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Mantisfly

I chanced upon a very weird insect up in the tree some 10 ft from the ground. I managed to get a record shot before I even tried to get closer to it. I slowly pulled the drooping lower end of the branch down as much as it would yield to get some close-up shots of the insect in question. This was way back in 2007 while visiting the Dubare Elephant Camp.

Doing macro photography with one hand is always challenging. More so when you are holding the branch which is resisting being pulled! When the subject was close enough, I managed to get some pictures. While looking through the viewfinder, what struck me most was the naked neck with several folds to it! In some sense it reminded me of a vulture! Later, when I sent the picture to Shyamal, he identified it as a Mantisfly (sometimes also referred to as mantidfly).

Mantisfly from Dubare

Mantisfly from Dubare

It was in recent times, when I happened to see a mantisfly in my garden, that I was reminded about the above incident and the antics that went in to photographing it. This took me by surprise since I had not seen one in all the years that the garden has existed. I was on the terrace of my house when I saw the mantisfly. It was perched at eye-level on a leaf and not particularly disturbed by the interest that was being showered upon it. It co-operated long enough for me to take my pictures. In fact, it was still there when I had finished shooting and had packed my equipment.

Mantisfly from my garden, Bangalore

Mantisfly from my garden, Bangalore

The second incident renewed my interest in this creature and what I learnt about it was very interesting.

The name mantisfly is a complete misnomer because it is neither a mantis nor a fly! Mantisflies have characters typical of two different insects, primary one being their strong resemblance to praying mantids. Their first pair of legs is very well developed. The triangular head with large eyes also strongly resemble the praying mantids. The other resemblance is their wings which are characteristic of lacewings. In fact, mantisflies are relatives of lacewings, antlions and owlflies (all belonging to order Neuroptera).

As adults, mantisflies feed upon a variety of small insects. They use their well developed first pair of legs to capture prey much like a praying mantis. However, it is the larvae of the mantisfly that has an interesting life style.

The larvae are also predators. They feed on a variety of things that include beetle larvae, flies, bees, etc. However, the habit of the larvae of some species to get on to an unwary spider and wait until she builds an egg case to surreptitiously enter it before it is completed is very interesting. It later makes a meal of the eggs! If the spider that the mantisfly larva is riding happens to be a male, it will wait for the male to get close to a female for mating before moving to the female which would eventually make an egg case!

Very little is known about the 400 or so species of mantisflies in the world. Further research about these creatures would perhaps throw up some very interesting facts about their lifestyles.

A trip to Nagaland

The very thought of going to Nagaland was exciting! So, when I was asked if I would like to go there, it was very difficult for me to resist the temptation. Before I realised, the date for departure from Bangalore to Dimapur was staring me in the face.

The trip to Nagaland during April-May 2012 was to primarily look at butterflies. Of course, anything else that came by was a bonus. Here is a very brief trip report.

We (Vidya Venkatesh & I) stayed with Mr. Khrieni Meru and his family at our first destination – Khonoma. We were very well taken care of. The accommodation provided was basic, clean and comfortable. The food was tasty. The month of May is hot in most parts of the country. But, once we headed out into the hills from Dimapur, the weather was absolutely splendid – we had to use blankets to keep warm in the night!

A view from the Meru residence.

Though we did see a few butterflies while at Khonoma, the rain and cold weather on the first couple of days was a letdown. The highlights were the Great Blackvein, the Mongol, and the Veined Labyrinth.

Great Blackvein.

As planned, we moved to Dzuleke after staying in Khonoma for 3 days. Dzuleke, not very far from Khonoma, is a small hamlet in a valley completely surrounded by towering hills – an absolutely splendid place. The forests looked beautiful and full of promise.

The forest around Dzuleke.


We stayed in a guest house located not far from a stream. The accommodation was again very basic.

Our place of stay at Dzuleke.

Our hosts were very helpful and ensured a comfortable stay. The food was tasty and always piping hot, no matter what time of the day we returned from field work.

