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Moon Crab

Sun, sand and surf are all that comes to mind when planning a trip to the beach. These three elements almost invariably cloud out everything else. If anything else, we might indulge in building sand-castles or perhaps long walks on the sand at sunset!

It was one such evening while walking along the water’s edge during a visit to the Devbagh Beach Resort near Karwar that I was treated to one of the most beautiful creatures that I had ever seen – probably a crab. Spines on either side of its body and legs that were flattened gave it a very non-crab appearance at first sight.

The creature that I was staring at had an almost circular body which was about 4 cm across. But the flattened appendages intrigued me and left me wondering what these adaptations could possibly mean.

The Moon Crab Matuta sp. at Devbagh, Karwar.

The Moon Crab at Devbagh, Karwar.

 

This was the Moon Crab (Matuta sp.), also sometimes referred to as the Sandy shore crab. It spends the day buried in sand. Its spade-like appendages are used to dig into the sand and for swimming!

When these crabs come out to forage in the night, they are known to feed on small creatures – be it worms, clams, and other small animals – that they can overpower. They also seem to have a special taste for dead fish!

Face-to-face with the Moon Crab.

Face-to-face with the Moon Crab.

 

Adult females have been found to be capable of producing more than one batch of eggs from a single mating with each batch containing about 65,000 eggs!

Moon Crabs have a very wide distribution. They are known to occur all the way from the Red Sea, through much of Asia to Australia where it is common in the Great Barrier Reef.

Assassin Bugs

It was during my second, albeit brief, visit to Port Blair that I got an opportunity to trek in the wilderness of the Andamans. The trek was from Shoal Bay to Madhuban. The distance that we had planned to cover was short, but it seemed to take forever to reach the destination. A multitude of small fascinating organisms kept vying for attention all along the way and this slowed us down enormously.

The ‘star’ of the trek turned out to be a weird and strange looking creature that we spotted on a spider web about 5 feet from the ground. It kept moving constantly, making it very difficult even to lock focus. It had a long body and even longer legs that were wiry. I could not venture very close to get all the details for fear of not seeing the complete insect in the frame. Three pairs of legs (the first set resembling those of a praying mantis); a pair of long antennae; it being on a spider web; all had me confused no end. It was only recently (after 3 ½ years!) that I managed to put a name to this enigma. It turned out to be what is popularly known as the ‘Thread-legged Bug’.

Thread-legged Bug on a spiders web, Andamans.

Thread-legged Bug on a spider’s web, Andamans.

Very little is known about the Thread-legged Bugs. Though these bugs have a wide distribution, tropics have the highest diversity of species. These predatory insects are known to be nocturnal and they occur in a variety of habitats including spider webs. Some species are even known to steal prey caught in spider webs!

The Thread-legged Bugs belong to a much larger group of bugs called the assassin bugs (Family Reduviidae). This is a very diverse group of which there are around 6000 known species. All assassin bugs, as one would expect, are predators. They are characterised by the presence of a very prominent ‘beak’.

The beak is used to pierce the prey and inject saliva thereby paralysing them. The saliva helps in digesting the contents of the prey. Subsequently, the assassin bug sucks the contents leaving behind an empty shell! This behaviour is what gives them their name.

Assassin bug nymph feeding on a moth attracted to light, Goa.

Assassin bug nymph feeding on a moth attracted to light, Goa.

Assassin bugs are known to occur over most parts of the world. Though I have often seen assassin bugs, it came as a surprise when I learnt that the Thread-legged Bug occurs even in cities – it can be seen in and around Bangalore too. So keep a watch around you and when you do encounter one, you may do well to leave it alone since assassin bugs can deliver a painful bite!

Assassin bug feeding on an aphid, K.Gudi.

Assassin bug feeding on an aphid, K.Gudi. Assassin bugs could be of potential value in pest control.

Ever since I got interested in nature, I have always had this feeling that there are creatures constantly watching me. Also the feeling that I have missed more than I have seen has also bothered me. And I have often wondered why I don’t get to see them.

The answer seems to be in the ability of organisms to blend in with their surroundings – in other words – camouflage! Over the years, I have come across creatures, predominantly small ones – both prey and predators, that have evolved some amazing camouflage.

