Every time we read about nature and wildlife in India, it is almost always depressing news about how elephants are being tortured and how the tiger population is dwindling to extinction. However, there has been a lot of good news too, which is mostly ignored. It is extremely unusual for new biological species to be discovered, and the number of new discoveries from India in recent years is simply astounding. Here is a sampling of some of these treasures.
Peacock Blue Tarantula
Outlook reports: The spectacular Peacock Tarantula was named on the basis of a single specimen obtained at Gooty (Andhra Pradesh) railway station’s timber yard in 1899. Naturalists doggedly searched the area for the spider. About 102 years later, some distance from Gooty, they found the most beautiful spider in the world in a totally degraded forest. Within five hours. While this re-discovery went totally unnoticed in India, it set the network of European and American animal dealers buzzing. Within a year 12 specimens of the tarantula were smuggled out of the country and the babies hit the pet trade the following year. In 2005 when I visited an exotic pet expo in the United States each baby was worth US $350, down from $1,000 in 2003.
Yet another effortless discovery happened at the field station of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team in 2004. Lizard researcher Shreyas Krishnan heard a splash in the rapidly growing pond outside. A lizard it was, and one that neither he nor any of the numerous visiting herpetologists had ever seen before. Shreyas had discovered not only a species, but a whole new genus.
Large-Billed Reed Warbler
The Large-billed Reed-warbler is the world’s least known bird. A single bird was collected in the Sutlej Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, in 1867, but many had questioned whether it indeed represented a true species. A live specimen was then trapped by Philip D. Round in March 2006 in Thailand and it was confirmed to be a new species.
This bird was sighted at Narendrapur, 10 kms from Kolkata on 1st April 2007.
In September 2006, the National Geographic reported that an amateur bird-watcher who was an astronomer, found the first new bird species to be discovered in India in over 50 years.
No specimen was taken, because “we thought the bird was just too rare for one to be killed,” said Ramana Athreya, the bird’s discoverer, in a statement.
Because the Bugun liocichla is so distinctive and doesn’t appear to fear humans, experts say it must be extremely rare or it would have been discovered before now.
Smallest Indian Land Vertebrate
A few days back, Science Daily reported that India’s smallest land vertebrate, a 10-millimeter frog, has been discovered from the Western Ghats of Kerala by Delhi University Systematics Biologist, S D Biju and his colleagues.
Adult males are barely 10 mm in length. In this photograph, the frog is placed on an Indian 5 rupee coin. Biju gave a new name for the frog, Nyctibatrachus minimus.
New Frog Family
In 2003, Biju had discovered a bright purple, bloated frog in the Western Ghats that was so unique it merited the establishment of not only a new species but also a new family.
This creature evolved during the heyday of the dinosaurs. Dubbed Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, it evolved about 130 million years ago, prior to the break up of India and the Seychelles around 65 million years ago.
As a well populated country of over a billion people, India seems an unlikely place to discover a new primate species. The last time in the world that researchers spotted a new macaque was in the Mentawai islands of Indonesia in 1903.
Hence the surprise discovery of this new monkey species made headlines over the world.
Macaca Munzala, as it was named, grabbed the attention of ecologists as it is one of the highest-dwelling primates in the world.
In May this year, an Indian zoologist found a new species of limbless lizard in a forested area in Orissa.
“Preliminary scientific study reveals that the lizard belongs to the genus Sepsophis,” said Sushil Kumar Dutta, who led a team of researchers from “Vasundhra,” a non-governmental organization, and the North Orissa University.
While modern snakes and lizards are derived from a common evolutionary ancestor, they belong today to two entirely separate groups of animals, or orders.
Indian Egg-Eating Snake
Outlook reports: Another herpetological breakthrough was the rediscovery of the Indian Egg-Eating Snake, a toothless specialist. It was first found in Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1863. Subsequently it disappeared altogether. In 2003, a specimen of the long lost Indian Egg-Eater turned up in Maharashtra.
Here’s the Wikipedia entry for the Elachistodon westermanni, as it is called.
New Dinosaur Species
Not a living species, but worthy of inclusion in this collection, a new species of dinosaur was discovered in 2003 along the Narmada river in Gujarat.
It has been named Rajasaurus narmadensis, or the regal reptile from Narmada. The age of the bones meant that Rajasaurus was a contemporary of Tyrannosaurus rex and therefore one of the last species to live before the dinosaurs were wiped out.
(Credits: This was inspired by the Outlook article referenced in the post, from which I decided to do further research. Photographs are from the articles linked to from the post)
On the day when a court in Jodhpur sentenced Bollywood actor Salman Khan to five years imprisonment, scientists at the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) celebrated a unique achievement. They had successfully given birth to a black buck antelope, named ‘Blacky’, using Artificial Insemination. For Hyderabad, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, this is at least a different kind of news – especially since the black buck is the State animal of Andhra Pradesh.
