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They are in the ground, they are on the trees; some are tiny, some large; some are soft while others are hard; some look like corals while some resemble clubs; some are dully coloured while some are brightly coloured; some are delicate, some robust; some look like stars and some like a bird nest; some glow in the dark while most don’t. You must be wondering what I am referring to… fungi indeed!

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Most of us are familiar with the delicate little nondescript mushrooms that raise their heads from the soil during the rainy season or perhaps the mould that often causes food to go bad. Most of these disappear in a few hours or in a few days.

What is visible to the naked eye as mushrooms, toadstools and other forms are essentially fruiting bodies of various species of fungi. Though we see most fungi for a very brief period, they are very much alive even after the ideal fruiting conditions are gone. Invisible to us, they are there – pretty much everywhere – in the soil, or tree trunks, on leaves, etc.

Fungi have very intricate and interesting associations with a host of other organisms in their environment. Humans share important relationships with fungi too!

For many of us, it may come as a surprise when I say that the largest organism on planet Earth is a fungus indeed. This giant, popularly called the Honey Fungus, is spread over an area of about 9.5 sq. km. Experts say it could be anywhere between 1900 to 8650 years old!

Not just that. Fungi are found across the globe. They have been recorded in all kinds of environments including some in very harsh extreme conditions – each species adapted to its habitat. This makes fungi an extremely large and diverse group of organisms. So much so that scientists estimate a whopping 1.5 to 5 million species! So far they have managed to describe and name only about 75000 species, around 15000 of them being reported from India.

Here’s to celebrating fungi – their beauty and diversity!

Omphalotus sp. - fungi growing on the forest floor.

Omphalotus sp. – fungi growing on the forest floor.


 

Cookeina sp. - A pretty cup-like fungus that grows on trees.

Cookeina sp. – A pretty cup-like fungus that grows on trees.


 

Very tiny fungus growing in my garden - each orange disc measuring only about 5mm.

Very tiny fungus growing in my garden – each orange disc measuring only about 5mm.


 

This one was huge indeed. Photographed in Bannerghatta, this was the size of a human head!

This one was huge indeed. Photographed in Bannerghatta, this was the size of a human head!


 

Coral Fungi (Clavaroid fungi) Clavaria sp. - growing on the forest floor in high rainfall areas.

Coral Fungi (Clavaroid fungi) Clavaria sp. – growing on the forest floor in high rainfall areas.


 

Club Fungi Xylaria sp. - seen often growing on trees.

Club Fungi Xylaria sp. – seen often growing on trees.


 

Small dull brown fungus growing amid moss photographed in Goa.

Small dull brown fungus growing amid moss photographed in Goa.


 

Lovely red fungi that grows on the forest floor in heavy rainfall areas - Hygrocybe sp.

Lovely red fungi that grows on the forest floor in heavy rainfall areas – Hygrocybe sp.


 

Absolute delight. This dainty and delicate fungus that make do with even as little as a rotting leaf on the forest floor -Marasmius sp.

Absolute delight. This dainty and delicate fungus that make do with even as little as a rotting leaf on the forest floor – Marasmius sp.


 

This large robust fungus seen and photographed in moist deciduous forests during monsoon.

This large and robust fungus seen and photographed in moist deciduous forests during monsoon.


 

Earth Star Geastrum sp., River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. In recent times, I have seen them in Bangalore too! For more about the Earth Star http://www.wildwanderer.com/journal/?p=1528

Earth Star Geastrum sp., River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. In recent times, I have seen them in Bangalore too! For more about the Earth Star.


 

The fascinating Bird's Nest Fungi, Cyathus sp., not only occurs in Bangalore but also in heavy rainfall areas like Agumbe.

The fascinating Bird’s Nest Fungi, Cyathus sp., not only occurs in Bangalore but also in heavy rainfall areas like Agumbe. More about the Bird’s Nest Fungi


 

The same twig in the dark!

Bioluminescent fungi in the dark! Read more about these glowing beauties.


 

Fishing spiders

While wading through a shallow stream in a dense forest, my sixth sense told me… ‘you have company in the water!’ I looked around. My eyes skimmed the surface of the water but failed to spot anything. This happened a couple of times before I finally managed to ignore the creepy feeling. However, the thought kept nagging me. I was not sure as to what I should be looking for in the water. I was in Meghalaya, looking for butterflies, particularly those secretive ones that are known to frequent waterside vegetation.

