“What not to do in the field”: A how-not-to guide to field biology

Nitya Prakash Mohanty is a wildlife researcher working on the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal. His ongoing PhD study examines the Indian bullfrog’s recent introduction and subsequent invasion on the archipelago, far from the frog’s natural home on the Indian mainland. Nitya regularly writes articles in forums outside academia, to share fascinating stories of and from the wild and provides behind-the-scenes peeks into the glamorized world of wildlife and its research.


‘Guest post by Nitya Mohanty’

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Fieldwork at the edge of the sea

They say field biology is not easy. To spend months on end in isolated corners of the world, battling hostile weather or amassing tonnes of data must require true grit. Yet, every year universities churn out hundreds of field biologists who churn out knowledge based on their studies in forests, seas, and mountains. Before even dreaming of setting foot in the field, a biologist must train in concepts of study design, statistical analyses, equipment, and read a pile of research about his or her subject. But no amount of theory or demonstrations can prepare one for what awaits them in the field.

In my daily attempt to survive in the field, I have had more use of tales of ‘epic fails’ than of ‘mic drops’. One of the first mistakes I made in the field, a few kilometres into my first proper trek, was to ask how far the destination was. Straightforward as the question may seem, the answer demoralized the troop and sapped us all of any curiosity of the wildlife around. Another bright member of this group, who had packed a year’s supply of apples for a weekend trip, did not fare too well either. But, only a few acts of courage go beyond the decision to fast during a long trek. On the command of unearthly forces, a friend of mine relinquished the earthly necessities of feeding herself, while traversing the Western Ghats on foot. Though she didn’t miss out on much (read soybean dinners), we nearly missed out on her life. During this trip, I picked up many a wonderful memory along with a treacherous parasite – a tick, in the most unscrupulous of places. The experienced scarred me on many levels and made me nominate leeches as my favourite parasite, in the bloodsucking category.

 

'The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite', Ashwini V Mohan
The lovely abode of leeches, a relatively decent parasite (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

Some field experiences come with the potential to inflict more than just a scar. A dear friend once made the mistake of trusting an armed forest guard to look out for one-horned rhinoceros while he set out collecting their dung. On the distant approach of the dung’s creator, the guard took off without as much as a warning shriek. My friend’s peripheral vision and superior arboreal skills helped him escape a two thousand kilo death. But some acts of trust do not pan out as well. In the long lasting tradition of craving food, while inebriated, two gentle souls once craved the wrong snack – a toxic puffer fish. Alas, their departed souls crave no more. Then again, some people are just plain lucky. A wildlife biologist would not have even graduated when in his early field days he picked up an unsuspecting snake early in the morning. “A cat snake!” he declared, educating us about its non-venomous nature. A friend with little more than just affection for snakes identified it to be a highly venomous Saw-scaled viper, just as the snake started moving to the heat. The cold-bloodedness of the snake, captured in the wee hours of the morning, helped my friend remain unharmed and un-fanged.

'When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper' _Ashwini V Mohan
When we collectively ignored a Malabar pit-viper (Photo: Ashwini V Mohan)

With countless hours to spend in the field, there is a time for individual stupidity and then there is a time for collective stupidity. Some agile minds of my cohort where able swimmers too and decided to jump into a lagoon together. Only the lagoon had sharks. Another group of acquaintances repeated the same feat, with saltwater crocodiles. A large group of people sometimes lulls one into a false sense of security. While stepping across a fallen tree after a long day’s trek, each member of our group gripped a nearby sapling for support. I was the last one to cross and thankfully, snapped out of daydream just in time to avoid grabbing a Malabar pit-viper which had been on the sapling all along!

But by far the silliest thing I have done in the field is devoid of any confrontation with the wild. Upon completing a morning’s line transects counting deer, a colleague and I drove to pick up another team of two at the end of a nearby transect. We became restless as their scheduled time of arrival started veering way off the schedule. On hearing some movement near the clearing where we expected them, I called out in an inimitable code – a simple hoot. Pat came the reply of two hoots. We hooted back and forth for almost an hour in the anticipation of our impending meeting, and then the calling stopped abruptly. I called out in desperation for a while, only to find the missing duo approaching from the opposite direction. I may well have had communicated with poachers for the better part of that morning.

There are of course way too many such instructional tales to recount. In the face of a vast variety of life to study, field biologists come up with a vast array of harebrained schemes to look much less smart than they actually are. If there is a code in the field one must follow, it is not to laugh at a colleague’s mistake; rest assured you will outdo them. Mic drop.


Of butterflyfish and angelfish and their distribution

In our recent paper, just out of the oven, we make a case that latitude and live coral independently determine the species richness of butterflyfish and angelfish communities in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

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Vibrant coral reef at Cabra island

The idea for this paper started in the year 2015 when an intern Sowjanya Chandrasekhar started exploring the huge dataset, that my colleague Elrika D’Souza and I had collected in 2012 & 2013. Though we had collected data on all reef species, Sowjanya picked only two groups for their aesthetic elegance and their overall importance to the coral reef ecosystem. The butterflyfish are known as indicators of the health of coral reef ecosystem, whereas angelfish are dependent on reef habitat for structure. The initial plan was just to make a checklist of butterflyfish and angelfish. After the painstaking task of going through thousands of pictures, field guides and monographs, Sowjanya identified 30 species of butterflyfish belonging to four genera and 13 species of angelfish from 9 genera.