This is reportedly the world’s first fawn conceived through a non-surgical, intra-vaginal insemination procedure, for which the scientists had to collect 85 ejaculations from five males and insert them in three female blackbucks, out of which one successfully gave birth to Blacky. The Government gave permission to experiment with blackbucks only after LaCONES had successfully produced ‘Spotty’ – a common spotted deer, in March of last year.
While LaCONES is working on technology to help save endangered species, it is interesting to note that it was itself facing a threat of extinction in 2002. President Abdul Kalam finally inaugurated it (PDF) in Feb 2007.
Next on the radar are endangered species like vultures and Nicobar pigeons. (Why are such initiatives important? For e.g., vultures in India have declined by up to 95% in the recent past. Carcasses of dead animals are now eaten by rats or dogs, rather than vultures, that helps spread rabies. India has one of the world’s highest rate of rabies). The scientists are ambitious to talk of even using the technique to address the catastrophic decline of Indian tigers.
Scientists at LacoNES are working on India’s first reproductive cloning experiment using rabbits. They have developed cloned embryos so far. Transplanting them successfully into surrogate mothers is the next step. We may soon have the first Indian dolly from this lab!
Was it pure coincidence that it was the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), the institute that owns LaCONES, whose DNA analysis was used as evidence in Salman Khan’s case?
Photo Credit: Outlook Magazine
India, too, has a long tradition of herbal medicine, and its government is keen that this tradition should be brought into the mainstream, to the profit of the country’s burgeoning drug industry. To that end, it is spending about $40m on what is known as the Golden Triangle Partnership, to assess the country’s herbs scientifically, and select those suitable for serious investigation.
Most Indian herbal remedies are based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine, although Tamil-based Siddha and Unani, which has Persian roots, are also used extensively. Proving their worth is a daunting task. There are 80,000 Ayurvedic treatments alone, involving the products of some 3,000 plants. More than 7,000 firms make herbal compounds for medical use. Establishing the active ingredients and exactly how they work would thus take some time.
The Golden Triangle Partnership is not, however, looking for new molecules to turn into chemically pure drugs. Instead, it proposes to make herbal medicine itself more scientific by conducting clinical trials of traditional treatments for more than 20 medical conditions. These include arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, malaria and psoriasis.
To do that means getting the country’s drug companies to take part in what is, for them, the non-traditional activity of traditional medicine. One of these firms, Ranbaxy, has already opened a small research and development division for herbal medicine and is beginning to look at remedies for conditions such as diabetes.
What are the exact means and objectives of this effort?
To encourage such developments the project’s partners are trying to identify how the potency of herbs varies with exposure to the sun, the type of soil in which they are grown, and when and how they are harvested. With that information, they can define standard doses and clinical trials can begin. If the trials succeed, the treatments that result should be patentable—unlike the traditional formulations.
A bit sarcastically, the article is titled “Growing wiser“. Yes, on the whole, I think the objective is great. The more we are able to make alternative product development a scientific process, the better. At present, anyone can package anything and sell it as an Ayurvedic product, with no tests or checks. The Government promised Rs. 5 lakhs (INR 500,000) to all ayurvedic firms encouraging them to go in for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification, but I’m not sure how much of it went to the bureaucrats for bribes in getting the certification.
While this is all good, I’m not sure about the patentability of Homeopathic treatments. How can a therapy that increases the potency of a substance by diluting it further with water, and thus contradicts the laws of chemistry and physics, get patents? Will it convince the skeptics?
I’m not against alternative medicine. In fact, I would love it to be more scientific and less misused. It may be a huge economic opportunity for India if we’re able to patent and export alternative medicinal remedies that have gained scientific acceptability. I’m just not too optimistic about it yet.
Image Credit: UK Skeptics
I learnt this from an army lieutenant, and didn’t find any reference to it on the Internet, so am writing about it. I have often met people who discuss about how we take things for granted, and never realize their value unless we miss them. Typical examples include electricity and water. But what about color?
Indian army soldiers, who’re deployed on Siachen, have numerous newspaper, magazine, and such stuff posted on their cabin walls. They’re supposedly mad about any such clips, and bring them along whenever they’re back to Siachen from the mainland. Their walls are littered with photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine cutouts – anything that is colored.
Why? Because the whole world in Siachen is only the white of the snow. They don’t get to see color at all.
Do we ever even think about such things?
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An important scientific finding was reported a couple of weeks back, that has very important implications.
Palaeontologists and molecular biologists have disagreed with each other regarding the origins of modern Homo sapiens. Since 1987, molecular biologists have believed, using DNA evidence, that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and then spread out to other parts of the world. Paleontologists, on the other hand, said that modern humans evolved separately in different regions of the world, from the earlier Homo erectus.