In this photo feature, I bring you a dozen images from my collection representing insects, spiders and reptiles – all of which are very well camouflaged in their respective habitats. This is an attempt to showcase some of my observations of the these beautifully camouflaged beings! I know the nagging feeling that I have missed something is still there and will continue to bother me. Don’t blame me if you start feeling likewise after seeing the images below!

I would like to thank Shyamal for identifying some of the insects that are featured here.

Flying Lizard Draco dussumieri, Dubare : The presence of this lizard becomes obvious away only when it moves or when it is extending and collapsing the bright yellow gular sac.

Bark Gecko Hemidactylus leschenaultii, Bheemeshwari. Seen living on trees and difficult to spot even for a trained eye.

Bark Gecko Hemidactylus leschenaultii, Bheemeshwari : Seen living on trees and difficult to spot even for a trained eye.

Two-tailed Spider Hersilia sp. - Kabini. This spider can be seen most often on trees. However, it can be seen on walls of buildings in the city too.

Two-tailed Spider Hersilia sp. – Kabini : This spider can be seen most often on trees.

Moth - Bangalore. I chanced upon this beauty in my back yard. Just goes to show how easily creatures in our midst could be missed out !

Moth – Bangalore : I chanced upon this beauty in my back yard. Just goes to show how easily creatures in our midst could be missed out!

Bug , Bangalore. This nymph was sitting in a fissure on the bark of the tree and completely motionless.

Bug, Bangalore : This nymph was sitting in a fissure on the bark of the tree and completely motionless.

Bug, Dubare. It was while I was searching for spiders that I espied this amazingly camouflaged bug.

Bug, Dubare : It was while I was searching for spiders that I espied this amazingly camouflaged bug.

Bug, Bangalore : This nymph is another example of stunning camouflage.

Bug, Bangalore : This nymph is another example of stunning camouflage.

Plant hopper, Goa : This fulgoromorph looked more like a piece of moss growing on the trunk.during the rains.

Plant hopper, Goa : This fulgoromorph can easily be passed off as a piece of moss growing on the trunk during the rains.

Plant hopper, Bangalore : Another fulgoromorph on the bark of a tree during the drier months.

Plant hopper, Bangalore : The pattern on the hopper is so deceptively similar to the bark of a tree during the drier months.

Grasshopper, Goa : The genus (Phyllochoreia) to which this grasshopper belongs is endemic to Western Ghats and Sri Lanka.

Grasshopper, Goa : The genus (Phyllochoreia) to which this grasshopper belongs is endemic to Western Ghats and Sri Lanka.The strong resemblance to a leaf had me completely fooled.

Praying mantis, Bangalore : This mantis lives almost entirely on trees and has colour forms that blend with trees on which it is !

Praying Mantis, Bangalore : This mantis lives almost entirely on trees and has colour forms that blend with trees on which it is!

Praying Mantis Gongylus sp., Kabini : Though I had seen individuals of this in Bangalore many years ago, seeing and photographing this was very exciting. It is interesting to see how all these creatures always seem to find the right substrate to blend in !

Praying Mantis Gongylus sp., Kabini : Though I had seen individuals of this in Bangalore many years ago, seeing and photographing this was very exciting. It is interesting to see how all these creatures always seem to find the right substrate to blend in!

Every day that I have walked into my office building this week, I have been welcomed by a mild, enjoyable and a heavenly aroma. Out of curiosity my eyes wandered and espied the tiny white flowers borne on long spikes. I remember noticing that this tree, near the entrance, was almost bare just a month ago. Today, it stands in full glory with the dark green leaves providing a lovely background to the equally beautiful and delicate inflorescence. Indeed, a delectable transformation!

What was even more interesting was that the flowers were attracting a lot of butterflies. The Blue Tigers and Crows that are on their annual migration seemed to find the flowers worthy of a visit before they continued their journey. The honey bees were busy visiting the flowers too. Other butterflies like the Common Jezebel, Common Jay and the Tailed Jay were also attracted to the flowers.

Citharexylum spinosum - entire inflorescence.

Citharexylum spinosum – entire inflorescence.

The Fiddlewood tree Citharexylum spinosum, of which there are very few in the city of Bangalore, was the source of the fragrance and the activity. I am personally aware of very few trees – one in my office premises, one in Basavangudi (not far from Ramakrishna Ashram circle) and a couple of trees in the campus of the Indian Institute of Science.