The idea further developed after a conversation with Aniruddha Marathe, my colleague and flatmate in Bangalore. Aniruddha works on how elevation gradients impact distribution on ant species in Arunachal Pradesh. Though there are no direct similarities in ants and fish, commonalities of distribution gradients in elevation and latitude were a good enough reason for us to work together. Meanwhile, Sowjanya was accepted for the James Cook University Master’s programme, whereas I left for the field and spent most of my time in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to collect 2016 bleaching related data.

After exploratory analysis, a few questions that piqued our curiosity were: Why certain species are found only in some areas? Why is the distribution of some species patchy? Is species richness higher in the islands that are closer to the Centre of origin of the coral reefs? And most importantly, how do natural disturbances alter the patterns of species distribution? The fact that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have 6 to 13 ° latitudinal gradient was a good enough reason for us to follow-up on these questions. With scattered information of a dataset spread across 75 sites and 51 islands, we explored the relationship between 1) species richness and latitude,  2) species richness and important benthic variables i.e., live coral, dead coral, algae, 3) species diversity and latitude, and 4) species diversity and benthic variables for butterflyfish and angelfish.

The initial findings were interesting and the results met most of our predictions. We found that live coral cover and latitude were the best predictors for explaining variation in the distribution of these fish communities across the A & N archipelago. This is probably because of the high dependence of these two fish groups on the live coral cover and Nicobar’s geographical proximity to the Coral Triangle, which is considered to be the centre of origin of coral reefs and supports high biodiversity.

While it is great news that these fish groups are surviving despite repeated catastrophic disturbances, loss of coral structure or habitat is still the greatest threat to these species. Yellow teardrop butterflyfish, with two sightings in the Central Nicobar region and North Andaman region and Three-spot angelfish, with one sighting in the South Andaman region, are especially vulnerable as they were observed only at select locations. Our results show that despite the high dependence of butterflyfish and angelfish on live coral cover, reduction of live coral cover due to series of disturbances (tsunami, bleaching) events had limited influence on species richness of these two fish groups, indicating that broad geographical trends are important in explaining variation in species richness for butterflyfish and angelfish groups.

The manuscript writing took almost six months. After lots of discussions, debates, and endless arguments over coffee, we submitted the manuscript to the journal Coral Reefs.  We were relieved when we got to know that the manuscript is in a review. Unfortunately, the decision of the editor, Dr. Michel Berumen was to ‘reject’ the paper, but the suggestions and feedback we received were very useful. We incorporated all the changes and then sent out the paper to the journal Marine Biodiversity as per the suggestion by Dr. Berumen.

To our dismay, the paper was rejected once again. However, this time the journal was keen on receiving a fresh draft after addressing all the comments. We quickly got our acts together, and addressed all the possible comments raised by the reviewers and provided an explanation for the few comments that we were unable to address. Finally, after several iterations, the paper that came out of this collaboration is rather interesting, especially in times when more corals are being damaged due to global climate change and human impacts. This paper is a rare example of practising geographical ecology in marine systems.

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Emperor angelfish, (Pomacanthus imperator)

We look forward to your criticisms, comments and perspectives on this work. Thank you for taking time to read the paper and a blog post!


 

 

 

 

On the wild side

“A big fat crocodile stirs through the creek, eight Nicobar pigeons perch, tonnes of terns take flight, white-throated kingfishers flit above the ground, mantas swim swiftly in the shallows, a few hundred small-sized fish swim-in-and-out of the coral crevices, introduced spotted deer stand ass-to-ass-to-ass on white sandy beaches. Inside the thicket of the forest, their hooves remain stuck in the alluvium of new accretion”.

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Camping team on MV Khlee vessel

In a perfect world, I would go camping every week. The thrill of packing only the bare essentials and living it up in the great outdoors — coastal forests or in mountains or on the beach is as liberating as living out a wee-hour dream. And what better than camping inside a Marine Protected area? That’s right! This year, I got a chance to spend my birthday at Jahaji, a pristine beach in Rutland Island, which is a part of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (MGMNP) in South Andaman Island. I was accompanied by my friends and colleagues- Naveen Ekka, Zoya Tyabji, James Tirkey, Ledhu Kunjur and Sebian Horo who work at the Andaman and Nicobar Island’s Environmental Team (ANET), a local NGO working towards conservation of the island biodiversity. Rutland is the biggest Island in MGMNP with a total area 137 square meters. Most parts of the islands are uninhabited, but some part of the island has a Ranchi community settlement. Though my visit was without any purpose, per se, my colleagues were visiting the Island to collect data on plants from permanent plots that researchers from the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS) have set-up.

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I was visiting Jahaji after nearly a decade. My last visit to this island was with fellow researchers, who like me, wanted to experience the island. I was dawdling through my early 20’s and as a city boy, I had only heard of pristine beaches and rainforests, but never experience the feeling of seeing one. Though we had stayed only for a day, my memory of the island was fresh. The vast stretches of white sandy beaches against the backdrop of the rainforest. Love at first sight—is how I would describe my last experience back then. And here I was, almost after 10 years visiting the same place once again.

