out other identifications for the bird in the photo. My only confusion was whether it could be the hill pigeon (Columba rupestris). Experts pointed out that it lacks the prominent white bar on the tail which hill pigeons have. Also, those are found at altitudes of over 3 Kms above sea level, whereas this photo was taken at a height of about 2 Kms. It may not be a hill pigeon, but man’s oldest companion is nothing to sneeze at.
The carnivorous sundew which you see in the featured photo is properly called the Drosera burmanii or Burman’s sundew. It is mistakenly called Burmese sundew sometimes. The story behind the name took me back to the origins of modern biology. It was described in detail in a book by the Dutch physician Johannes Burman, who spent a few years in Sri Lanka. His assistant in the production of this book, called Thesaurus Zeylanicus, was Carl Linnaeus. This was 1735, and Linnaeus had just published his own book, the Systema Naturae, which was to change the world by inventing a new way of naming all living creatures. Linnaeus’ naming system is the one all biologists and amateur naturalists follow. Darwin, in his book Insectivoruous Plants, remarked on the common trapping mechanism through the sticky “dew” which you can see in the photo, and classified all sundews into one family, which is still called the Droceraceae.
Darwin was a wonderful naturalist and asked most of the questions which keep drocerologists busy till today. Are the sundews selective about their prey? In the nearly three centuries that have passed since the first descriptions of sundews, all evidence indicates that they are generalized carnivores. They feed on whatever gets stuck in their dewy glue. How large can their prey be? Darwin believed that they feed on fairly small animals. Strangely, there have been no measurements of their prey since 1925; and that was the first one since Darwin himself. So, if you happen to take photos of any sundew with its prey, you will add substantially to the sum total of human knowledge. I scanned about 20 plants quickly, and if they had captured prey, then they were too small for me to see with my unaided eye (the photo here shows a small insect stuck to the plant). Are all carnivorous plants related? Fossils and genetic data seem to say that carnivorous plants evolved six times independently from completely different origins; so the bladderworts and sundews that I saw were not related.
A question that Darwin never asked is why a plant would turn from photosynthesis to carnivory. The general observation that these plants grow in nutrient-poor soil was taken as enough of an answer. However, there are other entirely photosynthetic plants which grow all around the sundew, so this is not a complete answer. Studies show that carnivorous plants grow and spread better once they get enough prey. Notice the bits of green on the leaves of the D. burmanii? These contain the usual chlorophyll that allow plants to use sunlight to make sugar. The density of spiny hairs is much smaller on this portion than in the red part of the leaves. So they also do photosynthesis, but they are less efficient at it. The complete story of carnivory versus photosynthesis is not yet known.
In the same patch of ground where I took the other photos, I also saw several flowering specimens of Drosera indica (one example in the photo above). This was first named by Linnaeus in 1753 based on a drawing of a plant collected in Sri Lanka. A field study in 2013 by Allen Lawrie found that there are actually 11 different species which were conflated into the single species D. indica. Are there several unrecognized species hiding behind this one label in India? I do not know the answer.
While we talk about names, you will notice that I have called these plants carnivorous instead of following Darwin and calling them insectivorous. This is because detailed counts of prey species indicate that sundews feed on anything the right size, without specializing in insects. I’ll not say much more about D. indica because I’ve already written about it in another post.
Are D. burmanii and D. indica in competition when they grow in the same patch of ground? Studies of prey captured by other carnivorous plants which grow together show that they capture the same species, and so may be considered as competing. I know of no studies of prey species among the sundews of the Sahyadris, but there is no reason to believe that they are exceptions. In that case the spreading stalks of the indica with their larger numbers of leaves possibly give it a photosynthetic edge. Maybe that is why they are more common. I wish I knew a professional ecologist who could answer these questions.
Ritchie’s archipelago lies a little east of Port Blair. This group of islands includes Havelock and Neil Islands, often considered to have some of the best beaches in the world. The white sand beaches, the clear water and the warm sunshine seem appropriate to the quiet lifestyle of the locals. I could imagine myself settling down to months of slow life here.
Walking along the soft sand one occasionally comes across patches of rubble like the one you see in the photo above. They are pieces of broken coral, the bones of the sea, piled up in these little boneyards. When I saw them I began to wonder about the geological processes which form these little bits of paradise. Although coral reefs are spread across the world, their total area is about that of the state of Maharashtra. In terms of area, this is one part in a thousand of the world’s oceans, but it contains a fourth of all ocean life!
Our understanding of coral islands such as Neil and Havelock comes from Darwin, the master of careful scrutiny and understanding. He figured that such islands are volcanic. In the shallows around these new islands corals begin to accumulate. As the volcanic cone subsides, the corals grow upwards and outwards in the shallow waters. If their upward growth keeps pace with the sinking of the island, then eventually they form the wonderful reefs we saw around the islands (there is a brain coral at the bottom of the photo on the right). Too slow, and they would become drowned reefs. The volcanic rocks which supported the initial growth are also visible around these islands, as you can see in the photo above. The coral reef system is young, only about ten thousand years old.
The Andaman islands have been through a geological catastrophe about a decade ago. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake which generated a devastating tsunami was centred near these islands. You can see its devastating effects on the coral ecosystem even today. The sea bed rose by almost a meter, popping a large area of corals above the water and killing them. The great diversity that one sees in scuba dives off the coast of these islands is a fraction of what was there even as recently as 2001. Coral reefs are also sensitive to a variety of easily avoidable man-made perturbations: dumping of untreated organic waste such as sewage and chemicals from agricultural runoffs and even sunscreen. A little awareness for the next few decades would be enough to let this ecosystem recover.