A city-girl field ecologist

field notes|Anusha Shankar|13.1

 

Ecology is sometimes thought of as a bourgeois profession; one that only the middle class and above can have the luxury of seriously considering as a career. And this might well be true. Maybe ‘saving the world’ is a luxury for those who can afford it. Many ecologists indeed feel passionate about what we do because at some level we are thinking about the Earth’s well-being. And there is always an acknowledgment that this profession isn’t about making money –  you won’t make money. It takes near-impossible resolve to keep this mindset if you are penniless. But I never could quite put my finger on why I could earn 10 times as much driving a truck than I ever would as an ecologist with over 10 years of post-high school education. I realised one day when I was in the field that it’s for two main reasons: we have curiously explored the little secrets that make animals work the way they do, and tried to uncover new knowledge of how animals interact with their environments. And we often get to do this by exploring places most others don’t get to see. This professional curiosity in often remote places cultivates an awe for the natural world.

It’s far from glamorous once you get down to it – you might literally wade through cow dung or get swarmed by 100 ticks at once (itch for months), get deported, and go to other insane  lengths  to  see  these things (some, or all, of these, might have been my real-life experiences). But at the end of it all, I don’t just get to see the Milky Way light a path through the universe. I see the Milky Way in Arizona at 2 am after my shift watching a wild hummingbird sleep.

I followed gibbons in the forests of Northeast India, watched a king cobra devouring a rat snake in the wild, and studied nesting hornbills, in the Western Ghats of India. I held transparent butterflies and woke up, for months, to a cloud forest valley bathed in clouds in Ecuador. I saw penguins near the equator in the Galapagos, and blue-footed boobies. The majestic Swiss Alps in the snowy warmth of the spring; the breath-taking Himalayas, their dizzying heights leaving me literally breathless. The caressing, windy, confusing, warmth of the high Andes, with its bluer-than-blue skies. This has been my past 10 years – a self- proclaimed city girl.

How lucky am I? This is not altruism – I am selfish. I want to continue   to be able to see these things. This profession satiates my curiosity, and quenches my need to experience the Earth as it should be – less polluted. This Earth is marvelous. Its diversity moves me to tears. I am amazed by  it. How much you can see and learn if you stop and observe the world around you!

Many ecologists enter the profession because they want to get away from people. But to be successful in the field, you come to realise that the key lies in the opposite, in working well with other people. There is no way we can save our wild places simply by roaming them; we need to reach across disciplines and work with people to solve the problems humans have created. We must lead by example to continue having the chance to experience our wilderness. One way is to have compassionate conversations with others who think differently from us. To gently bring up questions about our lifestyles. How much stuff do we actually need to own and use? How much plastic and oil and land and fish and clothes and straws… at what cost? What do you or I, or all of us, really need, to be content? How much is enough?

I know this is cliché, but our Earth really is the only one of its kind that we know of. On one rock in the universe we know of, there are giraffes, blue whales, giant smelly flowers, microscopic and indestructible tardigrades, some ten thousand flying, feathered, colorful things we call birds. There are green leafy things that don’t move (much) and act like our planet’s lungs. This concept, of our blue-green planet, continues to astound me. I want its diversity to continue existing, for my selfish current self, and for the future. There are over seven billion of us humans, and I am sure we can come up with ways to make it happen if we put our heads together. Let us open our minds, work with engineers and architects, painters and children, to keep our disappearing diversity from slipping away.

Thank you,

A city-dwelling forest lover

 

Anusha Shankar is a National Geographic Explorer and a post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. For her Ph.D. from Stony Brook University, New York, she studied how American and Ecuadorian hummingbirds manage their limited energy.

Maanvi Kapur is a lover of good design and all things illustration. Fine Art was a part of her life from an early age and she received formal training in painting and sculpture. Her true love lies in illustration, and that means anything from portraits to nature to still life.