After loading tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, grocery and daily needs, we set out on a Karen dugout dinghy called ‘MV Khlee’, from North Wandoor beach, located along the main Port Blair Island in South Andaman. It was early morning of December and the new sun had sparkled gold across the ripples of the gentle sea.  As soon as the boat engine started thumping, we were treated to an impeccable view of skies kissing the ocean — the perfect fuel to our hibernating systems. During the boat ride, we crossed some spectacular islands such as Gurb, Chester, Redskin, Alexandria and Jollybuoy Island, which are part of the Marine National Park. After about 2 hours we reached a sandy beach called ‘BadaKhadi’.

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A rocky outcrop near andarkhadi beach in Rutland Island

A few colleagues got off to hand over our research permits at ‘Badakhadi’ forest camp office and to inform forest guard about our plan of stay, while the rest of us wandered aimlessly on the shores of ‘Badakhadi’ as we waited for our colleagues to return.  Jahaji is a protected area and entry to tourists is strictly prohibited. As researchers, we were lucky to have got permits from the Forest Department within four months of waiting. To the north of Badakhadi, there is a rocky outcrop, which is known for nesting of terns. Hundreds of terns and many swiftlets flew-in-and-out of crevices and when we were just about to leave, a pair of bBeach thik-knee birds appeared from somewhere, perched for some time and took flight in the direction of Jahaji beach as if they were telling us, “Hey, see you at Jahaji!”

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A pair of beach thick-knees strolling on the rocks

As soon as our colleagues returned from the camp office, we left for our final destination, Jahaji beach, in Rutland Island. The journey between Badakhadi and Jahaji is another two hours by boat. Though it was blazing hot by now, the sea was exceptionally calm. At the first sight of Jahaji, watching the seagulls gliding at their own pace in a clear blue sky, I could not help but think of Black’s lyrics, “It’s a wonderful wonderful life“.

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A view of Jahaji beach

Jahaji beach is almost 2 kilometres long, with white sand, and emerald blue-green-sapphire blue waters that sparkle against the backdrop of tall Mahua trees. On reaching closer to the shore, we donned our snorkelling apparatus and got into the water as swimming to the shore is the only way to get to the shore. The water was crystal clear and we could see the sandy white bottom right from the surface, which was 4-5 m deep. We swam close to the boat and perpendicular to the coast, skin-diving intermittently checking for signs of seagrass or other marine life. After playing in the water like children for a while, we swam towards the breaking waves and crossed over to the shore.

 

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Snorkelling and skin diving to explore the shallow bottom of the sea

Once at the shore, we found a comfortable spot to set up our tents in the midst of the Mahua trees.  James set out a fire on few rocks and cooked a quick meal of rice and egg curry, while Vishal, Naveen and Sebian who grew up on Rutland Island kept us enthralled with stories of their experiences on the island. All of them belong to the Ranchi community, originally from Jharkhand near Bihar, but who have been settled on Rutland island for the past 50 odd years. The history of ‘Ranchi’ community is interesting. British got them to the islands for logging and for a range of other manual labour. After independence, these communities settled in-and-around villages in the Andamans, including Rutland island. Their population is around 65000 according to 2011 population census and being forest dwellers, they have a good knowledge of the forest and thus most field assistants working with NCBS belong to the Ranchi community.

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On our first night in Jahaji, we didn’t sleep early, running on the adrenaline of our adventure. Jahaji is one of the preferred nesting beaches for giant leatherback turtle, and November and December is the ideal season for sighting the leatherbacks so we walked the entire length of the 2 km beach with the hopes of sighting nesting leatherback turtles. Unfortunately, we did not see a single turtle, but gigantic tractor-size tracks of a turtle gave us an opportunity to imagine their size. Returning back to our campsite, our discussions gradually ended in snores as we fell asleep in our respective tents.

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A view from my tent

A sneak-peek out of my tent flap gave me a view of the clear sky through the branches of the mahua trees. The moon had risen, and apart from a few clouds, the sky was studded with stars. I was awoken by guano – bat droppings, on the roof of our tent. In pitch darkness, I fumbled and covered the tent with tarpaulin and went back to sleep. I woke up again when a rain shower drenched my tent.  I had to take refuge in my colleagues’ tent.

 

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In the morning, we were woken up by the cacophony of birds – including the incessant call of a white-bellied sea eagle. With a pair of Celestron binoculars and a backpack full of essentials like quick snacks, Swiss knife, notebook and camera, we went birding for hours deep in the coastal forest. Altogether we sighted 24 species of birds. Among the most common were the Green Imperial Pigeons and Drongos (Andaman and Racket-tail Drongo). Vernal hanging parrots, and many long-tailed, as well as Alexandrine parakeets, flew from one branch to another, while Orioles and Chestnut-headed bee-eaters perched on treetops. The highlight of the trip was the sighting of a fulvus-breasted woodpecker and a flock of Nicobar pigeon which are relatively rare birds in the Andaman Islands.

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A fulvus breasted woodpecker

In the afternoon we visited different region within the same forest. The meandering path took us to the area where the National Centre for Biological Sciences researchers set up  1 X 1 hectare permanent monitoring plots (a rectangle that is marked with markers) to long-term monitor changes in forest tree communities.