The tree is a native of tropical America and West Indies. As can be guessed, it gets its name from the fact that the wood is used in making musical instruments.

The Fiddlewood is not a very big tree. It grows to about 30-40 feet tall and does not have a spreading canopy. It can also be grown in spaces with little or no shade. All this, along with a long flowering season and fragrant flowers, makes the tree an excellent candidate for landscaping purposes and as an avenue tree. The tree can be propagated from seeds and from semi-hardwood cuttings.

Citharexylum spinosum - close-up of flowers.

Citharexylum spinosum – close-up of flowers.

So, the next time you find one of these trees, pause for a moment – appreciate the fragrance of the flowers or watch the butterflies visiting them. The time and effort will be well worth it and also a welcome relief to any urbanite.

Stonefly

The sun slowly disappeared behind the hills. The colour of the sky changed hues by the minute. I was at the banks of the Cauvery at Galibore sitting under a gigantic Arjuna tree Terminalia arjuna, soaking in the lovely evening.

Soon it became dark and was now the time for the stars to adorn the sky. A small lantern was brought in and placed on the table. In no time the lantern attracted scores of small insects – some familiar, some too small and some that made a brief appearance, not to be seen again.

Among these visitors was one little insect that decided to move about in the area where the lantern cast its light. It was neither unusual nor colourful. On the contrary, it looked like any other insect and was a dull brown except that it had a flatter appearance.

It had black beady eyes, a pair of antennae. A pair of tail like organs (cerci) that was very noticeable attracted my attention. So, it was photography time! I shot several pictures of this very active little insect until I was satisfied with what I got.

Later, when I was reviewing the pictures I realised that I had seen this insect earlier. The previous occasion was also close to the water and I had then identified it as a Stonefly (Order Plecoptera).

Stonefly

Stonefly

Stoneflies, like you may have guessed, spend their early days in water. The aquatic nymphs are in found in streams, along shores of lakes and often under stones. Now you know where they get their name from! The nymphs live in water until it is time for them to emerge as adults. Some of them have a very long nymphal stage –in some species lasting up to 3 years. Most stone flies do not feed as adults and those that do are known to be herbivorous. As adults they are not good fliers and hence seen in the vicinity of water bodies.

Reproducing is the main responsibility of adult insects. It is not different for stoneflies. To this end, the male stonefly has evolved a very interesting way of attracting the female. He taps on the substrate (often waterside vegetation) with his abdomen! Unmated females respond to this by drumming themselves. And the drumming signals are specific to each species!

I will leave you with another interesting aspect of the stoneflies before I close. These insects generally require unpolluted waters to survive. Hence their presence in a water body is (thought to be) an indicator of very good water quality!

Moulting spiders

It was during the latter half of the eighties that I witnessed an extraordinary event; an event that even to this day leaves me marvelling when I think about it!

Seeing a tarantula is an exciting experience in itself; but witnessing one moulting is even more so! I had the fortune of witnessing a tarantula which had just started to moult. The exoskeleton covering the carapace (cephalothorax; the first segment of a spider’s body) had just split from the exoskeleton covering the chelicerae (the organ that houses the fangs).

As I watched, the split widened and eventually the entire carapace separated from the rest of the exoskeleton barring a hinge attaching it to the abdomen. Next, the pedipalps (leg-like appendages next to the fangs) came out one after the other. One by one, the fangs and all the appendages came out! The last to come out was the abdomen as the spider crawled out leaving behind an almost intact skin (exoskeleton)! The tarantula with its new exoskeleton looked beautiful; the colour of the spider was darker and brighter and the fangs were white. The fangs turned to a deep brown as time passed. The ‘fresh’ spider sat still for a long time without any perceptible movement, allowing the new skin to dry.

The whole process took close to two hours as I sat, transfixed, watching it. The unfortunate part of the story is that I did not have a camera those days to document this fascinating natural history event.

All spiders, like other arthropods, have an exoskeleton that is restricting. It has to be shed periodically for the spider to be able to grow. The frequency and the number of times a spider moults, depends on the species, age and sex of the individual.

I had described one such incident earlier involving a grasshopper.

