One of the walks in farms when I was a child, I had noticed some spit on the plants, I had asked a farmer for answers on who spat in his fields early morning, to which he said it is a snake’s spit. Myths such as this varied from farmer to farmer, some said it was spat by frogs and some said a snail puked. In some cultures it is mystified to be witches’ spit or a cuckoo’s spit too. But the real culprit was hidden inside the spit itself. When the bug swims out of its busy morning a yellow nymph showed itself that had a fish-like head. A curious nudge into the spit, limped a bug that undid its proboscis from the stalk and looked out to enquire.
Now you don’t have to feel awful when you see them on your dear plants and lawn, especially on the stalks that hangs a white froth held longer at dew hours. More often than not, the spits are of a Spittlebug unless you have not waged war against your neighbour. These bugs might have fed excessively on the stalks to wear a gown of froth, which would probably keep the nymphs of the bug safe from predators and from drying away in heat or cold conditions. With a few days passing, the wings of the Spittlebug develop and the amount of spit reduces eventually.
What develops from a full grown Spittlebug is another remarkable senior; one that doesn’t spit but jumps called the Froghoppers which are an astonishing little talented creature. Some Froghopper species can shoot up 100 times its body length and sport brilliant colors and patterns for a tiny bug. Scientists have been using high-speed cameras at the rate of 8000 per second to find the kinematics of Froghoppers.
The locomotion of insects is done by using thoraxes, some develop tails, some leap like crickets that use hind legs as spring and some simply walk on all six and most take off on wings. Jumping insects need muscular strength to perform locomotion and an ability to guide themselves for landing. Our contender is by far one of the best jumpers, crickets and locusts do jump but a short distance on heavy hind-legs to make the purchase while Froghoppers with short hind-legs which is less than half their body’s length, and weighing only 2% of their body mass and they don’t even use their wings to aid their take-off does make them outstanding jumpers.
Working against gravity requires energy that Froghoppers have overcome in their body weight by simply weighing less. Their jumping performances are rest taken care by muscle structure inside their hind-legs that catapults them at velocities ranging from 2.4 to 4.5 meters per second! That is 15 kmph. And their readiness to jump with forever-cocked-position of hind-legs keeps the kinetic energy ready to leap of faith. This leap can take them to a height of up to 70 centimetres to land them to their destinations. The super charged legs have now outdone the high-jumper’s records of fleas.
Why do they have to jump? It is quite unclear, could their predators challenge them to do so like the parasitic wasps, rapid chopsticks of mantises, witty warblers, unwitty grazers and camouflaged spiders? From spitting to propelling to beautifully patterned wings, Froghoppers or Spittlebugs fascinate much as any insect would.
Imagine a wedding proposal by a groom with a loud monotonic message of love, would she accept him? Yes, if he was a Cicada! He has crawled out of his gown from the last nymphood and stood up on the dais of a tree trunk for his once-in-a-lifetime event. This event is timed particularly in summer when he along with a million others of his kind assemble within a few acres of such wedding halls to sing their love song.
Cicadas have contested among the loudest insects and won the title by reaching over 105 decibels in some species. Most singing congregations are formed by one species. One such was of Platypleura species’ that have brilliant black hind-wings veined with striking red bases. These Cicadas aren’t louder than the less numbered Platypleura basialba which too have beautiful wing patterns and greenish wash to their body. Although they sing together here in Satpura, they may have different frequencies to their choir.
Unlike crickets that rub their body parts to produce their song, Cicadas use special instruments called timbal in their abdomen, these are like the metal clickers we made a racket out of as kids at any conversation. Had you clicked it 400 times a second your first girlfriend would have been a Cicada! Perhaps she will find another Cicada whose timbal buckles the muscles in and out at 400 buckles per second. This is amplified tenfold on ribbed timble plate to compose the love song. This song resonates in an air cavity in their abdomens to send the message to their love bug. Such messages are whined by millions of male Cicadas putting a passing tractor’s noise to shame.