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James taking measurements of plants

These plots have been set-up in the year 2012 and ever since then researchers and field assistants collect monthly data on forest structure, species diversity, biomass, carbon stocks and nutrient cycling patterns. James and Vishal, local lads of Badakhadi, collected monthly data on seedlings on the plots as part of their job, while Zoya and I strolled around the plot and in the forest. At one instance, I ended up alone in the forest, nearly forgetting where I was. The word that best described the scene was ‘desolate’ or ‘lost’. I felt small, an unidentifiable soul perhaps. Tall trees such as Aglaia andmanica, Diospyros oocarpa, Rothmania pulcherrima rose towards a cloudless sky and a dense. understory forest lay beneath. The undergrowth was dense with shrubs, and saplings, in dense tangles of weeds and vines.  Signs of wild boar scat and marks of deer hoofs could be seen everywhere. After spending an entire day in the forest, intermittently seeing deer, agamid lizards, flies and bees, and observing the variety of forest fruits, we returned to comforts of our den just before it turned dark.

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Rainforest canopy at Rutland Island

At night, once again we spent time on the beach, mesmerized by the white sand and water that seemed two shades darker, despite the bright moon. We walked from one end to another again, but the leatherback turtles kept eluding us. Though we did not see a single nesting turtle or a crocodile, we did see many signs of nesting turtles gone by on the white sand.

A turtle tracks on sandy beach of Rutland Island
Tracks of turtle on the sand

The next morning, we left to explore the island by foot. The aim was to walk to the lighthouse and back, which was built after the tsunami of 2004 and its still being used as it has a solar-powered light. Stepping over the occasional fallen tree and tonnes of dead coral rubble, we walked for hours.

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A view of pristine beach of Jahaji

The walk back to our campsite was even better than we imagined. The afternoon heat had mellowed down, and as the tide had receded, we had to walk on the exposed intertidal rocky shore, which was a treasure trove for small animals. Rocky crevices are playgrounds for animals of all class and phyla, from crustaceans to Mollusca. Morey eels were hunting small fish, while juvenile reef fishes hid. Hundreds of brittle stars and crabs were crossing the pools trying to find safety in crevices. The sun was low on the horizon, and the orange sky was an ideal backdrop for photographs. Walking on the rocks took us much longer than expected. Towards the end of a long walk, there was not a single sound except the occasional whooshing of the wind and the call of an owl. The jungle became denser as daylight faded. Soon darkness descended and at the end of our daylong journey, our pace became slow.

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It was around 7.30 pm when we finally reached the base camp. Once there, we relaxed with some rice beer. Relishing our simple dinner of boiled rice and potatoes and fried fish, we had the feeling of being in heaven. The temperature had begun to drop so we retired to the comfort of our sleeping bags, but not before taking one last look at the amazing full-mooned starry night sky. We woke up early next morning feeling very fresh and rejuvenated and set out to pack up our tents before our return journey.

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Morning view of the forest from a camping site 

We decided to take an alternate route back, that goes via Twins Island, which is approximately 16 nautical miles from Rutland island. These islands are known for their Manta ray aggregation sites — our hope was to sight a shoal of mantas as they swam freely and fed on planktons between the two islands. On reaching the channel, we stopped the engine and scanned the surface of the sea from one end to the other. The blazing heat of the afternoon, added with the reflection of the sea made the day seem hotter than it was. We saw some movement in the water and within minutes we saw a magnificent animal circling our boat. Without wasting a second, I immediately jumped into the water and swam with the gentle giant. In the joy of swimming with the manta, I almost forgot that I was drifting into the deeper end of the channel. By now, my other colleagues who were also swimming with mantas had gone back to the boat.

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Our next stop was a shallow site where we attempted all sorts of somersaults and snorkelled to experience the hustle-bustle of the reef. The shallow reef had a number of young individual of corals known as recruits. As we descended a few metres under the sea, a few hundred small-sized fish commonly called as yellow snappers surrounded us, like rush-hour commuters coming out of a subway. Many of them had blue and yellow stripes as if they were wearing a school uniform.

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As the boat hummed on ripples of the open sea, we all found a respective comfortable spot on the boat. There was no sound except the thumping of the diesel engine. For three hours, we kept riding the waves, and by the time we reached north Wandoor, the pale stars were sliding into their places, the whispering of birds was hushed, the air was filled with the cacophony of cicadas, and the not-yet-darkened world appeared infinitely larger. The trip was over, but memories from our four days at Jahaji continued on, like the ceaseless call of the Andaman barn owl from the Garjan (Dictocarpus sp.) tree nearby.


An edited version of this article was first published in Nature in Focus.

An Island life for me

Part writer. Part mermaid. Sitara is always on the lookout for portals to other worlds where all the fun stuff like magic and dragons exist. This is her account of an island life.


Guest post by Sitara Hussain. 

Yours truly, in between dives
Yours truly, in between dives

Ever since I can remember, living on an island has been a distant dream. Something to fantasise about until reality dragged me back to whatever task I had at hand, be it homework, household chores or my desk job. Until the tables turned one fine day and I found myself on Havelock Island to train and work as a dive-master.

 

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Just another day at work

 

I was so excited about the idea of staying on an island that I didn’t stop to worry about what that actually meant. I knew to expect no cellular service and very limited contact with the outside world. I resigned myself to eating fish 7 times a week. And I was expecting to meet a multitude of new people, memorise and forget their names in a fortnight. But what I didn’t realise was that living the dream meant that I no longer enjoyed the luxury of a warm bath. A lack of privacy, because sound travels on a small, quiet island. And an endless stream of creepy-crawlies who became my roommates. Being a sheltered city-slicker, it took me a while to get used to having to share a bathroom with the multiple residents at the divers’ accommodation. And then, there was always the chance of an encounter with a snake. I was uncomfortable and I loved every bit of it.