In a recent study in Nature, Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues show that the skull data and the genetic data actually agree with each other. They studied 4,666 male skulls and 1,579 female ones, drawn from 105 groups of people from all six inhabited continents, and showed that they varied in the same way as human genetic data do.
The Economist reports:
One of the main lines of evidence for the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, as it is usually known, is that the most genetically varied human populations are in that continent—particularly in the south and east of it. The farther you go from Africa, the less genetic variety there is, because in a rapidly dispersing population genetic variety is lost faster by random failures to breed than it is replenished by evolution.
If the “Out of Africa” hypothesis is right, that decreasing variability should be reflected in skull shape—since this is ultimately under genetic control. As far as skulls are concerned, there is one confounding variable: climate. Things such as nostril size vary with temperature and humidity in ways that suggest evolution is at work. Since Dr Manica was looking for effects other than those produced by natural selection, those things had to be eliminated. Which he did.
Using what was left, he estimated the amount of diversity in groups of skulls from different parts of the world using a statistical technique called multiple-regression analysis, and compared the resulting map with a similar map of genetic diversity. The two matched perfectly. There was no room for the influence of local populations of Homo erectus.
First, this is the beauty of science at work. We have two scientific disciplines contradicting each other. And when sufficient data from both streams is analyzed and known influencing factors accounted for, the data from the two independent streams matches almost miraculously. This is the true scientific method at work.
Second, and more important, this finding effectively kills the concept of “race”. We have all come from the same place, evolved from the same species. There are no separate origins, and hence no different races of people. Race is a product of the imagination of Homo sapiens, not a natural occurrence.
In September 2000, a military laboratory in the garrison town of Tezpur in northeastern India announced that it had identified the hottest chili in the world. After some disputing claims and questions of authenticity, it was scientifically proven by New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, where spiciness is a religion. The Guinness Book of World Records also heralded the discovery.
The Hottest Chili
The chili is known as “Bhut Jolokia” (translated as “Ghost Chili”), or “Naga Jolakia”, after the Naga warriors from Nagaland in northeastern India. The hotness of chili is measured using the Scoville scale. For a list of Scoville ratings of different chilies and sauces, see this. For a quick summary: Classic Tabasco sauce ranges from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Your basic jalapeno pepper measures anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000. The previous record holder, the Red Savina habanero, was tested at up to 580,000 Scovilles.
The Bhut Jolokia crushed those contenders, testing at 1,001,304 Scoville units.
Eating Bhut Jolokia
The news is few months old, but was revived recently by an Associated Press reporter who dared to eat one full bhut jolokia (read the full experience, it would be unjust to read just a snippet). Incidentally, another news broke out last month of a 17-month old toddler, who happily devours a handful of them at a time, without batting an eyelid – since he also smears his eyes with them. Fortunately, his illiterate parents do not wish to send him to make world records, unlike some other highly literate ones.
While all this has been making the news rounds, my interest in this story came from multiple angles.
North-Eastern Region of India
For a change, there is some good news from and for North-Eastern India. For complex reasons, the people from this region are not treated at par with others in the rest of India. The world record status has given them a sense of pride.
The economy of the region is precarious, with tea-making on a steady decline. There are some hopes that the exports of this hot chili will help – not in a revolutionary way, but any help is good news for now.
What? Aren’t we talking about chilies? Yes, we are. Remember, LIFE Magazine included the discovery of the potato in the 100 Most Important Events of the past 1000 Years. Similarly, some interesting facts from a nice article in Time:
- The remarkable spread of the chili is a piquant chapter in the story of globalization. Few other foods have been taken up by so many people in so many places so quickly.
- In terms of keeping billions of people fed, the chili can hardly compare to rice or corn or even potatoes, of course. But by adding spice to such staples, by making even the poorest food rich in flavor, the chili has become one of the most important ingredients in the world. For hundreds of millions of poor, chilies are the one luxury they can afford every day, a small burst of flavor in the slums of Asia or the parched grazing land of West Africa.
- Chilies are native to South America, where people have been cultivating and trading them for at least 6,000 years. (Six thousand years?!)
- In 2001 UK’s then Foreign Minister Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala the country’s national dish.
- In the US, Mexican food is ever more popular; salsas and chili sauces have outsold tomato-based ketchup since the early 1990s.
Why do we like chili?
The heat in chilies turn on the pain receptors in our mouth and on our tongue. It’s essentially a defense mechanism designed to stop (us) animals devouring the (chili) pod. Our body reacts as if it’s a poison.