During the time spent in the field we also saw various other organisms that included scorpionflies, bugs, fungi etc.

A scorpionfly.

A bug.

One of the many fungi that we saw.

While at Dzuleke, we spent a lot of time walking on the road leading to Benrue. There was a good amount of butterfly activity along the road. The road itself was not in any great state. The road was dotted with potholes of all shapes and sizes which collected rain water. This attracted several butterflies for mud-puddling. But the number of butterflies we saw dead due to road kills (in spite of very few vehicles plying the road) was saddening. This included the Blue Peacock, Windmills, Stately Nawab, Spectacle and Four-bar Swordtails.

A rare and endangered butterfly - deNiceville's Windmill.

Pictures of some of the butterflies from our Nagaland visit can be seen here.

Waterscorpion

A creature that breathes with its ‘tail’?! Yes, there is one such – the Waterscorpion.

The name is misleading. As it suggests, it is not a scorpion that lives in water; but, an insect, a bug that lives in water! Waterscorpions get their name due to their superficial appearance of some members to scorpions.

Adult waterscorpions breathe with the help of their tail – two filaments sticking to each other that form the siphon. When they stay under water they keep the siphon above so that they can breathe, something akin to a snorkel.

Waterscorpions are essentially bugs. Though they have wings and can fly, they prefer walking at the edge of a water body or amidst aquatic vegetation.The first time I saw one was in a similar setting – well camouflaged, at the edge of the water and submerged. It was just deep enough to ensure that the tip of the tail was out of water. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, I could not capture it as it was. I persuaded the bug out of water briefly and got a few quick pictures. Even by the time I got a couple of frames it walked back into the water. This creature looked like a typical bug with a tail.

Waterscorpion Nepa sp. having a 'scorpion-like' appearance.

More recently, while on a nature trail at Bannerghatta, I saw yet another which resembled a stick insect. It sat on a stone at the water’s edge; the location posing a challenge for photography.

Waterscorpion Ranatra sp. resembling a stick insect.

Waterscorpions use their well developed first pair of legs resembling pincers of a scorpion for grasping prey. Being insects, they have only 3 pairs of legs unlike the scorpions that have 4 pairs. Like all bugs, waterscorpions also have piercing and sucking mouthparts. However, in waterscorpions the mouthpart is short and beak-like.

These are very slow moving insects. However when it comes to catching prey, their movements can be quite fast. Their prey consists of aquatic organisms like small fish, tadpoles, and other insects. After catching the prey they inject it with an enzyme which digests the innards of the prey. The waterscorpion then sucks the contents leaving behind the outer shell of the prey! Waterscorpions are in-turn food to a variety of aquatic organisms like fish.

Having adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, they also breed in water. Adult waterscorpions lay eggs on aquatic vegetation just near the water surface. Eggs are also laid in the mud or decomposing vegetation at times. The young ones are also aquatic and look like miniatures of the adult. They grow as they moult – usually five times before they are adults.

There are over 150 species of waterscorpions in the world. They are better represented over the warmer parts of the world. All of them are placed in a family that is exclusive to these aquatic bugs. In India, we have representatives of both the sub-families of waterscorpions, the above pictures being representative of them.

So, the next time when you are near a water body look out for the usually well camouflaged waterscorpions in the shallow area and also close to aquatic vegetation. For all you know you may get lucky and see one!

Orchids are a very diverse family with about 25000 species, making them one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world! This being the case, one should expect an amazing variety and also several interesting and unique adaptations among orchids.

I encountered this very interesting orchid, on the same on the same trip to Coorg when I saw and photographed Balanophora fungosa. As I was walking on the track in the forest, I stumbled (well almost literally!) upon this orchid. An inconspicuous slender stalk growing on the middle of the path caught my attention. By the time what I saw registered in my head, I had walked ahead a few paces. Retracing my steps, I returned to the spot where the orchid was growing.