Stripes in the cotton

field notes|Rohit Subhedar|

Greetings with any person here usually begin with a hearty “Ram ram kaka”. A chair or a charpai is immediately offered, followed by extremely sweet tea decoction, and it is considered rude not to accept the tea. On a day when one is not working, conversations can be endless. Gonds and Kolams inhabit the Kagaznagar forest landscape in Telangana, which connects three major protected areas namely Tadoba, Indravati and Kawal. The landscape is an interesting mosaic of low elevation hills slowly merging into farms and villages. Two rivers, Pranahita and Wardha, are fed by small streams and water channels in the forest. They are the main water source for the villagers to feed their crops. I usually hear clangs of glass bottles when I walk through these farms. Low gusts of wind keep this music on, not to entertain a passer-by like me but to keep wild animals out. To me, the sound of these glass bottles, are a constant reminder that these local communities share space with wildlife. This space is often the stage for encounters that adversely affect both wildlife and local communities. Sometimes the wild pig eats away the farmer’s crop and sometimes the farmer traps a pig in his snare.

                                                                                                 Kagaznagar forest landscape

On one cold winter morning, I was sipping that extremely sweet tea with a Gond village headman. He was telling me all the ways they have tried to outwit wild pigs to protect their crops. Although the damage was significant, he still found it funny that nothing worked. He told me that wild pigs are intelligent animals and they can adapt to just about anything. From my conversations with other farmers in the area, I understand that they hate wild pigs for the menace they cause but also respect them for their risk taking attitude! As the conversation went on, the headman spoke about other animals too. He told me how wildlife populations have come down due to various pressures such as hunting and deforestation. He told me one final thing before I got up to leave – “We believe it is good luck if we find the pugmarks of a tiger in our farms”. I asked him why. He said “We don’t really know, we were told by our elders that the presence of tigers in our surroundings is a good omen”. This belief is further validated when one finds pointed wooden posts near Gond settlements which represent the tiger spirit called “Waghoba”. Numerous forest deities are found in the forest as well. The place of worship always has clay toys of animals such as horses, bullocks and large carnivores like tigers and leopards.

On another day, our team got a call from a villager reporting a tiger sighting. We rushed to the spot immediately and spoke to the person who had seen the tiger. He pointed us in the direction in which the tiger went. We searched the area thoroughly for any signs for about an hour without any luck. Considering the sighting to be a false one, just when we were about to leave, one of my field assistants shouted – “Pugmarks here!” As I walked towards him, I realised that I had walked through a patch of forest followed by a village road to finally stand in the middle of a cotton field looking at pugmarks of a tiger. The cotton fields at the time of harvest provide excellent cover for tigers to move from one forest patch to another. I wonder what that Gond headman would say about this. Is his belief somewhere embedded in scientific reason? Does the presence of ‘Waghoba’ scare wild pigs away from farms? Or perhaps keep a check on their numbers by killing and eating them? I cannot be sure. My scientifically trained mind seems to reason it out this way. For all I know, the stripes are here to stay, moving, feeding and reproducing in a human-modified area. In a cotton field.

                                                                   Kolam temple with a big cat on the centre wooden pole

                                                  Painting of tiger and elephant (although not found in the area) on the temple wall 

Rohit Subhedar is currently working with WCS-India as a Junior Research associate.

The turtle and I

Poem | Madhuri Ramesh and Kartik Shanker | 12.4

 

I wandered lonely ‘pon the shore

A windy night with restless seas,

When all at once I saw a score,

A swarm of nesting olive ridleys

Upon the beach, beneath the moon

A lumbering, bumbering turtle typhoon

 

Whose turtles these are I think I know                                                                                

I thought they were in Gahirmatha though;

They won’t mind me standing here

And watching them nest ungainly and slow…

 

I tagged a turtle with great care,

It swam away, I know not where;

For so effortlessly it glided,

All its tracks were elided. 

Long, long afterward, on a beach

Someone found it, once more within reach.

Upon reading the tag, she wrote to me:

‘Tis the turtle that has the measure of the sea.  

 

How do I study thee? Let me count the ways

I track thee to the depth and breadth and height

My telemetry can reach, when you dive out of sight

For the ends of science across the bays.

I follow thee through almost every twist in the maze,

Data columns to be filled in by months and by days

A fierce need, by moon and torch-light

I obsess over thee, and for authorship will fight.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines

Write, for example, “The dogs entered the hatchery

And now my paper on TSD has receded into the distance.”

The turtles no longer come ashore and nest.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

I watched them every night, and sometimes they watched me too.

Through the months, I collected their eggs carefully, gently

I counted them repeatedly under the starry skies.

