Stuck by Nature’s Design

By ingenuity and design, nature knocks human beings off their perch.

By Sujata Devadas, October 20, 2017

The preposterous request

In 1897, Europeans caught some Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger), then processed and preserved four of the skins. Now, these are with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Beyond this, there was no other evidence of the Frogmouth’s existence in India.

80 years later, when India’s renowned ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali faced the task of

updating the IUCN Red Data book in 1977, a strong instinct stopped him from

documenting it as ‘extinct’. 

Instead, he requested his colleague and sub-ordinate, ornithologist Dr.Sugathan to search the forests from Tapti to Kanyakumari to record all the birds spotted, systematically.

 Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger)

The skin-thin clue

“With just those four skins from BNHS as reference, I began my 1600-odd kilometre arduous journey” says Dr.Sugathan. To everyone’s elation, he found the elusive camouflaged nocturnal Frogmouth in Silent Valley. His discovery was reported in the BNHS Journal in 1982.

The third eyelid

“Frogmouths are night birds, but they

don’t close their eyes during the day. Since they are blinded by daylight, they have a third eye

lid to adapt to this sensitivity.”

A stalwart in Indian forestry, Dr.Sugathan, currently the chief ornithologist of Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Thattekad, near Kochi, Kerala, gives spell-binding evidence that “everything

nature creates has a significant role to play. I have indisputable proof to drive it home.”

Blindingly attractive?

Mexicans discovered vanilla. Extracted from the dried and cured pods of Vanilla planifolia, it adds a delectable flavour to many delicacies. It is an orchid, native to Central and South America. From around the world, crop cultivators chose to import and grow this plant for commercial profit.

A while later, it became glaringly obvious that the Vanilla’s pollinators, the humming bird (tiniest of all birds; weight < 3 grams) and the Melipona bee could not be imported along with it. They would not thrive or survive.

Hummingbird feeds from a purple flower

Vanilla Planifolia

The hidden trap

Vanilla flower petals are too brittle to support any additional weight. But the hummingbird hovers in the air to suck its nectar and has the unique skill to fly backwards. Minuscule pollens stick to tiny strands on its forehead. When it flies to another Vanilla plant, cross-pollination becomes possible.

But these flowers bloom only from January to June. For the rest of the year, hummingbirds and Melipona bees must get digestible food from other plants offering it. So this flora too must be imported to support Vanilla crop cultivation.

Ingenious and meticulous, outside South and Central America, Vanilla planifolia that is endemic to this region, must be pollinated by hand. Or else, the ‘vanilla flavour’ must be synthetically produced. Consumerism laid the whole story bare.

It can go so wrong

Dr. Sugathan commiserates with the disastrous outcome of a well-meaning Tamil Nadu Forest Department project. “Millions of birds migrate to Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (area: 21.47 sq. kms) island near Velankanni, in India’s southern state, Tamil Nadu. I worked there for 8 years on bird migration."

The heart-shaped, olive-green Pacific ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) also nest here. But their attempts to lay eggs was thwarted by jackals, dogs and

human beings. To protect the eggs and to rehabilitate these turtles, the state’s forest department set-up a hatchery.”

 Oliver Ridley or Pacific Ridley turtles

Dr.Sugathan

“That season’s heat gave a weirdly fascinating result: every turtle that emerged from the eggs had the same sex. As they grew, aggression between the turtles mounted.

Cannibalistic attacks between them killed many. Such disastrous outcomes happen in different parts of the world when benevolent projects rely on insufficient information.”

The tiny, crucial ‘neat fit’

Keralites often curse the parasitic Loranthus plant ‘ithilkkanni’. It grows on mango trees, deriving its food from it. The cap of its thin, long matchstick-like flowers triggers open only by applying an an external force. Scientific experiments to open it with butterflies and bees failed. 

 Loranthus,‘ithilkanni’

But the sunbird’s (Cinnyris lotenius) beak fits the loranthus flower’s corolla perfectly. It pecks at the cap and the flower springs open in full bloom. As the bird reaches for the nectar, pollen grains stick to its forehead.

The flowers of India’s 20 different loranthus species have varied length. The beaks of 4 sunbird species in India match these different corolla shapes perfectly.

 Crimson-backed Sunbird

Nilgiri Flowerpecker

Intricate connectivity

Yet, Loranthus seeds on the ground are pointless. They can germinate and grow into a plant only on a tree. By nature’s design and immaculate creative skill, the mustard-sized loranthus seeds with an edible sticky mucilaginous outer skin are a delicious meal for India’s tiniest bird, the flowerpecker (Dicaeum erythrorhynchos).

This bird weighs 4 grams. It is half the size of your thumb. The sticky seed cover does not stick to itsmoist digestive tract or intestines. But when excreted, the bird’s body temperature and the breeze causes the seed to dry up and stick to the soft downy feathers layering it’s bottom. The flowerpecker rubs its underside vigorously against the tree bark to rid itself of these excreted remnants. Stuck on the tree,the seeds can now germinate into another loranthus plant.

Critical value

Dr.Sugathan grins. “This was my M Sc. thesis. I brought the singular role played by India’s two smallest birds, the sunbird and the flowerpecker, into prominence. This is how crucial birds are. Understanding this, shifts our attention in their favour.”

The only LIVING integration

Endemic to Western Ghats in South India and Sri Lanka, the Frogmouth’s anatomy

integrates the features of two bird species: the terrestrial Nightjar and the arboreal Owl, it’s closest kin - the only living link merited with this combination.

The Nightjar, terrestrial, lives on the ground. It flies up, opens it’s wide mouth to

catch insects in the air and eat them. Like a hen, it’s eyes look in two different directions. It turns its neck left and right to eat insects on both sides.

Indian Nightjar

Indian Scops Owl

Nightjars make no nest to lay its eggs. Neither do owls of the ‘arboreal’ bird species,that live on tree-tops. Instead, owls lay their eggs in the crevices of tree branches.

Unlike the Nightjar, owls with their sharp pointed beaks, do not catch insects in the air. They snap up rodents from the ground. Frogmouths, however, have a wide mouth like the Nightjar. They hunt insects at night. Its disc-shaped face is similar to the owl’s, with both eyes in front. Just like the owl, it can rotate its neck 180 degrees to see behind it.

The interfering link to extinction

Frogmouths lay only one egg after mating. It has just one breeding season in the year. Its tuft-like tiny nest is placed precariously on trees, likely to fall over if the wind strengthens in intensity.

The Frogmouth’s breeding is

unsuccessful 60 to 70% of the time.

Even if successful, two Frogmouths will create one additional Frogmouth.

Revelations like this spotlight nature’s

intricate connectivity, how every little

thing has significance for ecological balance and its tenuous existence.

At this moment, critically endangered, the word ‘extinct’ looms right in front 

of the Frogmouth. This risk heightens

 Sri Lankan Frogmouth and its tiny tuft of a nest

when photographers lure Frogmouths with food, aiming at great pictures. When this happens, the birds become so dependant, they lose their instinctive ability to feed themselves.

Let it live.

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