From the time, I rediscovered my interest in spiders in the recent times, I have seen tarantulas several times. I have also come across the shed exoskeleton but I have not been lucky enough to see another tarantula moulting. Nevertheless, I have chanced upon many other spiders doing so and the watching the process continues to fascinate me!

Events like this are happening all around us – in our little gardens or perhaps within our own homes. Look out and you may be rewarded. Here, I leave you with these two images of spiders moulting.

Giant Wood Spider moulting.

Giant Wood Spider moulting.

Ant mimic spider with discarded exoskeleton.

Ant mimic spider with discarded exoskeleton.

The fact that glow worms routinely eat snails is well established. I have on umpteen occasions seen a glow worm making a meal of a snail.

Glow worm feeding on a snail

Till now, however, I had not had an opportunity to actually witness the ‘hunt’. It was during a visit to Old Magazine House, Ganesh Gudi that I got this chance. It was October and the tail end of the monsoon season. The overcast sky and the occasional drizzle were a constant reminder that monsoon was still active.

Despite the drizzle, I stepped out early in the morning, armed with an umbrella, and went down the path leading to the gate of Old Magazine House. I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw on the ground just at the edge of the track – a mass of froth! I was not sure as to what could have created such a large volume of froth.

Froth

I looked around and saw a snail and wondered if the snail could have produced it. But then, I had never heard of snails producing froth.

My attention was drawn to a glow worm moving about actively in the vicinity. There was an adrenalin rush in my system. Was there going to be an interaction between the glow worm and the snail? Will the glow worm attack the snail and devour it? These were questions that were going on in my mind. All these were immensely possible events and I could be a witness to it!

The glow worm came close to the snail, perhaps by using the slime trail that a snail leaves behind. It walked about the snail and followed it for a while.

Glow worm following the snail.

It attacked the snail once and got its mandibles into the soft flesh. The snail retracted and the glow worm was caught between the body of the snail and the hard shell. It quickly wriggled out and wandered about only to come back to the snail. This time it bit the snail on the tentacle. The snail withdrew only that tentacle and did not evert it to its full length for as long as I observed it!

Withdrawn tentacle after being bitten.

The glow worm after wandering about some more, came back and this time climbed on to the snail’s shell and waited there looking for an opportunity to bury its mandibles into the snail. It did that once and the snail withdrew, resulting in a similar situation as before. The glow worm had to let go and eventually it climbed back on to the shell.

Glow worm riding the snail.

Throughout this drama, I noticed the glow worm continuously cleaning itself. For this purpose it used a brush-like organ (pygopod) on the last segment of its abdomen. This organ is used for both locomotion and cleaning.

Pygopod of a glow worm.

The snail moved a bit and stopped. It also withdrew into the shell more or less completely and started producing the froth again.

Snail withdraws into the shell and produces froth.

The glow worm that was riding the snail dismounted and moved about in the vicinity of the snail.

The glow worm walks away.

It eventually settled down in one place and started cleaning itself continuously for a few minutes. After this intense frantic bout of cleaning, it became motionless and led me to suspect that it was paralyzed or even dead.

The watch continued with a hope that something more would transpire. Eventually, the glow worm became active and started walking about. The snail by now had produced enough froth to cover itself and this froth kept the glow worm at bay. As the morning progressed, the incessant drizzle became heavy and gradually thinned the froth. The snail now started moving about and went on its way. The glow worm did not show any interest in the snail and wandered off far away from the snail.

Only when the snail and the glow worm parted ways, leaving in their wake many unanswered questions, did I realize that I had watched this interaction for over an hour!

It was several years ago, on the outskirts of Bangalore, that I first chanced upon a flower; it was hardly like any other flower I had seen before! I was very curious to find out what it was and also understand why the flowers were so differently shaped. There were no answers coming by for a long time after that. It was much later that I stumbled upon the same flower again – this time in Bannerghatta. There were several flowers on the creeper. I photographed it to my heart’s content. Rummaging through some books in my library, I finally managed to identify the flower as Ceropegia candelabrum.