I spent my days training, diving and studying, spending some wonderful hours learning how to survive underwater. I found out how to be weightless and loved the feeling of being suspended mid-depth. I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of fish species and my mind reeled trying to identify them. As part of my job, I found myself having to talk constantly – small talk to keep our dive shop’s customers entertained, boat briefings, dive site briefings and post dive debriefings. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m not the kind of person who talks too much. But where I struggled the most was trying to frame complete sentences in Hindi so I could converse with the Karen boat boys. The only Hindi I knew was what I learnt in school and from Bollywood films. And those sources definitely did not provide me with an adequate vocabulary to answer all the questions they would ask. How they laughed at me! But over the few months that I spent working with them, they did learn to decipher my broken sentences. This more open, sociable me was a revelation. For the first time in my life, I was spending more time around people instead to finding a corner to read my books.

How I spent my day off (1)
How I spent my day off

The best part about working as a Dive-master was that I got to relive the exhilaration I felt the first time I went for a dive. I assisted the instructors as they taught beginners to dive. Some of them were excited to get a glimpse underwater. Many of them were understandably nervous. But there was always one person in the group who was simply terrified. More often than not, I’d be assigned to give my full attention to that one person while the instructor handled the rest of the group. It began with training in shallow water, to get the customers comfortable with the equipment and procedures. After that was completed, we’d all head out together to deeper water to begin the dive. The hardest part was convincing a frightened person to suspend all sense of self-preservation and put their heads underwater. Almost immediately, their heads would shoot back up and they would ask to cancel their dive. With a little more persuasion, they would try again. Eye contact was key. Somehow, these strangers would put all their trust in their divemaster or instructor and allow themselves to be guided underwater. At first, they would grip my hand with all their strength. But as we descend and the pressure underwater increases, the pressure of their grip would decrease. I once had a customer who let go completely and glided around all by herself. The fear in her eyes was replaced by pure joy and wonder as she lost herself in the moment. It was such a magical moment for the both of us, an experience I lived through with various people in their own different ways.

Traded a desk job for this
Traded a desk job for this

I consider the 5 months living, training and working in Havelock to be the best decision I’ve ever made. Not only did I learn a new skill, I learnt so much about people and about myself. I made friends with folks from all walks of life, and from all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with.  I’ve always loved the ocean, and now I know it just a little better. Marine life was always a magical world beyond reach, but now, it feels closer to me than ever. Which is why I urge anyone who shows the slightest interest in Scuba diving, to take the plunge. Because, with every fibre of my being, I believe that once you strap on a tank, carry some weights and sink below the surface of the water, it changes you in the best possible way.


 

 

 

I found an obese sea star!

Well, maybe not the fattest individual, but definitely abnormal. I have never seen such fat individual of any species in the wild. If you don’t believe me take a look at this fat sea star. Yeah, that’s right, get into the habit of calling them sea stars – makes you feel so much better than calling them ‘starfish’ as they are not similar to fish in any aspect.

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A sea star which I call it as an obese sea star

While on a routine data collection dive off Havelock Island in South Andaman, I found this individual lying on the reef like a toddler toy on the floor. The abnormally huge size of the sea star quickly caught my attention and I spent next 10 minutes taking pictures and observing the animal. Later, I googled by typing keywords ‘fat sea star’, but couldn’t obtain a single image of anything that looked even close to the individual I observed. The information that google search provided was rather curious. Take a look at the screenshot:

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In addition, I also asked a few of my fellow marine biologists about the sea star and sent a few emails to scientists studying these animals. A few speculated abnormal growth and others mentioned that the fatness could be due to toxins in the body of a sea star. Later, I emailed an expert who is an Invertebrate Zoology staff at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and requested help with identification. As per the expert, this species of fat sea star belongs to genus Thromidia in the family Mithrodiidae and are closely related to Ophidiasteridae family.  In coming season, I am planning to take a few extra measurements of the species as per the suggestion of the expert who believes that the species could very well be the range extension.

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A sea star species belonging to genus Thromidia

The observation has raised my curiosity and I am keen to know more about the species distribution in our waters. If anyone has seen similar species or any such abnormal fat looking animals in the wild, then do share your experience, pictures or write-ups.


 

 

 

 

Influence of singer on you

One of my more irrational fears is that, someday, one day, maybe on Monday I will get delusional and forget all the memories I have made. The thought alone terrifies me, but even in my seemingly ludicrous anxiety, one thing I will instantly recognise—the voice of Leonard Cohen.

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Leonard Cohen ((photo by Michael)

When I first heard his songs, I was sure I was listening to the bellowing of a gentleman behemoth, and ever since he has always been a constant companion on my music playlist.  His voice is what you can relate to–the kind that knows we don’t live in the black-and-white world that at our core, we are a little bit lonely and a little bit of a loser. He knows and doesn’t judge, instead, sings about our success and failures and the best part is he makes our failures more beautiful than success.

He sings straight to your heart because he articulates the feelings that you didn’t even know you felt. He riches right into your rib cage and pulls out that trembling organ, telling your organ that you have much more functions other than just pumping blood flow.

“And I thank you,

I thank you for doing my duty.