In such numbers there is safety by giving predators a satiation, especially to Indian Rollers, Drongos and Shrikes who are known to make use of such abundance. A few would be persecuted by Garden lizards, agamas, wasps and spiders who wait for this bounty. The periodic Cicadas that emerge once in 13 or 17 years are Magicicadas of North America. This emergence could deregister any predator’s memory of anticipation. However most Cicadas emerge once in 2 to 6 years.
Here in Satpura, Platypleura sp may emerge and when they do, these true-bugs molt a few feet above on plants. Either for defense or for alarm they squirt the sap liquid from their anus when anyone passes near their ceremonial gathering. Trust me it is tasteless.
Interestingly the Cicadas’ highest assemblage were on bright barked trees like Axle wood, Dhobin, and Kadam trees. We sung into scientists’ ears if this is a strategy employed by grooms to stick out of camouflage and present themselves for the lady Cicada or is it an association with specific tree sap or would pale bark aid the hot-blooded Cicada to regulate their body temperature during their musical sessions.
As adults the Cicadas suck the tree sap using a hard straw from the choice of trees. But females have another straw at their rear to deposit her rice grain like eggs into tree barks by slitting. The song must be heard in a day or two to mate successfully and rest in peace forever. The eggs hatch in the slits made by their mother and feeds their first meal of sap liquid in that groove. Then they drown under the ground up to 8 feet and feed on the pipelines of trees for minerals and water. Here they develop through several stages of nymphood for the next 2 to 17 years depending on the species. And then comes one summer, and that particular day for a male imago to cast his gown and sing that very groom’s song of love.
As the summer Sun warms the land it defoliates trees and triggers them to flower. And this colorful and fragrant drinking fest attracts millions from beetles to butterflies and Starlings to Giant Squirrels, most of the entrepreneurship is taken by bees. Rock bees swarm looking for ridges, tall trees, steep and high rocks to hive. They start colonies wherever they find such ledges and water nearby. Such a spot was an entrance to a cottage at Forsyth Lodge!
Deepanker the manager had to act quickly before the guests arrive and before the bees hem their wax into a comb. After an inspection he came to the naturalists with a news of another entrepreneur around the bees.
‘It is a large moth you guys must have a look’ he cried.
This moth had perched behind the lampshade right behind the colony. We could only see it partly and we peered to have a look after negotiating the enquiring worker bees. But the shadow behind the lampshade only threw its largeness and rusty wing overall. After investing on the risk of getting past an active and aggressive rock bee colony, we were determined to find what the moth was upto. We gently tapped the abdomen for it to crawl outside but the moth turned out to be a death-trap to Deep and me! It squeaked and dashed into bees, then it flew at a great speed hysterically and disappered. Deep had exited the passage by then looking for the moth. And I had pushed myself into the wall’s plaster under the lamp and closed my eyes tight. Half-a-minute later it all appeared to be real and I peeled off the plaster and walked out surreptitiously with a prized moth perched on my shoulder!
Death-trap was set to prove the myths of Death-head moth. This smallest of the three Acherontia moths had chosen the lampshade. This is styx species and a Death-head is a name for its skull like pattern on its thorax. Some say it is to deter any attacker and some say it mimics worker bees, but Buffalo Bill makes it ghoulish in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.
‘Bro this BBC’s post says that they feed on the honey Bro’ exclaimed Bejoy reading about Death-heads in his uncanny naturalist’s enthusiasm. We piled on to read about this snatching the screen away from him. The Death-head moths are known to savour honey from median bees of Europe. It is also said that they make squeaking noise around the hives. And Heinrich Prell who unraveled this in German in 1920 went unnoticed by English readers, he writes about its fondness for honey probing with a short proboscis. He also had decapitated a death-head to find where and how it makes the deathly squeaks. He finds that the moth has its pharynx adapted to inflate-deflate instead of clicking like Erebid moths or any other moths that make sounds from their bodily adaptations.