They watched me sometimes, and I watched them too.

How could one have foreseen the eggs were all destined to die.

 

Somewhere I have never travelled, dived beyond

An unimaginable depth, your flippers move in silence:

In your most mundane movements are things which enthrall me

Or which I cannot fathom because my text books fail me.

Your slightest shift will easily confuse me

Though my mind is closed by science, as a clam’s

You bewilder always slowly, subtly as an underwater current

(tugging, pulling, carrying) a little hatchling.

– Madhuri Ramesh and Kartik Shanker

The authors are biologists who believe poetry sounds better with a smattering of turtle-speak. They would also like to thank the original poets for inspiration:  Byron, Noyes, Eliot, Tennyson and Keats for ‘Turtle Song’ (Issue 11.2); Wordsworth, Frost, Longfellow, Cummings, Barrett Browning and Neruda for this poem.

Vidyasagar Saple is a graphic designer and visual artist based in Mumbai. His dual life allows him to work with a variety of creativity fields and constantly explore different mediums.

 

 

How Cameras are Helping Whale Shark Conservation

fieldnotes|Talia Nicole Tamason| 12.4

In the summer of 2016, I volunteered with a small group of fellow field researchers to collect conservation data on whale sharks in Baja California, Mexico. Our conservation data was collected with cameras, waterproof slates for documentation of data, and measuring tape to measure the length of the whale sharks we encountered. All of our cameras varied in style and price, from a GoPro to a cell phone inside a protective underwater sleeve. We each used our own underwater camera to capture photo-identifications of various whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez. Once a whale shark was spotted near our small fishing boat, a few of us would slowly enter the water and swim towards it. Submissions of photo-identifications have to remain raw images and cannot be zoomed, cropped, edited, or altered in anyway, since it affects the integrity of the data. To capture Figure 1 accurately, I had to swim closely and calmly alongside the whale shark while steadying my camera to record an effective photo-identification. While two of us photographed the shark, another researcher would swim underneath the whale shark to record its sex. We quickly measured the length of that whale shark with measuring tape or against the length of the fishing boat and reassembled on the boat to record our data onto the slate. As Figure 2 highlights, the data collected consisted of sex, length and any identifiable markings. If a whale shark had noticeable identifiable markings, such as a boat injury to the dorsal fin as seen in Figure 3, this was also photographed as data. Once back on land, we uploaded our data onto a computer and submitted it to Wildbook for Whale Sharks.

Figure 1. Photo-identification of a female whale shark on her right flank

 

Figure 3. Photograph of an injured dorsal fin

 

Figure 2. Photograph of the rough data chart recorded on the boat

Whale sharks are the world’s largest living fish although little is known about them. Whale sharks ( Rhincodon typus) are the largest fish in the world, estimated to reach lengths between 35 – 55 feet. The whale shark is a pelagic, migratory species that is found worldwide in tropical waters. They are filter feeders, which means as they swim they suck in water through their large, 5 foot wide mouth and filter out plankton. Whale sharks have around 300 tiny teeth within their mouth, but the purpose of their teeth is still a mystery. The whale shark gives birth to live young, although the average number of pups born in one litter is still relatively unknown. There is little to no information on key aspects of whale shark biology, such as breeding habitats, lifespan, reproductive/growth rates, basic behavior and pup survival rates. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, Red List of Threatened Animals has updated the whale shark conservation status from vulnerable to endangered. Conservation policy depends on biological, ecological and demographic data of a threatened species, which in this case is complicated since little is known about the whale shark to enact worldwide conservation laws. Reliable existing data do not currently exist on whale sharks, which threatens their worldwide conservation status. To protect the whale shark, more data is currently being collected through the use of cameras.