The inconspicuous flowering stalk of the Ghost Orchid Epipogium roseum.

I was completely surprised by what I was seeing. More so, since it had been a good two decades since I had seen it last. Looking around I saw a few more of these slender stalks. The first time I had seen this orchid was in the Anaimalai Wildlife Sanctuary (now called as Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park) in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, both these places are high rainfall areas and both the times that I had seen this orchid happened to be in the month of December.

This orchid – the Ghost Orchid Epipogium roseum – is similar to all others in it basic characters. It is different from most other orchids in the fact that this one does not produce any leaves at all. This also means that it cannot photosynthesise! So where does the orchid derive its nutrition from? When I had first seen it and had managed to get its identity, I had also tried to understand the plant a bit more than just appreciating its delicate beauty.

I learnt that these orchids are entirely dependant on fungi to satisfy their requirement since they cannot produce their own food! Consequently, they grow in areas where the soil has a high organic content in a stage of decay. The flowers last for all of 2 weeks or so before wilting away. These orchids are easily missed due to the kind of places that they grow in and their ephemeral nature. During the rest of the year, the plant remains as a rhizome (underground stem) waiting for the next flowering season!

Close-up of the flower

Tokay Gecko Gekko gecko

I set out to do some birding in the fading light of the day on the outskirts of Agartala (Tripura). In the short time that was left of the day I enjoyed the company of Racket-tailed Drongos, Red-breasted Parakeets and a few other birds. The light faded quickly and everything around me was quiet.

This is when I heard a two syllable call that went “tok-kay” or “tuck-too” from a nearby tree. For a moment my mind scanned through all the bird calls that I was familiar with. I drew a blank. Then it occurred to me that this was indeed a gecko and named after the call it utters – the Tokay Gecko Gekko gecko (also known as the Tuctoo Gecko) and the largest gecko in India!

Later in the evening the call of this nocturnal gecko was heard several times. So, I went around the old buildings searching and finally managed to see the monster of a gecko. I had not seen such a large, and at the same time beautiful, gecko. I was really lucky. The adult that I spotted was also accompanied by four young ones ! They were all very shy and photographing them was not easy.

Though the Tokay Gecko is known to grow to about 14 inches, the adult that I saw was about 8 inches long. It was pale bluish grey with orange spots.

Tokay Gecko

Tokay Gecko Gekko gecko (adult)

The young ones were equally colourful with orange spots spread all over the body with bands of white spots interspersed in between. The banded tail was also characteristic.

Tokay Gecko

Tokay Gecko - young one

Naturally, the Tokay Gecko lives on trees and rocky cliffs. However, in many parts of NE India and parts of SE Asia, the Tokay Gecko is known to live in residences too.

The Tokay Gecko was incidentally described by Linnaeus way back in 1758. However, today, this gecko has sadly become prey to misconceptions. In several parts of SE Asia they are caught and used as a remedy for several ailments. This has led to this gecko being collected and traded illegally. Besides, it also can be part of pet trade.

It was one of those year-end jaunts into the wilderness with like-minded friends. Destination – Coorg. After enjoying the forests and its denizens through most part of the morning, we reached a stream at the edge of a coffee estate. It was late afternoon when we ate our packed lunch and rested for a while. The trees were towering over us and forest was slowly beginning to get dark. One of us, while exploring the area around the stream, found something very peculiar under a large dead tree that had fallen to the ground.

All of us gathered around this strange subject but none of us were able to fathom what it was. It looked like a cluster of globular pinecones of various sizes, the largest about the size of a badminton ball. We were guessing – fungus, part of some plant – all distinct possibilities. However, we all took some pictures and left.

Balanophora cluster

Cluster of Balanophora inflorescences

Much later, when we enlarged the image, we realised that it could indeed be a plant ! Each of the globular structures was indeed an inflorescence ! In fact, what I missed when photographing was a bee sitting on the flower. However, there were no leaves as part of the plant that we could see. This was very intriguing and left us wondering. We forgot all about this plant in question on our return, albeit for a short while. The curiosity of a plant kept nagging me. Only when I learnt a little more about the subject did things fall into place.