Your keepers of truth, guardians of beauty

Your vision is right, my vision is wrong

I’m sorry for smudging the air with my space”     

                                                                                     —Leonard Cohen

He soothes your heart and makes you laugh, he heals your soul and transports you to abstract thoughts, where grit thrives and even grotesque is poetic. His voice is like books of a Japanese author, Haruki Murakami— dreamlike—too unreal, yet real in every sense, both thoroughly original.

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Leonard Cohen (photo by Michael )

No wonder why people call him the Godfather of gloom! Continue reading “Influence of singer on you”

A day at ANET field station

This year, a summer intern from IISER Tirupati, Narola Harsh helped me with my fieldwork. Despite having an interest in physics, he somehow landed at ANET field-base to assist me with my work. Harsh stayed at ANET for 20 days. This is Harsh’s account of his stay at ANET.

Guest post by Narola Harsh

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Narola Harsh in front of ANET library

Unlike on the mainland, I didn’t really need an alarm to wake up as Benjamin, a stout-fancy-colourful rooster who was also patron to most other chickens you would see around, was very punctual with his routine.

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Benjamin giving wake up call just outside my cottage

I’d get out of bed, open the window and see the sun shining quite high for eight in the morning. Strangely, my cottage had two doors on opposite walls and large windows on the rest of the sides. It is most probably a Karen-style cottage.

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Karen-style cottage at ANET field station in the Andaman Islands

I’d bathe and head to the kitchen which, apart from being a regular kitchen, serves as a good TT and hula-hooping point, viable gym and occasional dance-floor. Post-breakfast, I’d go to the library which is apparently the only place here with a lock on the door and is locked every night as well. The library used to be my regular workspace here throughout my stay and the best part about it is that, due to the wooden floor, you can hear people coming in and going out. If you’re more careful, you can tell precisely who the person is no matter where you are sitting. In addition to the reference books on various topics, this place has a shared bookshelf which has collections ranging from nationalist (or rather anti-nationalist) Arundhati Roy to Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt.

 

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ANET library

Next to the library is a small ground where we’d play volleyball in the evening, generally starting around five-ish and going till the ball is no longer visible. To be honest, that was the best pastime during my stay.

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Volleyball session at ANET

Volleyball was occasionally followed by quick workout sessions next to the kitchen that I never really joined. Later in the evening, I’d go back to the library, and stay there until dinner time. Post-dinner we’d go to the mangroves, capture a fish and set up a device that records the sounds the fish made, which is otherwise inaudible to humans. After an hour or so, we’d collect the device and that would be the end of a regular day.


 

 

Capturing the Eye of a Crocodile Fish


“Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes. Behold these eyes and thou shall recognise, The crystalline lattices of constellations to adore, Mirrored in the eyes of the piscivore.”

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Blue striped travellies cruising on the reef

The shallow sea flattens. Slowly, you descend and in the hustle-bustle of the reef, you cruise, weightless and neutrally buoyant. Thousands of fish move in and out of coral crevices looking at you. In that strange world, you are the outsider. You are the thing that does not belong, a bizarre alien, perhaps.

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Lyretail orange Anthias guarding territory on the reefs.

You swim past a feather star and an octopus and are looking at the shapes and patterns of different corals when suddenly, you notice a crocodile fish nearby.

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An octopus watching hustle-bustle of the reef.

It blends well in the bright colours of coral polyps and camouflages into its surroundings. You hold your breath for a moment and look carefully at the fish’s face, and you are rewarded with the rare gaze of a crocodile fish, as hypnotic as a revolving prism of a magic ball.

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A rare gaze of the crocodile fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti)

When your eye catches the eye of a crocodile fish, you see a pattern. You notice that the fish’s eyes have a spherical latticework of thousands of crystalline lines with two distinct layers—the inside is dark, and the outside is thin and light— both separate, yet holding each other.

Both layers are captivating, but for some reason, you are unable to decide which layer to look at. The outer layer looks like it’s reflecting, while the inner layer is absorbing. The outer layer meanders like a flowing river, whereas the inner layer gives the eyes an illusion of depth. You notice that the textured globe of those eyes is opaque, and there is a lot more happening in the eyes that you can feel but cannot see. The more you gaze into the fish’s eyes the more they seem to reveal.

 

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In the world of eyes, these are true standouts. 

 

You begin to understand that the light-carrying fibres of the outer layer must be arrayed to optimise the fish’s ability to capture fast prey of small fish. As you gradually shift your gaze, the shape of this dark pupil also shifts—like the eye of a predator dilating when prey comes into view.

Soon you start noticing other fine details—the infinite amount of spines on fins, the rough texture of the fish’s body, the bearded roughness of its face, it’s camouflage, shape and it’s size.

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The eyes of a crocodile fish. They have frilly abstract iris lappets, which help them improve camouflage.

You start to think of what you know of the fish. You know that these biological star sapphires take longer to mature than most other fishes, but considering that they don’t have natural predators, their lifespan is quite long by fish standards. Their larvae float for weeks before they decide to settle on a coral reef and it takes almost a year for them to reach adulthood. Considering its predatory nature, in that one year it must have snared hundreds of small crabs and fish, and will have survived a gauntlet of larger predators swimming above it on the food chain.