Cameras and Photo-Identification Cameras capture more than daily moments in our life, they also have emerged as an innovative and important tool in the field of conservation. Cameras are being utilized to capture photo-identifications of whale sharks. Photo-identification is a form of mark-recapture and is used to record an individual animal’s natural markings. Photo-identification only tags the animal by photographing it, not physically restraining and marking it. Photo-identification is also a permanent method since the whale shark’s pattern will never change. Mark-recapture studies are possible when an animal can be physically marked and then recaptured and identified, later in the future. This process produces sufficient data that can be used to estimate a species survival rate, migratory pattern and demographic data. Unfortunately, conventional tagging of whale sharks has been relatively unsuccessful. Whale sharks are an optimal species for photo-identification tagging since they are difficult to mark-recapture due to the physical tags falling easily off of them. Whale sharks have their own unique spot patterns behind their gills, similar to a human’s fingerprints, and these are the natural markings that are used for photo-identification. In the beginning, the number of photographs for photo-identifications of whale sharks was fairly small and the photographs of their patterns were only matched by trained professionals through the naked eye. But, as photo-identification photographs from research studies increased across the globe, Australia, Belize, Mexico, and Africa, the number of photographs exceeded the number of “reliable eyes” that could match the patterns. Photo-identification has proven to be an effective application in the conservation/management of wildlife population demographics. The largest strength of photo-identification is that it allows researchers to track and monitor wildlife without physically catching and tagging the animal. Even with the slightest form of temporary marking, the process of physically catching an animal can affect the animal’s behavior.

Pattern-matching Algorithm Software System Wildbook for Whale Sharks is a public photo-identification library on whale sharks where people upload their photo-identification photographs. This website boasts a software system that has been developed from an algorithm originally designed for astronomy for star pattern recognition, see Figure 4, to recognize the unique patterns of individual whale shark markings.

A collaboration between whale shark biologists, Ben Norman and Jason Holmberg, and NASA astrophysicists Zaven Arzoumanian and Ed Groth, who created specialized algorithms for the Hubble Space Telescope, created a pattern-matching algorithm software system that compares two lists of coordinates ( x, y ) that identifies individual points to form a geometric pattern within the spots of the whale shark pattern.

Figure 4. Astronomical pattern comparison algorithm example (from Arzoumanian, Z., Holmberg, J. & Norman, B., 2005).

Conservation The field of conservation has benefited greatly from technological advancements, such as cameras and software systems, and from new methods for communication of data among researchers. Cameras have proven to be an effective conservation tool from photo-identification of species, such as whale sharks, to camera traps and camera drones. Cameras are used in tracking wildlife, studying animal behavior, identifying migration patterns, monitoring survival rates, management of population demographics and preventing illegal poaching of endangered animals. Photo-identifications of whale sharks will be used to gather more information on the species, from population demographics to migration patterns, to protect and update its worldwide conservation status. Cameras have always been an entertaining way to capture the daily moments within our lives, but cameras are also an essential tool in conservation and the survival of magnificent species, such as the whale shark.

All photographs taken by Talia Nicole Tamason, © 2016 Talia Nicole Tamason

Further Reading:

Arzoumanian, Z., Holmberg, J., & Norman, B. (2005). An astronomical patternmatching algorithm for computeraided identification of whale sharks Rhincodon typus. Journal of Applied Ecology , 42 (6), 999-1011.

Holmberg, J., Norman, B., & Arzoumanian, Z. (2009). Estimating population size, structure, and residency time for whale sharks Rhincodon typus through collaborative photo-identification. Endangered Species Research , 7 (1), 39-53.

Speed, C. W., Meekan, M. G., & Bradshaw, C. J. (2007). Spot the match–wildlife photo-identification using information theory. Frontiers in Zoology, 4 (1), 2.

Talia Nicole Tamson has studied and participated in conservation research in Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica, Namibia and Thailand. She currently resides in Chicago, IL as an educator.

Adwait Pawar is an artist and illustrator based out of Bangalore who is passionate about wildlife, traveling and storytelling. He tries to combine the three as often as he can.

 

The Rescue Mission

field notes| Abhijit Dey |

It started just like any other day. By 8am we were in field in a community forest nearby Mandal, a sleepy little village at the base of a steep valley of the Garhwal Himalayas, India. Sunrays were just kissing the hilltops. But we and our Central Himalayan Langur troop were deprived of the warmth of the sun. To stay warm, the langurs were huddling and sharing body heat with each other on the forest floor. We made note of this kleptothermy–a behavioral adaptation to fight the chilling temperature—in our data sheets .

(Huddling)

Central Himalayan Langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) was a relatively unknown species. In India, it ranges in the high Himalayan elevations (1,500-4,000 m) from Jammu and Kashmir to Sikkim. It is primarily greyish in appearance with a whitish head and tip of tail, with a relatively larger body size (avg. 70cm) than other langurs—though females are generally smaller than males. In this species, multiple males share domination over the troop; the group we were following was a large group with 5 adult males, 12 adult females, 7 sub-adults, 8 juveniles and few infants.