Bee on the Balanophora flower.

It turned out to be a plant that is more fungus-like – a rare one at that – Balanophora fungosa!

Close-up of the flower.

Balanophora fungosa, like most others of the family, lack the green pigment – cholorophyll – that enables plants to photosynthesize. It is a parasitic flowering plant. Most of the time, it remains underground where the plant grows on the roots of trees with only the inflorescence showing above the ground. Several species of trees (over 25) play host to Balanophora fungosa.

Balanophora grows in moist areas and has a wide distribution. In India, it occurs in the southern states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa; north-eastern India is also within its distribution range. There are reports of the plant from various parts of the world primarily the tropics.

We know very little of the biology of plant. All these make Balanophora a very unusual plant indeed.

A Scorpion ? A Spider ?

A renewed interest in spiders in the last 5 years prompted me to read up about the various spiders we have in India. And, ever since I stumbled upon this specific one, I have had this urge to see one in person and photograph it – due to the intriguing name it sports!

I was walking a trail with the naturalists at Kabini River Lodge when we spotted this spider. One of the naturalists suddenly stopped as he was about to walk straight into the web and drew my attention to what was in front of him. It turned out to be the Scorpion Spider ! The excitement among all of us soared. In spite of knowing pretty well that the spider was not going to disappear, all of us were still vying to get a closer look of the scorpion look alike!

The Scorpion Spider is a spider indeed. It has all the characteristics of a spider. Just that its body is elongated and resembles that of a scorpion, tail, sting and all. In fact, the genus to which it belongs to Arachnura simply means “spider with a tail” (arachne = spider; ura=tail). When disturbed these spiders do raise the tail part of their body enhancing their resemblance to a scorpion. There ends all relationship to scorpions. If you are expecting it to sting like the scorpions do, don’t worry, these spiders don’t sting !

Scorpion Spider with "tail" raised.

The Scorpion Spider is an orb-weaving spider. As can be seen in the pictures, it sits on the web with all its legs pulled up close and looking like some dry twig or leaf. The pattern on the body further enhances this camouflage.

Scorpion Spider with egg cases.

Subsequently, I have chanced upon these spiders in other places too, the forests in the vicinity of Dubare Elephant Camp being one such.

So, the next time, before you just walk past a spider web thinking that it has only some debris, pause for a second closer look. You may be staring at a Scorpion Spider !

Mayfly

Kabini has always sprung surprises on me. The recent visit was no exception. It was mid-November and there was a distinct nip in the air.

I reached Kabini River Lodge late in the evening just in time for dinner. After a quick wash, I headed towards the dining area. Normally this space is well lit. But to my surprise, much of the dining hall was dark. I was left wondering. Was I too early for dinner? Not really.

Initially, I thought that the lights were off to prevent the termites (alates) from getting attracted to them. However, only on closer observation did the answer become apparent – hundreds of mayflies had emerged from the water! Being attracted to light they were congregating near all the lights that were left on. The walls were dotted with mayflies; for that matter they were sitting on virtually everything. For some time now they have been growing from egg to nymph and were waiting for the opportune moment to make their maiden flight and out of water.

Adult mayfly

Mayflies are very interesting insects and have an equally interesting life-cycle. During mass emergence like the one described above, they mate, lay eggs and die. The females lay eggs on water or other substrates under water. The eggs sink down to the bottom of the water body. Eventually the eggs hatch and nymphs (also known as naiads) come out. They are aquatic and breathe through gills. The time taken for completion of the nymphal stage is very variable both within species and across species. During this time they moult several times as they grow feeding on aquatic organisms like algae besides some debris at the bottom on the water body.