You realise that you have spent a lot of time observing this fish without taking a single picture. So you adjust and readjust the focal length, the shutter speed and the intensity of the strobe light. You look through the LCD screen of your camera. After going back and forth between clicking images and viewing them on the screen, you capture what you think is the ‘perfect image’ of the fish’s eye. Though aware of your presence the crocodile fish does not move even an inch. You realise that you are a matter of indifference to the fish, some alien, or just some strange fish emitting short bursts of light. That’s when crocodile fish lifts off, instantly darts in pursuit of capturing something only it sees.


 

Edited version first published in Sanctuary Cubs magazine.

Case for coexistence between humans and crocodiles

An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth in December issue.

Vardhan Patankar & Vrushal Pendharkar

Away from the shores of mainland India, an unusual conflict has been unravelling in the picturesque islands of Andamans and Nicobars. These islands are one of the last remaining bastions of saltwater crocodiles in Indian waters. Here, in the last six years, the encounters between humans and crocodiles are building into a potentially worrying situation.

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Saltwater crocodile juvenile in South Andaman islands

Since the tsunami of 2004, there have been 22 attacks, between 2005 – 2015, out of which 11 were fatal and other 11 were injuries. This in comparison to 20,000 deaths every year due to rabies in India is minuscule. Prior to the tsunami from 1986 to 2004, there were 20 reported attacks. So essentially, the attacks have more than doubled in a short time. According to Harry Andrews, an herpetologist with 20 years experience on the islands, the seeds of increasing human-crocodile interaction was sown a decade before the tsunami. The influx of people settling on the islands from the mainland increased from 2,80,000 in 1991 to 3,60,000 in 2001. Current estimates are close to 3,90,000. To support more people, mangrove vegetation, which is the preferred habitat of crocodiles, found along the 1982 km of coastline and freshwater creeks were cleared. More than half of population are settlers from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. They brought the culture of fishing along with them. With dwindling food resources and habitat, according to Andrews “it is becoming increasingly difficult for crocodiles to find space, especially during the breeding season when they prefer freshwater creeks and marshy areas to lay their eggs.” Most of the attacks have occurred during this time which coincides with the monsoons.

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Captured saltwater crocodile near Alexandria island in South Andaman_photo credit: Andaman & Nicobar Forest Department

As a result of the tsunami, 3,730 hectares of coastal vegetation of the North Andaman was denuded with 7.5 % of mangroves damaged along the creeks of Little and South Andaman. According to a report compiled by Ravi Sankaran, the late scientist who pioneered research in Andamans, in 2005 the tsunami caused 50% greater impact than anthropogenic disturbances on these islands. Due to the tectonic shifts of the earthquake which triggered the tsunami, areas like Diglipur and Mayabunder on, islands of North and Middle Andaman heaved up by 1.2 meters while the South and Little Andaman and Nicobar group of islands went down by 1.6 meters. In areas of Bamboo Flat and Saithankhari mangroves were damaged while inundation in low-lying areas and agriculture fields of Sippighat, Saithankhari, and Tirur, mangroves changed to mudflats. Mudflats and vegetation around them form vital basking and nesting sites for crocodiles. With an increase in mudflats, crocodiles are being frequently found in areas close to human habitations. Pankaj Sekhsaria, an author of Last Wave – a novel based in the Andamans, hypothesizes “where submergence took place and where wetlands increased these could be areas of conflict.”

 

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Trap being prepared to capture the crocodile at Junglighat area in Port Blair Andaman islands

The Loha Barrack crocodile sanctuary is a 22 sq.km area from Wandoor to Khurma Dera in South Andaman created for a protection of crocodiles in 1983. Islanders Mohan Halder and Subhash Dey, Panchayat Pradhans of Tushnabad and Chouldari respectively accuse the forest department of setting up the sanctuary without fencing the area and consulting the villagers. Out of the 11 attacks in the last 10 years, the now infamous attack on an American lady in 2010 is the only fatal count in clear open water while the rest of the ten have been in muddy creeks found across these islands. Mukanda Roy fell victim to a recent attack close to the Loha Barrack sanctuary on August 31. Other muddy water areas of attacks are Ograbraj, Manpur, Mundapahar and HutBay in southern parts of Andamans.

 

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Mangrove cover in middle Andaman islands

According to Vanjulavalli Shridhar, Divisional Forest Officer, Mayabunder, such attacks are due to “negligence of people who venture in crocodile inhabited areas in hope for a better fish catch.” Another reason for crocodile attacks is the common practice of improper disposal of solid waste directly into creeks, canals, and the sea. Untreated organic waste consisting of kitchen waste, discarded chicken, and fish, etc could also be a factor for attracting crocodiles close to human-inhabited areas. Negligently dumped waste has also caused the local dog population to increase, luring crocodiles towards habitation. Unauthorized slaughterhouses in Ograbraj village are known to dump their raw meat waste callously in the waters. This village was the site of a crocodile attack on an elderly lady in 2012.