At a very low level, our body’s nervous system releases endorphins, a type of mild natural opiate, to ease the sting. It’s that mix of pleasure and pain that makes eating chilies such a wonderful experience.
Photo Credits: Manish Swarup, AP
After the Christian fundamentalists’ ape-like antics during the Hindu priest’s opening the Senate morning session, comes a more worrisome portent.
The Denver Post reports that evolutionary biologists and university professors teaching evolution have been receiving death threats from a Christian fundamentalist.
At Panda’s Thumb (an excellent scientific resource for defending the theory of evolution), you can read excerpts of threatening emails received by the professors.
Observe how this contrasts with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism:
- Terrorism strikes the general public; these threats are against specific distinguished men of learning and science
- Terrorism is organized, inspired by a fanatical leader; this is an individual fanatic, inspired by organized religion
Evolution says that in the long term, the fittest species survive. Will they, in this case?
An international team of researchers has documented a remarkable example of natural selection in a tropical butterfly species that fought back – genetically speaking – against a highly invasive, male-killing bacteria.
Within 10 generations that spanned less than a year, the proportion of males of the Hypolimnas bolina butterfly on the South Pacific island of Savaii jumped from a meager 1 percent of the population to about 39 percent.
I thought this is again ample scientific evidence of evolution at work, as against creationism. But where faith rules over reason, it will always rule over it (see point #3).
Finally, ending the post on a positive note, did you know that more than 5000 letters written by Charles Darwin, including ideas exchanged with many influential figures of his time, are fully searchable and readable online at the Darwin Correspondence Project?
Photo Credit: UC Berkeley
Again, something I’d written long time back, in 1990, to be precise. All criticisms welcome!
What do I write about?
The mountains, lakes, skies;
Or birds, flowers, and the like?
Here I am, amongst my daily troubles,
Wanting some peace of mind
Thought I would write a poem
But what do I write about?
I wonder what poets possess
That makes them poets
I wonder how their creativity
How mischievous language is!
It completely describes an entity
As complex and vague as the poetic mind
By simply calling it poetic!
Is poetry born out of
Joy, Grief, and other such
Intense emotions only?
Or can this be called a poem
If I consider it to be?
I now suspect
That it needs great concentration
For a poet
To write a poem
That there is a superior logic
Behind the rhythmic passages
Of a poem
Poetry is a means for the poet
To let his imagination
If we invent norms
Regarding what constitutes a poem
Would it be a restriction
Which may destroy what it’s trying to preserve?
For some, a poem is simply
A rhythmic, lucid passage
Why can’t prose
Not possessing lucidity of words
But of thought
Be called a poem?
I can better appreciate rhythm and lucidity
Than in words
How I wish I could write a poem
Of my many enchanting thoughts
Without suffering from the curse
Of being compelled to use language
Whose words do not always rhyme…
I am now catching a glimpse
Of the poetry
That is in the world
How wonderful is the fact
That I am conscious
Am I not the poetry of Nature?
But then I wonder
Who is the poet of Nature?
Which itself is sheer poetry?
Does poetry require a poet?
Which leads me to think
Does a poet ever create poetry?
Or does he simply catch
The already existing poetry
Finally, what is poetry?
Which, I think
Everybody should decide for oneself
If they can
The lucidity of ideas in a poetic work
Transcends the superficial rhythm
Of its words
I think the best example
Of what I intend to say
Is best exemplified
In this work itself
Which has been a poetry for me
The lucidity of thoughts
And the logic of the thinking mind
Combined with the flavor of romanticism
Surpassed the absence of rhyme
To create this poem?
PS: This just goes to prove that I’m not a poet by nature, irrespective of my amatuerish attempts!
While India may be an attractive low-cost outsourcing destination, it is also an attractive destination for locusts!
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization has warned of a locust threat in India and Pakistan:
Recent heavy rainfall in Pakistan and western India has created ‘unusually favorable breeding conditions’ for locusts until October along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border and in coastal areas of western Pakistan, the Rome-based organization said today in an e-mailed press release.
This potentially dangerous situation should be closely monitored in both countries, the FAO said.
Desert locusts, migratory grasshoppers that often travel in vast swarms at speeds of up to 150 kilometers a day, can eat their own weight in food per day, according to the FAO. A small part of an average swarm is capable of eating as much food a day as approximately 2,500 people and can destroy vast amounts of farm land.
India and Pakistan are organizing field teams, equipment and resources to fight the swarms in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat as well as in adjacent areas of the Cholistan and Tharparkar deserts in Pakistan, the FAO said.
FAO desert specialists regularly train officers of India’s Locust Warning Organization in Rajasthan. The training involves:
- Estimating locust numbers
- Using GPS to identify location and help control operations
- Marking infected areas
- Detect breeding areas
For a real world example of such a training session, check this diary.