As the fascination grew about this beautiful moth, of its myths and its physics, I stumbled upon recent discoveries on its chemical capabilities too. That they can mimic the scent of the bees and feel at-home from defensive workers to feast on their honey! Isn’t this a heist entrepreneurship of one insect over several armed entrepreneurs in the heat of summer that work as one?
What has this Acherontia moth got to do with squeaking sounds which we too heard while setting it back on lampshade is still unclear. Could it just be a defense? Is it in the bees’ vocabulary? Another question that squeaked to me is what motivates a moth to feed on honey- a protein rich sugar? We now are following the Death-head moth’s life-cycle and following bees for their marvellous predators.
I’ve been over Sagarmāthā,
winked at wall of death.
Aerial fights with Golden Eagle,
anon the Indian breath.
I’ve raised six Tibetan goslings,
in their mountain lakes.
Our Gander honked to meadows South,
along with other drakes.
Bird watchers count the bars on head,
divide the total by two.
Some are wedded by the rings,
to audit our deadly flu.
I return to higher land for summer,
with just two goslings ringed.
One was shot, another for Hawk,
two were plastic winged.
We had been wading for an hour on a trail that passes through a Dhole pack’s home range, and just then a vehicle trotted bringing news about the dogs around. I checked with Giovanna and Alfredo if they would be okay to go off the forest-roads and look for the Dholes and for Manan it was needless to ask, he had leapt ahead on his giant legs!
We showed up at the block where the Dholes were first reported but by then the alarmed Langurs stayed quiet, the safari vehicles had a rough idea of their whereabouts yet uncertain, and the paw impressions were bagged by vehicle tires, the watchful birds also kept their secret. Calling it a consolation we abandoned the pursuit and Giovanna and Alfredo had a long day after their Satpura trip and running with the pack might take more time. While returning to catch the pick-up boat I heard a humming around my ears; it was Manan, who persuaded me to lure the Italian couple into the pack and bend their itinerary. After a two minute thought-process, I spoke to the couple on pros and cons of delaying their planned schedule and tracking the pack.
‘If it is for Dholes I don’t mind missing the cave paintings or the Sanchi site’ Giovanna sparkled.
With that assurance, we dogged after the dogs. Most hunts by Dholes were done during dawn, and now that they hadn’t moved much for the last one hour, could they be around rocks lazing under dappled soft light through teak and Kullu gum trees, away from the herd of safari vehicles around a block, we anticipated. While on foot, we could brave into pugdundees snaking the section between parallel roads. We trekked up a hillock where sandstones had peeled, here were some tracks of dogs on dug-open soil and were recent. By then the vehicles had let go the warrant for the pack and could the whistling hunters have made it an opportune to walk ahead? ‘Let us walk to the parallel road ahead and check’ commanded our guide Kailash. No sign of dogs here but Langurs up on a tree watched their biped visitors and looked alert.
Kailash suggested to take on the large sloping rock leading back to the cliff, and we nodded around a thorny vine to catch up with enthusiastic Kailash; ‘Kutte’ and he pointed at a Dhole on a boulder! It stretched its body while watching us and another Dhole’s tail bounced behind it. In the minute of their distraction towards us we heard a growl and a thud, Giovanna and I at lead saw a leopard flee down the tree. One of the dogs jumped on the leopard but the big cat’s fleet of fear couldn’t match the dog’s grip, but the pack ran after in squeals and cackle, it set the quiet jungle into a brazen pack chase applauded by Langurs.
We paced up but the sounds were distant till it sank. A Sambar’s honk confirmed it several hundred meters away. This leopard must have been squatted up a tree by the dogs for quite some time and this pack of dogs has treed up a leopard second time in a week! Living with co-predators in a well-protected forest that has enough prey, water and cover is to manage time of activity and space for a home. It was Dhole’s opportunity now to instil fear into leopards until Dholes become vulnerable to them during the denning season. Giovanna and Alfredo shall wait to wonder when the tables turn, and Manan shall keep humming around Satpura to maintain this game of life unfinished.