When the time is right, there is mass emergence, they mate and the entire process is repeated. However, the mayflies that have emerged from water often settle down to moult one last time before they become adult mayflies. This makes mayflies unique – these are the only insects that have winged immatures.

Mayfly moult

As adults they live for a very short time. Hence the order to which they belong to is called Ephemeroptera (ephemeral – short-lived). Many survive for a day or two with some species surviving a little longer. As adults they have rudimentary mouth parts and don’t eat at all.

Next morning I went on a walk on the campus. I saw several mayflies sitting on plants, lamp posts, on the fence, and pretty much everywhere. What was striking though was the moult left behind by hundreds of mayflies. Several mayflies had got entangled in spider webs. Spiders were having a feast – a time of plenty. Perhaps insectivorous bats might have fed on them too during the night.

Mayfly entangled in the web of an Orange Orchard Spider

Mayflies are an integral part of the food chain. Being insects that spend much of their lives underwater, they are fed upon by a host of creatures – fish, frogs, birds, other insects, etc. When they do emerge, they fall prey to a host of terrestrial organisms.

Jumping Spider feeding on mayfly

Mayflies spend much of their lifespan as nymphs in fresh water. This makes them good indicators of water quality too. They generally prefer unpolluted waters. And they form a very important link in the food-chain both as aquatic nymphs and as winged adults. The world over, there are about 2500 species of mayflies with about 124 species recorded from India.

I had mentioned in the previous post titled The Mast Tree and the Tailed Jay that there are other characters in this story. I cannot introduce them to you without going back in time. So here it goes.

The banana plants owe their advent and existence in our garden to my dad. He, with great enthusiasm, brought a banana plant from our village. In quick succession, another visit to the village saw another small banana plant coming into our garden. They were showered with great care and attention. All this did not go in vain. The plants responded well. They grew tall quickly, and their leafy crown looked grand. All this effort was, of course, with selfish motives. All of us, day after day, looked towards the garden hoping to see a red inflorescence taking shape. The wait had just begun.

Perhaps an entire year had passed. We saw the banana plants through the summer, monsoon and winter. But there was no luck. One day, I was just exploring the garden. To my surprise, I saw a new shoot raising its head from the ground. I was overjoyed to see our family of banana plants grow in number. Gradually, we had a small cluster of five or so banana plants, all of varying heights. Together, they had created a different level to the garden which otherwise consisted of only shrubs.

A recent picture of my garden showing many levels of vegetation

One evening, I was sitting on the terrace of our home trying to soak in the sunset which was all set to become rarer due to the rapidly changing skyscape of the city. The sun went down and I was enjoying the changing hues of the sky. All traces of sunlight disappeared and the streetlights came on. This is when I saw a small bat flying around. It flew in and out of the garden and would also venture farther afield. I had seen the Indian Flying Fox fly past on several occasions but had never seen this little fellow. A series of questions passed my mind. What species of bat was it? Where does it roost? What does it feed on? Does this species, like many bats, also roost in colonies?

The following morning even before it got bright, I was up on the terrace hoping to catch a glimpse of the bat and perhaps find out where it roosts. I was in luck. Hanging beneath a banana leaf was a furry mass – it indeed was the bat! I was very excited and I got my parents to come out and have a look at it.

It so turned out that it was a Shortnosed Fruit Bat Cynopterus sphinx. And, as the name suggests it eats fruits and does not roost in large colonies. It normally roosts under leaves like the one in my garden or at times under the eaves of houses and old buildings.

Over the years the banana plants have put forth several suckers and we have a cluster of them today. This, in spite of having removed several on request from neighbours for religious purposes, those that got stolen and the ones that decided to call it a day and fell down due to strong winds.

Notwithstanding the number of plants, we have had these bats in our garden regularly and a search invariably yields at least one, sometimes more. The maximum that I have seen at any instance has been six individuals. I have also been lucky to see adult bats roosting while embracing a baby with their membranous wings.