Ceropegia candelabrum

Ceropegia candelabrum

Ceropegia candelabrum

Ceropegia candelabrum cluster

More recently, while on a holiday in the Western Ghats I was taken on a short trek through some beautiful forest. We saw some butterflies as we went along the partly shaded trail until we stopped and I was pointed to a slender creeper with flowers on it. It was another species of lantern flower – Ceropegia fantastica – a fantastic flower indeed!

Ceropegia fantastica

Ceropegia fantastica

Armed with the identity of these plants, I went about searching for some information on this group of curious plants and learnt some interesting aspects.

The genus Ceropegia has about 200 species and occurs largely in India, south Asia, parts of Australia and Africa with South Africa being home to the largest diversity of Ceropegias. In India itself some 51 species have been recorded hitherto; Himalayas and the peninsula seem to be the ‘hot spots’ with most species occurring in these regions. Of these, over 40 are considered to be threatened, rare or endangered – and I had seen 2 very rare plants!

Most species of the genus Ceropegia are twiners while some are herbs and are erect. The structure of the flowers of all species of the genus Ceropegia is basically the same. The flower, as in the images above, is a long tube with the petals, in most species, fused at the tip creating little windows. This structure is perhaps due to their very interesting strategy for achieving pollination.

I had some time ago written about the Birthworts wherein I had discussed various interesting aspects about them. This included their strategy to achieve pollination. Though Lantern flowers belong to a completely different family, the strategy used is very similar to that of the birthworts.

As in the birthworts, the Lantern flowers too have small downward pointing hair along the tube. This deters the pollinators (flies) from turning around and leaving the flower. This therefore acts as a trap, albeit a temporary one, for the pollinators. As the pollinators move about in the bulb at the bottom of the flower, they pick up pollen. As the flower ages and begins to wilt, the hair lining the tube of the flower droops or falls off allowing the pollinator to fly out. As the pollinator enters another flower, pollination is effected.

It is very interesting that two different families have managed to use the same strategy to ensure that their flowers are pollinated. The bizarre looking flowers and the pollination strategy make the Lantern flower very interesting.

So, when you do chance upon a Ceropegia, just let it be, appreciate and admire the beauty of these rare and endangered plants.

Fungi are found all around us! They perform an extremely crucial role in the environment – much more than what meets the eye. We often do not realise this because we don’t see them often. Apart from being nature’s recyclers, fungi also nurture life. To be able to do this, they need to reproduce and disperse their spores.

In fact, in the monsoon and post-monsoon months, which are perhaps the best times to look out for fungi, we can see them growing on the ground, on tree-trunks, on termite mounds, on rotting logs, etc.

During this season, we see them putting forth their fruiting bodies (which contain spores). These fruiting bodies come in an amazing array of shapes, sizes and colours. Fungi also use different mechanisms to disperse their spores. I have earlier written about the Stinkhorn Mushroom where the dispersal mechanism is explained.

Here, I am going to introduce you to two very interesting fungi. Both of them are dependent on rain to disperse their spores!

Earth Star

I visited a friend a couple of days ago in Bangalore on an invitation to see the different fungi growing in his garden. Little did I realise that he would point towards a partly shrivelled and at the same time very different looking fungus. This was on the ground at the base of a thicket lining the path leading to the house.

This instantly reminded me of what I had seen and photographed during a routine visit to the River Tern Lodge, Bhadra during August 2010. While walking about the campus, I happened to see a strange star-shaped object amid leaf litter at the base of a tree. Soon, I realised that it was a fungus. On closer observation, it was apparent that the bulb in the middle of the ‘star’ had a small hole. When I gently touched the bulb out of curiosity, a column of fine black dust (spores) came out. Later, I learnt that each time a drop of water falls on the bulb, the spores are released due to the pressure exerted by the drop of water and then carried away by the wind effecting dispersal over a larger area!

Earth Star_MG_1396

Earth Star Geastrum sp., River Tern Lodge, Bhadra

Earthstars are closely related to the Puffball fungi which use a similar mechanism to disperse spores.

Bird’s Nest Fungus

A large silk cotton tree on Infantry Road in the heart of Bangalore had a very severe infestation of borer beetles. It was a very weak tree and was brought down by the authorities for fear of it falling down due to strong winds.