On the super-moon 2016, after watching the most spectacular moonrise on River Denwa in Satpura, Bejoy and I walked under the moonlit skies that poured whiteness onto forested pathway and the sight was euphoric. We walked past some overgrowth of lantana and heard clicking sounds in the air around a bush, the sound was like clicking fingernails. I turned the torch on to cast at some moths in the air – some unidentified and some familiar, a katydid and a mathematical orb spider weaving her web for the night.
‘What could make such a sound?’ exclaimed Bejoy, a naturalist at lodge who has been noticing such clicks since a week during his sunset walks.
Click – click- click again, Bejoy’s excitement triggered the torch towards the sound and there were 4 to 5 Erebid moths, we did a triangulation to confirm if these moths clicked. Yes it did! Some moths were probing on lantana berries. We checked the bush and nearby clumps to discover that they were all similar looking moths having an ‘eye’ mark on their forewing, which might ward off predators while it also aptly titles them as ‘Owlet’ moths. However some moths differed by the white forewing pattern, it possibly indicated their sexual dimorphism. In our inquiry we brightened a worn-out owlet moth with our torch and we bagged it carefully in our fleece jacket as a sack and let it in a room to audit if the individual clicked. It stay put for few minutes and hopped but didn’t click even once, but we did- a few photographs and left it to its lantana pub.
A long time ago, a very long time- about 60 million years ago, when complex senses were developing in complex living organisms like ultrasonic and echolocation, a humble moth decided to equip a military-grade sonar jamming device to counter a recently evolved flying mammal; Bat. Most insectivorous bats have the power of echolocation for their nocturnal travels, but they perhaps were preaching an old man how to cough! Moths have evolved for over 190 million years, and some moth’s ultrasonic ability evolved about 8 million years before bats had evolved!
Wildlife biologist Aaron Corcoran and team shines evidence that the feeble, the papery, the slow-flying, powder-winged moth have ability to make ultrasonic clicks at a rate of 4500 times per second! Further research by scientists also revealed that those moths rubbed the muscles around their genitals to produce such clicks. After several experiments on Tiger moths and Hawk-moths, Aaron was convinced that these insects had developed with time to trick a complex mammal. Investigations revealed that the ultrasounds sent by bats who read the echoes rendered by objects the sound waves hit were blurred by high-speed clicks done by moths and further confounded the bat’s acoustic perception of objects.
Would the clicks made by owlet moths here at Satpura prevent them from a bat attack too? It needs to be experimented the way Aaron did, but we the naturalists at Forsyth Lodge have been tuning in to the moth-talks when they click during the bat’s hawking time. We have been crepuscular since this super moon night to record more observation and credit our owlet moths with such marvelous super power.
Bower birds of Austro-Papuan region are indeed one of the most spectacular birds in the world, who pick objects of same hue to decorate them around their nests to woo their mate. It must be a task to range distances and have an analytical and reasoning skill to differentiate the colors, sizes and shapes of objects.
Nests are built either for refuge, breeding or hunting, some keep them concealed like potter wasps, some decorate using natural and man-made material like the Bowers while some like Velvet mites decorate with their own sperms, and some bagworms modestly yet wisely nest using debris and some engineer their’s just like this one; the networking social insects that make nests right under our feet!
Amita called out for Tarun who was investigating Wild dog’s scat that landmarked their vast home range. She pointed out a decoration of drying Justicia flowers around a half moon wall made of grains of earth. ‘These flowers look like some sort of decoration around a nest’ I speculated, just then two worker ants of Tetramorium species marched out of the hole and one brought the flower and the other heaved a grain of earth and then strolled on the bund drumming their antennae. The grain was thrice the size of their heads and it crumbled when touched as feebly known to mankind. This nest had a wall that faced west, it was as wide as the visor of a pea cap and the nest caved along the grass roots.