The Shortnosed Fruit Bats, like all other bats, are nocturnal in habit. This being the case, bats as a group are poorly understood. There are also several myths that revolve around them. However, the fact remains that this is a successful group constituting 25% of all mammals on Earth! India alone has about a 100 species with Bangalore having its fair share.

The presence of bats has also led to other interactions involving the omnipresent crow. The Jungle Crow, in particular, seems to have an uncanny knack of locating the bats roosting under the leaves and harassing them. The squeaky nasal call of the bat, reminiscent of rats, has drawn my attention each time the crows were up to mischief. Time went by and the banana plants started bearing flowers one by one. It was wonderful to watch the bats (during night) and squirrels and bees (during day) visit on the banana flowers as and when they were exposed by the falling of the red leathery spathes. Eventually, the flowers were replaced by fruits. When we were hoping that we would be able to feast on them, we realised that these were unsuitable for human consumption. For me, this came as good news – the fruits would be on the plants for the bats and squirrels! Now, when we see a flower or fruits developing on the banana plant, we completely ignore it and take delight in the fact that bats, squirrels and birds are having a good time.

These bats over the years have sprung surprises time and again. This is largely by way of adding to the plants that now grow in our garden. Several plants that we never planted have now taken root and have established themselves. The curry leaf plant is perhaps one of them. My mother would go to great lengths to grow one of these. But now, we have so many saplings – all growing on their own. There was one cluster of these just below a leaf under which the bats roosted frequently! The bats must have fed on the fruits of the curry leaf plant elsewhere and dropped the seeds in our garden.

Perhaps a year or so ago, I had noticed a Mast Tree Polyalthia sp. which had taken root in the garden. Now it stands about 2 feet tall. It looks like the bats are planting their own garden! In the process, they are also helping other wildlife come in to the garden. I had written about one such instance in my previous post.

The banana plant was one of the key additions to the garden. It provided a roosting place for the Shortnosed Fruit Bats. We just let them be, and they in turn enriched my garden by planting species which included the curry leaf plant and the Mast tree. The curry leaf plant has always played host to larvae of the Common Mormon and now the Mast tree is supporting the Tailed Jay.

Larva of Common Mormon

We can see how each of these characters fit into the larger drama of life that is enacted constantly all around us. It only requires us to see, observe, understand and appreciate all that happens right in the midst of urban chaos.

Ideally, the title should be “The Banana Plant, the Short-nosed Fruit Bat, the Mast Tree and the Tailed Jay”. I did not put up this title fearing that it would scare you all and also due to the lack of space for such a lengthy title.

Recently, I was casually looking at the wild growth in my garden. There were some jumping spiders amidst the foliage as well as many flies belonging to family Neriidae on the trunk of the drumstick tree. I also spotted a moth larva with a colourful head and busied myself photographing it.

While doing so, I saw a Tailed Jay butterfly sitting under a leaf of the Mast Tree Polyalthia sp. not taller than 2 feet. The Tailed Jay is a very restless butterfly and not the most easily photographed. So, I approached it very carefully and hoped to get a good shot. As I positioned myself for the task at hand, I realized that the butterfly had just about emerged from its pupa and was sitting on the same leaf on which the spent pupa remained attached. I took pictures of the butterfly with its wings closed.

I had photographed the Tailed Jay with the wings open several years ago on slide film. Another opportunity had presented itself now. I knew that I had a good chance of getting a picture of the butterfly with the wings open if only I waited for the butterfly to attempt its first flight.

To kill time I looked around the garden for other things and found a large green mantis which was busy cleaning its legs. Photographing the mantis took quite some time.

It was now time to visit the Tailed Jay again. I was really lucky. The butterfly had just started to fly weakly. On its solo flight it flew and settled on another plant nearby and I got an opportunity to get a picture of it with wings open.

You must be wondering as to what happened to all the other characters in the plot. Well, this is just the first part. The other characters will come into the story in the next post.

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