The first monsoon that followed the felling of the tree turned out to be a treat for me. I used to inspect the tree stump and its vicinity as a matter of routine through that monsoon season and a little after. Several different kinds of mushrooms grew on the stump and eventually wilted away. One species of fungus caught my fancy – it was very different from anything that I had seen before!

Each individual fungus was a tiny stalked cup containing 3-4 egg-like structures; each one by itself was insignificant and easy to miss. However, as a cluster it was impressive. Well over a dozen of these little cups, complete with little ‘eggs’ in them was quite a sight. This resemblance to a bird’s nest is what gives this fungus its common name – Bird’s Nest Fungus.

Bird's Nest Fungi

Bird's Nest Fungi, Cyathus sp., Bangalore

Each ‘egg’ is a capsule that contains spores. The mechanism used to dislodge the ‘egg’ is very interesting indeed. The ‘eggs’ are propelled out of the cup when a drop of water falls into the ‘nest’ with sufficient force. If the angle and force of the water droplet is right, the ‘egg’ can be ejected to considerable distances. In some species each ‘egg’ has a string attached. When it is projected out of the cup, the string snags on to any stem / branch it encounters and thereby attaching the ‘egg’ to it. And the Bird’s Nest Fungus has achieved spore dispersal! The spores then germinate in the new place and start the process all over again.

It is truly amazing to see and learn about the extent to which the fungi have gone to devise mechanisms to ensure that spores are dispersed and that the next generation of fungi continue to perform their role in the ecosystem.

Crab Spiders

Bees are very active insects as we all are aware. Be it while on their hive or when they are visiting a flower, they are abuzz with activity. However, on one occasion, I saw a bee sitting on a flower for a protracted period of time without signs of any activity. This inactivity on part of the bee was very intriguing to me. When I got close, I realised why. The bee had become a victim of a beautifully camouflaged Crab Spider. This is how many of us have perhaps seen our first crab spider.

Crab Spider Thomisus sp. with a bee

Crab Spiders are a large and interesting family of spiders. There are over 2000 species world over belonging to the family Thomisidae. Their resemblance and behaviour to crabs is quite pronounced in many while not so in some others. The first 2 pairs of legs are very well developed in all crab spiders. They hold these legs in a manner that is very characteristic of Crab spiders. Their movement is also reminiscent of crabs – they can move sideways and backwards too.

Being such a diverse group it is only natural to expect them to occupy a variety of habitats with ample variation in their lifestyles. Among crab spiders one can find those that live on the ground, and those that live on plants (grass, bark, leaf, and flower). And, depending on where they live, they exhibit an interesting array of adaptations suitable for their survival.

Crab spiders, like all other spiders, can produce silk. But they do not build webs for the purpose of catching prey; they instead rely on camouflage and stealth.

Crab Spider Thomisus sp.

While some, as we have seen, hide in flowers and take on the colour of the flower, others merge with their backgrounds. There are still others which have taken this to another level altogether – they resemble objects in their environment.

I have seen several species of crab spiders to date. However, the most fascinating of them all are the ones I witnessed while on a trail at the Kabini River Lodge and another at the River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. It so happens that both of them were Bird-dropping Crab Spiders. They sat with their legs pulled in, looking like a lump; their warty appearance enhancing their resemblance to a bird-dropping. It is thought that they make a meal of flies and other insects that may get attracted to a “bird-dropping”.

Bird-dropping Crab Spider Phrynarachne sp.

The one from River Tern Lodge was coloured with various shades of brown.

Bird-dropping Crab Spider Phrynarachne sp.

In the more recent sighting of one at Kabini, the spider slowly crawled from under the leaf to the upper surface of the leaf. This was largely similar to the previous one but with legs coloured black and white, reinforcing the “bird-dropping” effect.

However, the one that I happened to see during a visit to Coorg completely took me by surprise. It turned out to be an Ant-mimic Crab Spider! I had only seen Ant-mimic spiders earlier, all of which were jumping spiders.

Ant-mimic Crab Spider Amyciaea sp.

Crab spiders occur in a variety of environs. Wherever they are found, they quietly control populations of other little creatures. So, try and encourage them to be part of your garden to begin with – it may be well worth the effort!

If you have already done so, the next time you stroll through the garden make sure that you look carefully at the flowers. For all you know you may see a beautiful little crab spider lurking amid the blossoms. More crab spider pics.

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