We were observing the langurs in order to better understand their behavioral ecology; this required following the troop throughout the day – from morning (when they were still resting, not active enough) till evening (when they were moving towards their resting/sleeping site for the night).

On this particular morning, as the clock ticked forward, sunrays reached the treetops and all our huddling langurs now started moving upwards for a sun-bath. Others got busy feeding and a few were still in resting mode. We had been following the langurs for a month and were acquainted with their behavior. We anticipated they would move to some other location after having ‘breakfast’. Indeed, as per our expectation, they soon started to move towards the village. Their intention was clear: to feed on the crops!

The troop travelled along the upper part of the hill. There were hardly any houses over there and villagers also didn’t frequent that place often. The terrain was somewhat steep and had denser tree cover. Around 10am, part of the troop climbed down the cliff and settled themselves in the crop field, which provided a cool place, a short distance from the village, to munch on fresh green mustard and wheat leaves. Other langurs were on their way to join in.

The raid
Everything seemed fine until, suddenly, a few langurs ran away and began looking for cover in high tree branches. We knew this must be the dogs ‘employed’ by the villagers to keep the langurs at bay. Dogs generally raided silently: You didn’t see or hear anything except frantically running langurs.

What unfolded next was nothing our data sheets could quantify!

Two or three dogs invaded the troop, scattering langurs and trapping a few of them in the cliff area. At one point, over a dozen infants and juveniles, with just one or two adult females, were isolated on the cliff, guarded by a dog (D1 in the image below) that was determined to prevent them from moving into the crop field (Point A in the image below).

Whenever they feel threatened or isolated, non-adult langurs make a certain prolonged low pitched ‘keeee-ke-kee-ke-ke’ type call and scan intensely for help. Primarily composed of ‘kids’, the group of trapped langurs started to vocalize in this manner, asking for help!

Now, one adult male (AM1) suddenly came into picture. He was sitting on a high tree branch on the other side of the crop field (Point B), facing the sub-group left behind, with a second dog (D2) at his tail. He was scanning worriedly, looking for a chance to move to the rest of the troop. Could he initiate a rescue mission?

Rescue mission – phase A
The adult male (AM1) was only about 100 meters from the cliff – not much of a distance, but with two dogs lined up in between, the langurs would need to come up with a good plan.

A second adult male (AM2) appeared within a minute or so, positioning himself on a high branch of another tree (Point C) to the left of AM1, maintaining a little distance in between. Few other langurs were also scattered around here, where a third dog (D3) was on duty.

And now the action! AM2 moved towards a lower branch, within possible reach of the dogs, but at a sufficient distance to maintain safety. He acted as a distraction to get the dogs away from AM1 and give the latter an opportunity to run to the cliff. Without wasting a moment, AM1 climbed down and took a sprint. He avoided the dogs brilliantly and arrived at the cliff—where other members were waiting for  sprint. He avoided the dogs brilliantly and arrived at the cliff—where other members were waiting for help.

Rescue mission – phase B
Outsmarted and confused, D2 and D3 were now both at Point C. AM2 had not yet carried out the last of his plan. He provoked the dogs again, tricking them to chase him, eventually moving further away and out of sight. The dogs followed, and all we could hear was a little bit of barking.

AM1, now located at Point A, was appearing quite relaxed, and D1 must have felt dejected. With the exception of AM2, the troop were reunited and could wait without any hurry or worry for another opportunity to retreat under ‘cover’. For almost five minutes, nothing happened — nothing except D1 twice being attracted towards Point C and the other dogs. Finally, after a couple more minutes, D1 couldn’t resist the possibility of more action at Point C, and ran that way. This gave AM1 an opportunity to lead the rest of the troop members away; with a mixture of caution and speed, they sprinted towards Point A and kept right on going to a much safer location.

Mission accomplished with a sigh of relief.

Photo and sketch by author.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:
I am grateful to Himani Nautiyal, PhD student at Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan for giving me the opportunity to volunteer in one of her Rufford granted projects about Ecology of Central Himalayn Langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus).