A long story

Memories of geography lessons from school that always stayed with me included some jumble about India’s Western and Eastern ghats. Walking on the high plateaus of the Western ghats I would vaguely ask myself where the Eastern ghats are, but no question was urgent enough to make me look at the universal classroom on my phone. Since its rain-swept heights became my habitat in monsoons, I learnt more about the Western ghats — its high inselbergs and the odd flora of the region, the extended volcanism, starting about 140 million years ago, that separated India from Gondwanaland and laid down the lava shield of the Deccan plateau, the subsequent weathering that leached most useful minerals from the rock leaving only the iron and aluminium rich laterite under a thin soil, the resulting ecology that caused plants to change wildly, producing plateaus with their coverings of seasonal grass and carnivorous plants. I loved peering at the centimeter-high ecology at my feet when I walked across the Mahabaleshwar meadow (where the featured photo was taken last October) or the Kaas and Chilkewadi plateaus.

When I went to Odisha for a month I found the same kind of soil and rocks around me. Laterite is easy to cut into blocks for construction. This is a common building material in the Sahyadris, and it is widespread in Odisha. The presence of laterite implied that the soil had started off as a lava shield. That’s when I recalled the Eastern ghats, and verified that I was indeed on it. Strangely, these ghats are highly eroded, and major rivers flow through them to the Bay of Bengal. The soil is several centimeters to several meters thick in most places. Why this extended weathering on the east and not in the west, I wondered. The answer lay in the deep history of the earth.

About a billion years ago, before complex life had colonized dry land, the drifting plates of the earth came together to form the supercontinent of Rodinia. When it broke up in extensive volcanic events about 600 million years ago, one of the pieces was a plate that included Australia, India and Madagascar. The eastern coast of present day India was formed at that time. The Eastern ghats are therefore several hundred million years older than the Western ghats. That explains the extensive weathering and the different ecology of the Eastern ghats. The land which was a month’s home to me was full of normal trees and grasses, and creatures like termites.

I could see these termites, great ecosystem engineers, begin to convert all fallen wood into soil in days. Sometimes they wouldn’t wait for the wood to fall, thereby giving me interesting photos like the one you see above. For termites to colonize an area, it would have to have large amounts of wood already. In other words, termites should follow the first forests. The sheer length of time since the breakup of Rodinia would have allowed the ecology of this part to evolve trees, forests, and termites. In fact, termites probably evolved in Africa, which was then continuous with what is today western India. They would have crossed Gondwanaland and reached here. It was sobering to realize that the ancestors of these termites were living in this land long before the first humans!

Blog images from the past year: 403 ME

When you try to structure a retrospective of your favourite photos from a year’s worth of blog posts, you have a lot of choice. You could rate them in various ways, arrange them by colour or theme or chronology. But no matter what organization you choose, you still leave yourself a bit of leeway with the introduction. So it was with me. Having chosen to structure this post chronologically, I still had to figure out what to use as a featured photo. When it comes to visuals, I think you should be able to tell a book by its cover. Since my year was full of birds, I will start with a photo where I managed to get close enough to a hunter to see the colour of her eyeballs.

It seems hard to recall now, but the year started with the last of the major variants of the virus which divided our life story into before and after. January was omicron time, and I was mostly at home. Highly infectious variants of a virus run through the population very fast. So the wave was over earlier than I’d expected. As a result, I could spend the next month walking through my own city after a long time. I still had time left over to try my hand at blank verse in iambic pentameters. I discovered that counting syllables is not easy, and I had to approximate.

But soon enough we were back in the wilds. One special sighting was of the lost Taiga bean goose, probably separated from its west Siberian flock, and tolerated as an honorary member of a flock of bar-headed geese. I spent some time with maps trying to understand how this strange companionship might have developed, and learnt a valuable lesson about the world unsettled by us.

Between visits to the wilderness, it was interesting to watch the city come alive. Those were the last days of continuous working from home, and I could finish my day’s work early and roam the streets of Mumbai as life resumed after the pandemic. Most people were already vaccinated, and although the latest variant had infected large numbers, most did not need hospitalization. There was palpable relief on the streets.

India harbours a large variety of cats, and it’s a pity only the big cats attracts so much attention. In 403 ME we were lucky to sight several of the small cats. They are elusive creatures, wary of humans, The jungle cat is the most common, and I’ve seen it only thrice. I’ve never seen a fishing cat, the manul, or the Asian lynx. I’ve seen a caracal briefly as it sped off as soon as I chanced on it walking along a deserted road. So I feel I was lucky to have got photos and a video of one which was probably the desert cat. I was a bit puzzled by the ecology of its desert habitat, and it helped me fill in a bit of the puzzle.

After that I went tiger hunting in the same place where Bungalow Bill, made famous by the Beatles, shot his tiger. But more than half a century on, I was happy to see that not a single visitor had either elephant or gun. I have shown photos of these tigers too often; having seen them after three years. So here I post a photo of two butterflies, one called the common tiger, and the other the common crow. Pat yourself on the back when you figure out their names, but remember that there’s a whole lot we do not know about these two milkweed butterflies.

When you spend most of your leisure time in the jungles of India you cannot fail to notice the unremarked creatures which shape the land: termites. The jungles would regenerate slower without them, because these distant cousins of cockroaches are the most efficient metabolizers of wood. I was astounded when I found how old some of their cities are.

As July came along, we left for the hills. In the high desert of Ladakh, headaches and worse stalk those who forget about the lack of oxygen in the air. Among the most interesting sights here are signs of ancient humans who lived and left their art on rocks in this unhospitable part of the world. But the most interesting photos were from the cham at the Hemis monastery. I found the juxtaposition of masks interesting: one set elaborate and hand made according to several hundred years-old tradition, the other set stamped out in a factory for export to a foreign culture. Trust children to create something new.

Meanwhile, in the plains, the monsoon had set in. During breaks we travelled the Sahyadris, as we’ve been doing in the past two years, looking at the blooming of wildflowers in the otherwise arid volcanic soil. I hadn’t seen the misnamed Glory lily for several years, and had almost forgotten its name. But I remembered a true crime story associated with it.

A collateral pleasure of this new passion for wildflowers is the glimpse we get into life in small villages in the middle of Maharashtra. These places were traditionally very poor, but in the last seven decades roads and irrigation projects have made a very great difference to the lives of people who live here. Earning a living is by no means easy, but I think someone from my grandfather’s generation would be surprised. As for me, the differences from city life sometimes surprise me as much as the similarities.

After the monsoon it was time to get back to the mountain wilderness in the Himalayas. In this short trip around Diwali I was happy with the number of birds I saw. This pied kingfisher was not the most difficult to photograph, but it certainly gave me one of my favourite shots of the year.

Before you realize it, the sun picks up speed as it falls towards the lowest point in its orbit. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, which sits at the focus of the orbit, and for me it is winter. No one in their right mind goes to the mountains at this time. But did I claim to be sane? Winter weather is clear and cold, perfect for views of four of the five highest mountains in the world (Chomolungma in the center, Lotse to its right, Makalu at its left). The zoom required for this photos excluded Kanchenjunga, which is just off the right margin of the shot.

An finally, when the earth whirls past its closest approach to the sun, it is the true new year, 404 ME. We are ready for another whirl around our nearest star. It is unlikely that a new Buddha will arise soon, and even less likely that he will be the Manjushree Buddha, one who cleaves ignorance and fear with his sword. But we can all wish such a happy new year to each other, can’t we?

The shapers of jungles

Kanha is one of the most beautiful national parks. The first thing you notice are the enormous sal trees (Shorea robusta) forming patches with closed canopies. Then you notice that they are actually stands of trees in a larger grassland. The stands are carpeted with fallen leaves. The sunny grasslands are full of herds of chital (Axis axis, spotted deer). At the edges between the open grasslands and the forest are the more cautious sambar (Rusa unicolor) and barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, swamp deer). But if you look closer you see the species that shapes the landscape by removing litter and tilling the ground: termites. Some are visible by their mounds dotted throughout the forest, others hide in living trees and dead logs.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how high the termite mounds were. It sounds silly, but then I was in a jeep which spent three days rushing through the forest in search of tigers. Most tourists holiday in nearby resorts, and spend their times in swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, making a couple of forays into the jungle. Of those who come to the forest, most are interested in tigers. So tigers are a boon to the locals who make their living on tourism, and their behaviour is geared to such people. A very few visitors come to the forest to see more, and the guides and jeep drivers are happy to talk to them about their own experiences. But you just cannot get off jeeps to make measurements. So I had to improvise by taking photos of termite mounds with different things to give a scale. Everything simplified when I saw two people, forest workers, walking between two mounds. That photo clearly told me that the large mounds were about two meters high. I saw the Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, hanuman) crouched behind a smaller mound. These langurs are about a meter tall. So that sort of verifies my estimate by eye that the larger mounds are twice as tall.

I’ve found termites (order Blattodea, infraorder Isoptera) fascinating for a while. They are cockroaches (order Blattodea) which adapted to eating wood by harbouring a microbiome of bacteria, protists, and fungi in their stomach. In fact, the study of termites gave the first clue that many animals could have flourishing ecosystems inside them, a discovery that is now increasingly used in treating human disorders like Type II diabetes. In a forest they munch up fallen logs and leaves and are important recyclers. But they bore into trees and wood, which makes them pests for us at home or in farms. This bunch of cockroaches also developed eusocial behaviour some time in the Triassic or Jurassic, becoming differentiated into castes of workers, queens, and kings. When I was young I would see yearly swarming of termites, as a queen and her retinue set off from their old palace in search of a new home. So I know that a termite is only a couple of millimeters in size. The mound is a thousand times larger. Calling it a palace is shortchanging the mound, because I know of no human queen who lives in a two-kilometer tall palace. Perhaps one should compare it to a medieval citadel, a city which houses the court and also all the industry which supports it.

I’d spent some time photographing termite mounds up close in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP. You can see from these photos that they have a contoured surface which is rather smooth. The material glitters in the sun, which makes me think that bits of minerals in the soil, or insect chitin could be incorporated into it. I found an interesting group of papers which studied the strength and engineering of these mounds in a non-destructive way. They found that two castes of termite workers continually build pellets of wet mud. Other castes of workers then cement these “bricks” into walls using liquids that they secrete from the body. The wetness of the mud allows the suspended granules of mud to settle into any cracks in the walls that need repair, and the termite-spit then makes it proof against the hard monsoon of this part of India. Another paper led me to believe that the two meter tall termite citadels could be several hundred years old.

But which termite made these mounds? I’m as sure as I can be, without a photo of a termite, that they are made by Odontotermes obesus. I wish this common forest termite in had an easier name. This is the species which builds these tall conical mounds with flutes which look like Gaudi could have dreamt them up. But I’d seen and photographed other shapes too. Not knowing enough about termites, I’d assumed that they were merely citadels in the early stages of construction. But apparently not. Very often, the shape of a mound tells you with certainty which species built it. But Chhotani, in his 45 year old gem of a paper on the termites of Kanha NP tells us of multiple species which can be found in the mounds and fungus gardens of O. obesus. And more interestingly, he describes four different shapes of mounds, all of which seem to be built by O. obesus. With this observation he speculates that when there are more detailed studies one would find that what we call a single species now will be resolved into multiple species, each one building a mound of a given shape. Unfortunately, the study of termites in India is in its infancy. Even a paper from five years ago, which claims that there are 286 species of termites in India, making up 10% of the world’s termite biodiversity, added six new species. I was not surprised that no one has performed a gene profile of O. obesus from Kanha to check Chhotani’s conjecture. So we don’t yet know whether we can really tell the species of a termite from the shape of its mound. There are so many angles to termite life, so many loose ends in their story, that one really has to look at several pictures to piece them into one view of these shapers of jungle landscapes.

A walk in the rain

I couldn’t let the unending rain dictate my life any longer. On Friday I slipped my phone into my pockets, put on my walking shoes and a poncho, and went out for a walk.

The world was full of life and death, decay and growth. Lush vegetation, scrubbed clean with rain, fallen leaves on green leaves, termites scurrying along walls. In this dreadful light, the camera can’t keep up with the insects.

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, a mouthful for such a lovely flower: the night blooming jasmine. They are flowering already, but the rain washes away their scent. A month from now, the fallen flowers will wilt slowly through the day, releasing their lovely perfume all day.

A strangler fig is slowly killing its host; terrible for the host, but possibly a wonderful sight in future when the fig spreads out its branches and aerial roots. The flooded earth has sent the invading giant African land snails up the wall. Welcome to the club.

Bracket fungi have reappeared predictably on the trunk of a tree where I’ve seen it in the last two years. This tree is sick. The invisible filaments of the fungus have found its bed of secret joy, and its dark secret love is killing the tree. A William Bleak morning indeed!

Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.