The day progressed; I went along the meandering stream wading through water very carefully and gently. At one point, as the ripples progressed away from me, I noticed something small, move on the surface of the water. I lost sight as it disappeared among the floating debris that had accumulated. Out of curiosity, I reached the spot where the movement was last seen and scanned the area. Nothing. Was I hallucinating? Or day dreaming?

On the banks of the stream, further ahead, my attention was drawn to some mud-puddling butterflies. As I continued to wade through the stream slowly, I again spotted something skim the surface of the water and reach some debris. Only, this time it was much closer to me. My gaze was fixed on the spot even as I slowly got closer.

There it was… a spider – the last thing on my mind while looking for the lurking creature. As my camera was in all readiness for the butterflies, I quickly took some pictures of the spider before it decided to skim the water one more time. I followed it and got a good number of shots. With an overall brown colour and with pale blue and white markings, the spider was a pretty creature indeed.

A Fishing Spider (Fam. Pisauridae) sitting amid debris in a stream.

A Fishing Spider (Fam. Pisauridae) sitting amid debris in a stream.

 

Later in the evening, back at the camp when reviewing the images I started wondering what a spider was doing on water. Only then did it dawn on me, that I might have actually seen and photographed a spider that has been on my bucket list for a very long time – a Fishing Spider!

The spider as seen in the pictures lives close to water and has the habit of catching small fish, hence the name Fishing Spider. These spiders belong to the Family Pisauridae, also popularly known as the Nursery Web Spider. It also could be feeding on other smaller creatures living on or near water.

As I stared at the pictures, I realised that the spider, like the pond skaters, uses surface tension of the water to stay afloat. To further help the situation, the spider has water repelling hair!

Notice how the spider stays afloat. The fact that the surface tension is not broken is evident from the dimples on the water surface at points where the spider's body comes in contact with the water!

Notice how the spider stays afloat. The fact that the surface tension is not broken is evident from the dimples on the water surface at points where the spider’s body comes in contact with the water!

 

I was kicking myself. Wish I had gone better prepared and recognized the spider. Perhaps, I could have spent time watching the spider; maybe I would have witnessed the spider catch a fish. During the rest of the trip, whenever I was near water I kept a watch for the fishing spider, without luck.

I have spent a number of hours looking for spiders closer home and it is strange that the fishing spider, though found here, has eluded me till date.

Fishing Spider from Hampi - carrying its egg case.

Another Fishing Spider from Hampi, Karnataka – carrying its egg case.

 

Fishing Spider from Agumbe.

Fishing Spider from Agumbe, Karnataka.

A very attractive fishing spider on the water surface from Amboli, Maharashtra.

A very attractive fishing spider on the water surface from Amboli, Maharashtra.

The next time you are in the vicinity of a water body, check the vegetation and the water’s edge carefully… you may just get lucky. Perhaps, the fishing spider may even treat you to some action!

The Passion-flowers

I had just been introduced to birdwatching. The new found hobby took me out on forays into the scarce wilderness on the outskirts of Bangalore.

On one such outing, the morning had progressed and the bird activity had substantially reduced. As I was walking through the thorny shrubbery, I espied a white flower at a distance. It seemed to belong to a creeper that had worked its way through a lantana bush using its tendrils. Something about the flower drew me to it.

I got close to the lantana bush only to be, at first instance, smitten by the beauty of the flower. The flower was not just white as it appeared from a distance; it had some pink, green and yellow too!

The beauty of Passiflora foetida was captivating

The beauty of Passiflora foetida was captivating

 

I had seen colourful flowers earlier. Why did this one look so special and captivating? As I kept staring at the flower, I noticed that it had petals, beautiful tentacle-like structures and an interesting arrangement of anthers and stigmas (reproductive organs) – all at different levels. It had a very different appearance and a tiered one at that. I reveled in the moment and forgot all about the flower until much later.

A couple of years elapsed and I got interested in butterflies. I was watching the larvae of a butterfly feed on the leaves of a creeper when my eyes fell on the exquisite flower yet again. This creeper was the food plant of the Tawny Coster butterfly!

Larva of the Tawny Coster feeding on Passiflora.

Larva of the Tawny Coster feeding on Passiflora.

 

All this was some three decades ago.

In more recent times, my mother was given a sapling of the Passion fruit. She happily planted it in our garden. Since it had the space and resources, it spread rapidly all over. It didn’t spare the huge jamun tree either. We enjoy the creeper dangling down and almost forming a leafy curtain in front of our door. It bears lovely flowers that eventually turn into sour fruits, the pulp of which is best consumed as a juice with a lot of sugar, the insipid edible crunchy seeds keeping your teeth busy.

Passion Fruit with the unripe fruit in the background.

Passion Fruit Passiflora edulis with the unripe fruit in the background.

 

I have also come across other beautiful Passifloras – while some have a heady odour, others grab your attention in a garden full of flowers.

Passiflora incarnata - a beautiful flower with an equally heady fragrance!

Passiflora incarnata – a beautiful flower with an equally heady fragrance!

 

Many of them can be grown on a trellis, forming a nice shade or even a live curtain. Depending on the species you plant, you get treated to some lovely blossoms and /or some edible fruits!

The bright colour of Passiflora coccinea grabs your attention.

The bright colour of Passiflora coccinea grabs your attention.

 

In this article, I have presented just a few species that I have come across both, in the city and in the wild.

The more demure Passiflora subpeltata that grows wild.

The more demure Passiflora subpeltata that grows wild.

 

However, the family Passifloraceae consists of about 750 species and at least 500 of them belonging to the genus Passiflora. Most Passifloras are vines while some grow into trees too. Members of the genus Passiflora are distributed across South America, southern Asia and as far as Papua New Guinea. And, like the Tawny Coster in India, several Heliconius sp. butterflies use the Passifloras as their larval host plant; the plant has evolved some interesting strategies to prevent too many eggs being laid on the plant. If you let curiosity get the better of you, and indulge in a little fact finding, you are quite likely to be amazed.

Now out of nowhere, there is a Passiflora foetida growing in my garden! Wonder where it came from… Will the Tawny Coster follow? Only time will tell.

Tawny Coster

Tawny Coster

 

A home away from home!

Recently, I spent some time in my garden. Everything was damp owing to the heavy rains that came down over the previous two days. While looking around, I noticed an ant carry something in its mandibles. I got curious and sat observing and photographing what transpired over the next half hour. It was during this period that some thoughts went through my mind.

Ants moving eggs and pupae as part of the nest moving process.

Ants moving eggs and pupae as part of the nest moving process.

 

Moving residence is not always a very easy thing to do. It involves a lot of planning, particularly if the family is large. Plenty of considerations go in before a decision is made. Moving all the belongings can be an arduous task. There is a need for consensus from all the family members too – this perhaps is the most difficult part. Even within a small family, each member having varied needs and priorities influences the decision.

But if you are an ant, getting a thumbs up from all the members of the colony is perhaps easier. However, being an ant brings in other problems when shifting residence. It seems to be an indomitable task for a creature the size of an ant! In case of ants, moving would include everything from escorting the queen to the new nest to physically moving the eggs, larvae, and pupae. Of course, the workers and soldiers move in the process as well.

Diacamma ceylonense worker carrying a larva,

Greater Striated Bispinous Ant Diacamma ceylonense worker carrying a larva.

 

Diacamma ceylonense carrying a pupa.

Greater Striated Bispinous Ant Diacamma ceylonense carrying a pupa.

 

In general, the risk involved in exposing yourself is huge, particularly if you are prey to bigger organisms. This holds true in case of ants when they are moving residence. The eggs, larvae and pupae that cannot defend themselves against predators have to be brought out from the safety of their nest and taken to their new home. Yet, many a time ants decide to do so.

The Yellow Crazy Ant Anaplolepis gracilipes taking shelter from the rain under a log.

The Yellow Crazy Ant Anaplolepis gracilipes taking shelter from the rain under a log. Notice carefully and you will see individuals carrying eggs and pupae.

 

Black Crazy Ant Paratrechina longicornis queen being escorted by workers, some carrying eggs, while others larvae and pupae.

Black Crazy Ant Paratrechina longicornis queen being escorted by workers, some carrying eggs, while others larvae and pupae.

 

Team work -  Four Black Crazy Ants Paratrechina longicornis carrying a larva.

Team work – Four Black Crazy Ants Paratrechina longicornis carrying a larva.

 

Team work -  Four Black Crazy Ants Paratrechina longicornis carrying a pupa.

Team work – Six Black Crazy Ants Paratrechina longicornis carrying a pupa.

 

The Pharaoh's Ant Monomorium pharaonis queen being escorted by members of the colony.

The Pharaoh’s Ant Monomorium pharaonis queen being escorted by members of the colony.

 

But why? Why take so much risk? I was sure there was a good reason. A bit of fact finding led me to some interesting answers. The reasons for this movement, I learnt, could be very simple and straight forward. The old nest may have simply become unsuitable to continue in or perhaps there is just not enough space for the growing colony. It could even be that the nest has been flooded during the rains or has become too dry for comfort. Parasites, or for that matter fungal infestation could also be reasons for shifting residence. It could also be a situation where the colony has exhausted all the resources in the vicinity and is forced to shift to ensure that the colony survives. All of these could potentially threaten the very survival of the colony itself. So, a little risk is in order to ensure that the colony survives!

Net-casting Spider

I am so used to staring into the large eyes of the jumping spiders. I thoroughly enjoy photographing them because of their eyes. They truly have the largest of spider eyes… or so I thought until recently.

Here, I was at Agumbe staring into the eyes of a spider which at first instance reminded me of a fish-eye lens!

The large eyes if the Net-casting Spider

The large eyes of the Net-casting Spider.

 

It all began about two years ago when a friend who had returned from Agumbe showed me a picture of a nondescript spider on his computer screen. I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw the image. I made a purposeful trip to Agumbe in search of this spider without any luck. So, I had requested another friend who stays at Agumbe to tell me the moment he sees this spider again.

I had almost forgotten about the spider in question. Out of the blue, there came a phone call from Prashanth, saying that he had spotted the very same spider! No sooner did he call me than I booked myself on the only bus to Agumbe. I traveled all through the night, on a warm and humid April night, in the hope of catching a glimpse of this spider.

The following morning, on reaching Agumbe, Prashanth took me for a walk and pointed to the spider en route. It took me a little while to figure out where the spider was. The coloration, the shape and the long legs all helped the spider camouflage brilliantly.

Well camouflaged female Net-casting Spider.

Well camouflaged female Net-casting Spider.

 

And, very involuntarily, the first thing I did was to position myself suitably so that I could see the legendary eyes of this spider! It apparently has the largest simple eyes of any terrestrial invertebrate! Indeed, I was astonished as I stared at the eyes of the Net-casting Spider, Deinopis sp. This indeed is one of the many bizarre spiders that I have come across.

Once you understand a little more about the Net-casting Spider, particularly the method it uses to catch its prey, you will appreciate the need for such large eyes! This spider has a unique technique to ensnare its prey. It builds an elastic net and holds it between its forelegs while the spider itself hangs down with a few silken strands. Any unsuspecting little creature that moves beneath is enough to set the spider into motion. It quickly drops down and casts the net over the prey thereby trapping the prey – something akin to a fisherman casting his net!

Having an acute vision is very important to be able to do this. More so, if everything around is absolutely dark. The larger the eyes, better the light gathering capability!

Spider in a different position towards the evening.Spider in a different position towards the evening.

Spider in a different position towards the evening.

 

The spider, during the day, is well camouflaged in its surroundings. As darkness falls, it emerges and constructs a web and readies itself for the hunt! This is one thing I really missed witnessing – the spider with the net ready for action and of course the act itself. I will, some day, hopefully.

On the trip, I was lucky to see a male net-casting spider too. The male was smaller in body length, had much longer legs, and smaller eyes than that of the female. Take your eyes off from the spider for a second and you will probably struggle to locate it again!

Male Net-casting Spider.

Male Net-casting Spider.

Smaller eyes of the male Net-casting Spider. Smaller eyes of the male Net-casting Spider.

The Net-casting Spider or more accurately the genus Deinopis has a distribution across the world – in the tropical and subtropical areas from the Americas to Africa to Australia! Currently two species of Deinopis are known from India. With the kind of camouflage that these spiders exhibit, there could, however, be more species of these creatures hiding in the wilderness of the country.

So, when you walk the woods the next time around, don’t forget that you are probably being watched too with those ultra large eyes!

Lantern flies

This was during early 1990s. I had recently acquired a new gadget – an SLR! It was still those days when one used slide film in the cameras and most amateurs shot with some amount of thrift.

As part of my work, I was scheduled to travel to and stay at the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary for a longish period of time. And needless to say, I carried my camera loaded with a roll of slides! During one of the days at the campsite, I was walking past a Terminalia tree. I noticed, from the corner of my eye, a movement on its trunk. I stepped back to just make sure that I was not seeing things that did not exist.

After some careful searching, I recognised a form that was not part of the tree. It was a very curious looking and at the same time, a beautifully camouflaged little creature. The Pinocchio-like ‘nose’ caught my attention. Just a couple of frames were exposed and the camera was packed away.

Camouflaged lantern fly Zanna sp. from Bhadra

Camouflaged lantern fly Zanna sp. from Bhadra


 

Much later, the roll came back processed from the lab, slides were scrutinized with a loupe for quality, put away in an archival slide holder and forgotten…well almost.

Recently, while looking through my slide collection, my attention was drawn to this slide. I pulled it out, and scanned it. While all this was happening, I was reminded of a similar creature – with a Pinocchio nose – that I had shot in more recent times, only bigger and more colourful!

Colourful lantern fly Pyrops delessertii  from Kerala

Colourful lantern fly Pyrops delessertii from Kerala


 

These insects with the long snouts belong to a group called the lantern flies. Yes. A misnomer indeed as they neither glow nor produce light nor are they flies! How they got their name is uncertain. Some have a snout that is as long as the body or longer, while some have the tip of the snout swollen!

Lantern fly with a swollen tip to its snout - Laternaria sp. from Eagle Nest, Arunachal Pradesh

Lantern fly with a swollen tip to its snout – Pyrops cf. clavatus from Eaglenest, Arunachal Pradesh


 

The snout of these bugs are just extensions of their head and do not seem to serve any particular purpose.

Lantern flies are basically large bugs (Family Fulgoridae) with many species being brightly coloured. They feed mainly on plant sap. As a group, their diversity is highest in the tropics.

Sometimes several lantern flies can be seen on tree trunks

At times, several lantern flies can be seen together


 

Often, one can see several of these bugs sitting on tree trunks. If you are trying to photograph them, make sure you do so from a distance lest they jump and go out of your camera’s line of sight!

Spiders as Predators

I write this piece with a heavy heart as I just learnt that Mr. Lavkumar Khachar is no more. I have had the pleasure of interacting with him on multiple occasions and talking to him on the phone many a time. I have gained much during my interactions with him. He was also a constant source of encouragement. He would always say “…keep writing, son.” All I will say here is …Thank you Sir for lighting up my path! I hope that all those who you inspired will carry the baton forward. This piece is a dedication to one of the stalwarts and visionaries of our times.

 

It was many years ago. This was around the time I had just begun looking at the natural world with curiosity. We were living on the outskirts of the city (the area is now engulfed by the growing city!). Our residence was surrounded by a large open area that was laid waste and it had some wild growth.

A large spider found our home suitable and decided to stay on. I eventually learnt that this spider is called the Banana Spider or the Giant Crab Spider Heteropoda sp. Very soon, I realised that these spiders were catching cockroaches at night. This was reason enough to see the spider favourably. As a family, we just let the spider be whenever it was seen. We were rewarded indeed – our home had almost no roaches!

A Giant Crab Spider Heteropoda sp. (also called the Banana Spider) feeding on a moth, bigger than itself.

A Giant Crab Spider Heteropoda sp. (also called the Banana Spider) feeding on a moth, bigger than itself.

 

My initial interest in spiders was short lived. However, in more recent times, I got an opportunity to renew my interest in spiders. During this phase, I recollected my old observations and saw them in different light. So, I set out to get a better understanding of spiders as predators.

Primarily predatory in nature, spiders have been around for 400 or so million years. The strategies they use to capture their prey are as varied as their prey themselves. There are web building spiders that trap their prey. I am sure that all of us at some time or the other have seen a mosquito stuck in a spider’s web – often inside our homes trapped in the web of a Dancing Spider!

If you have a garden, you may have seen webs built among the foliage. Keep an eye on the webs around and you are likely to see some action. You could see an insect flying into the web, the spider rushing in to secure the trapped prey, feeding on it and then disposing off the remains, repairing the web and waiting for another unsuspecting insect to fly in. It is not necessary that all trapped insects get eaten. At times, you may see insects caught in an abandoned web as well.

 

mayfly entangled in the web of Opadometa fastigata, an orb weaver.

Mayfly entangled in the web of Opadometa fastigata, an orb weaver.

 

Leucauge decorata feasting on a mosquito

Leucauge decorata feasting on a mosquito.

 

A damselfly in the web of Leucauge decorata

A damselfly in the web of Leucauge decorata

 

There are spiders that prefer to sit and wait like some crab spiders do and there are others like the jumping spiders that are active hunters. Both do not build a web to catch their prey. Crab spiders lurch inside a flower to catch an unwary prey coming in for nectar.

An unsuspecting bee becoming a meal of the hiding crab spider Thomisus lobosus that waits inside flowers.

An unsuspecting bee becoming a meal of the hiding crab spider Thomisus lobosus that waits inside flowers.

 

An active Crab spider Oxytate elongate feeding on an ant Camponotus sp.

An active Crab spider Oxytate elongate feeding on an ant Camponotus sp.

 

Jumping spiders actively look for their prey.

Rhene sp. feeding on a mosquito like insect.

Rhene sp. feeding on a mosquito like insect.

 

Another Rhene sp. feeding on a caterpillar many times its size and weight.

Another Rhene sp.feeding on a caterpillar many times its size and weight.

 

Plexippus sp. – a jumping spider feeding on an ant alate.

Plexippus sp. – a jumping spider feeding on an ant alate.

 

Phaeacius sp. making a meal of a mayfly.

Phaeacius sp. making a meal of a mayfly.

 

An ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne sp. with a moth in its jaws.

An ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne sp. with a moth in its jaws.

 

Another jumping spider Epeus sp. feeding on a planthopper.

Another jumping spider Epeus sp. feeding on a planthopper.

 

Often, habitat preference, size of the spider itself, strategy used, time of the day they are active have a bearing on the size, kind and number of prey they feed on. Over the millennia, spiders have perfected the art of predation. By virtue of being predators, spiders as a group can have a big influence on populations of several species of smaller organisms – particularly insects.

A Nursery Web spider (Fam. Philodromidae) with a termite alate.

Tibellus sp. (Fam. Philodromidae) with a termite alate.

 

Research has shown that spiders could have a significant contribution in keeping pest populations low not just in our vicinity and gardens, but in a variety of agricultural situations (agricultural fields, orchards, etc) too.

The role of spiders as pest-controllers or bio-control agents is being understood and increasingly appreciated. So, think twice before spraying those toxic chemicals on your garden plants. We may actually be eliminating the spider that is not only keeping the pest under control but also providing moments of excitement if only we cared to observe!

 

Read related stories :
Preying Spiders
Spider and the damselfly
Mayfly
Crab Spiders

I have said time and again – a stroll on the wild side often throws up surprises. Here I was, sitting in front of a very interesting spider web with admiration for the little genius. The web was very delicate and exquisitely crafted.

Web of a Debris Orb Weaver Cyclosa sp.

Web of a Debris Orb Weaver Cyclosa sp.


 

This was not the first time I had seen this kind of a web. But this reminded me of the first time I saw something similar. On that occasion, still very unfamiliar with the ways of the spiders, I carefully examined the delicate web built about 2 feet from the ground. It was a typical orb web that all of us are so very familiar with. It was different from other orb webs in having prominent white silk used by the spider to weave an interesting pattern near the centre of the web.

The spider had also accumulated debris in a linear fashion. The debris contained, what seemed like insect remains and other unidentifiable material. But I saw no spider?!?!

Cyclosa insulana blending in with the debris.

Cyclosa insulana blending in with the debris.


 

Only much later, when I learnt about the devious ways of these tiny spiders did I start discerning the form of the spider in the midst of the debris! The form and colour of the spider, the way it sits on the web amidst the debris all render the spider ‘invisible’ to an untrained eye! In an earlier article on Camouflage, I had showcased examples of various organisms blending in with their background. Here, the spider creates a situation to render its form inconspicuous. One wonders how the spider knows to do this!

The white silk that the spider weaves into its web is called the stabilimentum. As to why the Debris Orb Weaver and a few other spiders incorporate a stabilimentum in their webs is still debated. There are no conclusive answers yet.

Cyclosa cf simoni in its web.

Cyclosa cf simoni in its web.


 
Cyclosa sp. sitting in the centre of the web with debris on either side.

Cyclosa sp. sitting in the centre of the web with debris on either side.


 

Let us come back to the current web and its inhabitant. The position of the web and the manner in which the spider was resting on the web were just ideal for photography. I sat down and got some satisfactory pictures. The spider itself with all its legs drawn close to the body looked just like a mass of debris that was next to it.

Spider resembling the debris.

Spider resembling the debris.


 

On coming home, I transferred the images and was processing the images when what I saw sent me into a tizzy. I was shocked and surprised. I was also wondering as to how I missed it when photographing the spider. There were several eggs on the spider!

Eggs on the spider !

Parasite eggs on the spider !


 

These eggs perhaps belonged to a parasite. My curiosity was so intense that I had to share this with someone. So, I quickly made a call to a friend who studies spiders – Dr. Manju Siliwal – and described the whole thing to her and also sent the picture to her. She in turn sent it to a friend and told me that these could be eggs of a wasp!

The basic question in my mind was answered. But a whole new set of questions raised their heads. How did the wasp lay its eggs on the spider that was suspended in mid air? In spite of the spider being so well camouflaged, how did the wasp locate the spider? Would not the spider move away or avoid the wasp? Or, would the wasp do something to temporarily immobilize the spider?

I may not find answers until I get lucky and witness the whole episode unfurl in front of me. So, as usual, the wait begins!

I distinctly remember what I had encountered several years ago when I had visited a college in Goa. I was talking to one of the faculty members, standing outside the building. My attention was drawn to a pretty Red Pierrot butterfly flitting about and settling on a Kalanchoe plant in a pot. Even as I watched, it laid an egg! Slowly, I went close to the plant and looked about. What I saw, came as a surprise. I saw a larva that had burrowed inside the leaf, a fully grown larva that had come out of the leaf and I also saw a pupa on the soil. I witnessed all this while rooted to one place! Unfortunately, I did not have a camera handy on that occasion.

Almost two decades later, I got a chance to witness and photograph all the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle almost over a couple of days! This time it was a Swallowtail butterfly – the Common Mime.

Recently I was visiting the River Tern Lodge near Bhadra Tiger Reserve. I was aware of the fact that the Common Mime occurs in the area based on my prior sighting of a female laying eggs. She was laying eggs on a tender leaf several feet from the ground. I had managed to capture the act of egg-laying but could not shoot the egg itself.

I was told that there were a couple of larvae of the Common Mime in case I was interested in shooting them. I was thrilled! Quickly, I set about searching for the larvae and got pictures of what looked like a fully grown larva. As I looked around, I also found more larvae of earlier instars. Pictures were promptly taken. As the search progressed, I even stumbled upon and photographed a couple of eggs. When I came back to check on the eggs, I noticed that one of them had hatched and was seen not far from where the egg was. Of course, the story would not be complete if the pupa was not found. So, with peeled eyes, I checked each dry twig just to make sure that it was not a pupa – you will see why as we go along!

Though pictures were taken as and when the opportunity provided, I have, here, arranged them in an order that depicts the complete life cycle of a butterfly.

A Common Mime laying eggs on a tender shoot high up in the tree.

A Common Mime laying eggs on a tender shoot high up in the tree.


 

Egg of the Common Mime – barely bigger than a pin head!

Egg of the Common Mime – barely bigger than a pin head!


 

butterfly larvae feed on the egg shell soon after emerging. However, this individual had gnawed the egg in the process of emerging leaving behind an interesting shape.

Butterfly larvae feed on the egg shell soon after emerging. However, this individual had gnawed the egg in the process of emerging leaving behind an interesting shape.


 

The newly emerged larva.

The newly emerged larva.


 

A later instar looking very different from the newly hatched larva.

A later instar looking very different from the newly hatched larva.


 

As I approached this larva close for photography, it suddenly put out the osmetrium, very characteristic of swallowtail larvae, perhaps  in a bid to scare me!

As I approached this larva close for photography, it suddenly put out the osmetrium, very characteristic of swallowtail larvae, perhaps in a bid to scare me!


 

The next instar.  As a larva grows, it sheds its skin a few times before pupating. In the process, it could look very different during each stage between any two moults.  Often they even eat the shed skin!

The next instar. As a larva grows, it sheds its skin a few times before pupating. In the process, it could look very different during each stage between any two moults. Often it even eats the shed skin!


 

 A fully grown larva ready to pupate.

A fully grown larva ready to pupate.


 

An amazing camouflage. The pupa of the Common Mime resembles very much like a broken twig. Spotting one of these can be quite a challenge.

An amazing camouflage. The pupa of the Common Mime resembles very much like a broken twig. Spotting one of these can be quite a challenge.


 

The adult Common Mime has two different forms – one that resembles a Blue Tiger butterfly ...

The adult Common Mime has two different forms – one that resembles a Blue Tiger butterfly …


 

 ...and the other resembling a Crow butterfly. Both the Blue Tiger and Crow are unpalatable butterflies. Mimicry in butterflies is another story altogether!

…and the other resembling a Crow butterfly. Both the Blue Tiger and Crow are unpalatable butterflies. Mimicry in butterflies is another story altogether!


 

If you have a few plants in your garden, it should be possible to witness all this and more right in your garden. In an era, when land is at premium, the gardens have been reduced to a few potted plants in the balcony of high-rise buildings. Notwithstanding this, if you choose plants carefully with some prior knowledge of butterflies that frequent your area, there is every chance that you will be visited by one that will give you an opportunity to see the amazing process of a tiny egg eventually transforming into a butterfly!

About the same time three years ago, I wrote two blog posts. They were titled The Banana Plants and the Shortnosed Fruit Bats and The Mast Tree and the Tailed Jay. These essentially tried to introduce you to some of the denizens of my garden (read your immediate surroundings!).

If you recollect, I had written about the banana plants that were brought into our garden and how, over the years, they have managed to influence the various organisms that manage to eke out a living in a tiny island in the vast urban landscape that surrounds us today. The banana plant was to a large extent responsible for bringing in the bats that in turn brought in a variety of new plants into the garden; the new plants brought in other creatures!

In more recent times, the banana plants themselves were solely responsible for a new entrant to our garden! Over the last few months, butterfly enthusiasts of Bangalore have been discussing the invasion of a butterfly called the Banana Skipper also referred to as the Palm Redeye Erionota torus.

This butterfly had not been recorded from Bangalore in the past. However, it seems to have come in with a bang and quite suddenly – not just in Bangalore but also in other parts of Karnataka. The banana plants getting ravaged by the larvae has become the topic of many a discussion.

Banana leaves damaged by the larvae of the Banana Skipper.

Banana leaves extensively damaged by the larvae of the Banana Skipper.


 

Since there were banana plants in my garden, I was hoping against hope that the Banana Skipper would eventually show up one day. Little did I expect the red-eyed skipper to make an appearance so soon. And the manner in which it did, took me by surprise.

It was mid October. I noticed a few tears on the banana leaf. These tears were different. Those of you familiar with banana plants would know how easily leaves get damaged due to wind. So, I did not pay much attention to it though the tears were unusual. However, a nagging feeling about the tears remained in my head until I realised that these ‘unusual’ tears were across the veins of the leaf as compared to the ‘normal’ tears along the veins!

Leaves torn across the veins.

Leaves torn across the veins.


 

About a week later, I noticed more ‘unusual’ tears on more leaves. This got me curious. I had to find out what was causing this. So, I set about reaching a leaf which had been torn and beautifully rolled. I had never seen anything like this on my banana plants over the last two and half decades that they have been around.

I was pleasantly surprised when I uncovered a white larva. Was this the larva of the Banana Skipper? I was clueless.

Larva of the Banana Skipper.

Larva of the Banana Skipper.


 
One of the rolls had a pupa covered with a generous coating of white powdery substance.
Pupa of the Banana Skipper.

Pupa of the Banana Skipper.


 

I set about examining and searching amid the leaves carefully. Finally, I happened to notice a large brown skipper with red eyes sitting near a curled banana leaf. The mystery was finally solved. The Banana Skipper had indeed invaded my garden.

The Banana Skipper or the Palm Redeye.

The Banana Skipper or the Palm Redeye.


 

As I looked around, I noticed that most leaves had at least one ‘unusual’ tear. Some had several, perhaps made by freshly hatched larvae. I’m left wondering about the amount of effort that must have gone in to cut the leaf, roll it and stitch it as well.

Multiple tears , perhaps made by several larvae.

Multiple tears, perhaps made by several larvae.


 

As I write this, I see several of the banana leaves that have been meticulously cut, rolled and stitched. Most of these have larvae that would eventually go on to pupate in similar leaf rolls and emerge out to be a lovely brown, red-eyed butterfly. This joins the other large red-eyed skipper – Giant Redeye – in my garden that has been around ever since the ornamental palms were planted. And I continue to wonder how many beautiful Banana Skippers my garden is going to set forth into the city.

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