The odd ends of a desert

The edge of the Asian desert announces itself in little ways. Little odds and ends which you notice all add up to the feel of this dry region. For example, there are not many places where water birds congregate, nor do you find the fruit eaters. But if you are on the lookout you see lots of small birds everywhere. Some are seed eaters like larks, but many are sparrows out to raid humans. I heard a quarrelsome sparrow scream itself hoarse at a roadside eatery. Looking around, I saw it was a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in a war with its own image in a mirror. Every escalation was met with an equal response, and the quarrel spiralled out of control until the bird was exhausted.

These birds are not weaklings. A female was hopping about on top of a wall. I watched it closely. This region sees three species and several subspecies of sparrows. The males are quite distinct, but it takes me a lot of effort to tell the females apart. As I took a shot, the female jumped from a standing start on the wall to a perch on the bush above it. This was a hop of four to five times its body length. For a human it would be a standing hop of eight to ten meters! Note to Marvel/Disney: Sparrow Man would be quite a superhero.

There’s a large number of ships of the desert beached here at its edge. We walked through a camel research center (trigger warning: don’t waste your money on it) to look at the animals resting in a corral. This madonna and her daughter gave me curious looks, but went back to bonding. The research center is more innocuous than it sounds. The main line of work is to try to make camel’s milk (very salty) more palatable to people. The other is to process camel wool to make it more acceptable in the market.

In these parts camels (technically the dromedary, Camelus dromedarius) replace cattle as the primary domestic animals. We passed herds of camels trudging by the highway, their long stride makes them quite fast even when they move without any haste. There are odd carts hitched to them. The carts are extremely short, and always balance on a single axle with truck tires on them. Why are the carts so short? Does the camel give less traction, or is it just that shorter carts are more maneuverable in sandy terrain?

Rather late in my recent wanderings around this desert I began to wonder why this biome seems to have only prickly plants. The prickly pear (Opuntia stricta) by the side of the road began to flower as I pondered this question. Thorns of cacti are modified leaves which are adapted to prevent loss of water, but even the leafy plants in this region have spiky branches. There has to be a reason for this convergent evolution of thorns in many different families of plants which grow in this region. Is it that growth is so difficult in this place that plants need to defend themselves better against passing foragers? I wish I could think of some way to test this idea.

This thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum) is another typical dry area plant, with its vicious prickles being a deterrent to most passing browsers. I like its attractive flowers, and always stop to take photos when I notice them. The plant is full of potentially harmful chemicals, which is why extracts from this nightshade are often used in folk medicine. The poisons are concentrated even further in its yellow berries, to deter potential predators (remember, this dry biome has no fruit-eating birds).

These dry areas are hard for many kinds of animals and plants, especially the ones we like to have around us. As a result, the inhabitants are often strange creatures, bound into a strange ecology, into food webs which are unfamiliar to me. Also, because of the same reason, worldwide there is a tendency to call them wastelands, and not mind at all if “development” destroys these webs and wipes out these gene pools.

Desert flowers

Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.

The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.

Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.

The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.

The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.

Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.

Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.