Such incidents are the recent phenomenon in otherwise largely peaceful cohabitation between these reptiles and settlers and indigenous people who have lived alongside for many decades. To mitigate any further escalation in a potential conflict, the administration has recently proposed several measures. Naveen Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forest, South Andaman, says, “joint patrolling team of panchayat members, police, and forest personnel are being formed to keep a watch on creeks and waterways close to human habitation.” He also suggested reducing dependence on creeks by drawing water through pipelines might help in reducing the conflict. Similarly, installing warning signages, deployment of lifeguards and erection of watchtowers on sites frequented by people will serve as early warning systems. Directives to restaurants, resorts, and even fishermen to avoid dumping untreated solid waste in water and advisories to villagers to stop using creeks for bathing and washing utensils will go a long way in avoiding contact with crocodiles. Vanjulavalli has conducted door-to-door campaigns and held 15 awareness camps in the past two years to sensitize people in ways to coexist with crocodiles. In Australia and Sri Lanka where saltwater crocodiles are also naturally found extensive scientific research is undertaken. Accordingly, effective communication initiatives are undertaken involving various stakeholders like government agencies, business and tourism sectors, the media and public at large for effective conservation of crocodiles.

It is often that people living in close proximity with crocodiles bear the physical and economic costs of attacks. At a precarious time when space available to support increasing human and crocodile population is shrinking, will they continue to coexist as they have for centuries?


We would like to thank Dr.Pankaj Sekhsaria, Dr. Ravichandran, Mr. Ram Vikas, Mr. Jason John, Mr. SK Thomas, Mr. Arun Singh, Dr. Manish Chandi, Dr. Harry Andrews, Mr. Denis Giles, Mr. Zubair Ahmed and Mrs. Vanjulavalli for providing necessary information and pictures.

Is there a future for the wetland birds of Sippighat in South Andamans?

Zoya Tyabji & Vardhan Patankar

An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth

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Mixed flocks of birds glide contently through the wetland waters of Sippighat, their feathers glinting in the sunlight. Some fluffing, basking under the warm sun; whereas others camouflage within the weeds, diligently foraging. On one side, a fisherman casts his net, hoping to take home some baitfish; while on the other side, a truck carelessly unloads gravel into the water, reclaiming more wetland. A fleet of cars passes by the road adjacent to the wetlands. Despite the surrounding disturbance, the birds here persist.

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Wetland birds gliding in water of Sipphighat.

Troubled waters

Sippighat, situated 4 kilometres from Port Blair, the main city of Andamans, was different 12 years back from what it is today. Paddy fields, a few wetland pockets and a roadside village constituted the area. Around these villages, aromas wafted out as women cooked meals. Elders sat in their backyard, sipping hot tea whilst keeping an eye out on children running around. Dogs barked in a heated frenzy chasing poultry. Paddy field farmers worked in harmony with birds gliding in nearby wetland pockets.

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Sippighat before the 2004 tsunami was dominated by Paddy fields. Photo: Sameer Ghodke.

The scene changed on the morning of 26th December 2004 when the tsunami hit the islands. According to its residents, many houses were destroyed and paddy fields were inundated. Post-tsunami, the authorities assessed the damage and provided shelter and land compensation to the people affected. Over the years, residents moved on with their new way of life, inundated paddy fields transformed into wetlands and benthic fauna and flora slithered over the thin layer of soil, adding humus whilst indirectly attracting a variety of water birds.

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Fishermen casting their nets in wetland waters of Sippighat.

However, in the last 3-4 years, the tide has turned, so to speak. Due to a boom in development of the islands and an increase in tourism, the residents of Sippighat have realised the value of their lost land. The ecosystem has stabilised and amidst the cacophony of birds, land reclamation activities are underway. Eight sites are lost to land reclamation, and every so often, more sites are reclaimed. There is trash littered all over, debris from construction sites lines the borders of the wetland pockets. Eutrophication stems here, slowly seeping off the oxygen used by the life forms of this aquatic habitat. Being adjacent to the road, the noise levels are high.

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A view of Sippighat after tsunami

Despite these ongoing disturbances, the birds here persevere. A recent bird count established the presence of 34 species. The most abundant water birds are the Common Moorhen and the Lesser Whistling Ducks. The Cotton Pygmy Goose frolics with them. Purple Moorhens and Swamp Hens are seen around the edge. Amongst other commonly sighted birds are a variety of shorebirds—the Wagtails, Plovers, Snipers, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Yellow and Chinese Bitterns, and Kingfishers and Egrets. The White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon soar and hover in the sky. The celebrity birds found here are the Andaman teal and the Andaman Serpent Eagle—bird species that are endemic to the Andaman Islands.

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Purple moorhens foraging in waters of Sippighat.

Research in other areas has determined the impacts of habitat degradation on birds. Birds are known to tolerate some level of disturbance, but once it reaches a threshold, they can go through physiological and morphological adaptation that may lead to a fatal loss in population. Considering the high biodiversity of birds in the wetlands of Sippighat, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of land reclamation on them.

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Land reclamation activities and shabby garages next to wetland of Sippighat.

Many of the wetlands stand on revenue & private land holdings. According to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, any construction needs clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Interestingly, when the Government provided compensatory land, the residents willingly accepted the offer of alternate land. However, now the residents are returning to reclaim their lost land.

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Posters of Wetland birds put up by the Forest Department line the road of Sipphighat. Photo: Zoya Tyabji

 

Finding balance

What we need is a win-win situation, where residents benefit and the birds live in harmony. In areas where the value of wetlands is recognised, as a water filtration and or as a protector against floods and storms that are so prevalent in the islands; physical buffers are set to minimise edge effects and to mitigate water quality impacts. Walking lanes and birding viewpoints are built for tourists. Locals are encouraged to serve in the tourism industry. Such activities should be encouraged even in Sippighat. This will help the residents generate sustainable revenue without losing the wetland beauty to the concrete jungle.

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