As Amita built curiosity about the behavior of ants, we took notice of ants and the floral decor at their nest more frequently in the rest of our walk. Eventually our eyes got hyperaware of the Justicia flowers federation around ant nests even during safaris! We now got intimate with glitzy Bower bird-like-adornment that these ants played with Justicia flower or if it was Justicia who played with ants- we pondered. We noticed that not all winter-flowering Justicia that bloomed in a comb were brought by these florists but they manicured till a flower or four charmed in the combs for the plant to pollinate and multiply. Ants are social insects mothered by one ant in most species and largely workers are sterile females, rarely they have nuptial moments in winters; the adornment echoes the Bower birds but not their intentions of love.
Botanist friend Guru speculates that ants are seldom foe to plants and this picking of flower has got to do with its nectar or pollen, and once done they litter the used flower around their walls. Most Tetramoriums are hearty when feeding, they feed on dead insects, kitchen food and even plant parts like pollen. But these ants bred further questions in my mind; would it not give away their presence to their predators? Does this flower mean special to the queen ant or larvae? We also noticed tectonic work done around many ant nest-sites, hence would the labor squad require more ant-power and is Justicia doing the justice?
We are curious to learn about the spectacular relationship of this plant and ants, do write to us and tell us what you speculate. After all the decorations did draw some love towards these ants!
What goes around comes around.
A Gaur had grazed grass along River Denwa meadows, early noon it had browsed a few shrubs before rest, later it nibbled a few Indian Ebony fruits in the evening and decided to spend the night near the grasslands where elephant rides take place. Here it spat a pile of dung while grazing in darkness. The next morning I came for a walk with guests, after a hundred steps we arrived at the Gaur dung which began to crumble and saw dung bits wriggling too. Our eyes picked a ball as big a Ping-Pong ball rolling away, behind this hard and moist ball was a beetle pushing it upside down.
We watched and wondered how it navigated itself while rolling a ball possibly 4 or 5 times or even more than its own weight; Swedish researcher Marie Dacke investigates with various experiments on an African Dung beetle that they used Milky way galaxy to navigate on straight lines from the pile. Some dungies have other mechanisms of navigation depending on species and what dung they take on…Yes, some are choosy about the dung! They prefer the doings of an herbivore since they offer nutrient-rich dung with delicious vegetable matter, some beetles may not touch any other herbivore’s droppings if dedicated to a particular one. Imagine a horse walking into our forests and dutifully taking a dump, the dung beetles might not touch it at all. Even a lowly creature can choose!
Another pile of dung close by sat pensively, but under this cake a busy dung beetle equipped with a shovel on the head and axes on its thorax drilled a tunnel. Not all dung beetles roll their dung, some Geotrupes like this one drilled a tunnel to save itself from being mobbed by other beetles and predators and wisely it had carved chunks of dung into the tunnel and perhaps planned to lay eggs in them.
The King of the dung who rolled that piece of Gaur dung on a straight line was interrupted by my inquisitiveness. It ceased the march at once and circled the dung ball twice to check who meddled. It enthroned itself on the dung and performed a dance on its hind legs, while doing so dungies orient themselves to riddle out their bearings. Having known its northings, the King continued the roll to the edge of a meadow to find soft soil. While holding on to the ball it dug and went beneath the ball. In few minutes the ball jagged into the tunnel slowly. The good deeds of the dung beetle churned the plant material back to the soil for composting. Whatever goes around with this lowly King definitely comes around .
Our briefings before a walk in Satpura is around Sloth Bears, and most guests who walk would expect to see birds perched or mammals running away or the smaller creatures like spiders, dragonflies, butterflies, scorpions or interesting shrubs and trees, what excites in their wish list to see would be a colubrid. We were walking up a gradient after crossing a dry stream,
‘Have you seen a teak skeletonizing moth caterpillars leaving nets on large leaves?’
Even before she could catch the tail of my question a flurry of black furry boulder took from a tree. I turned to hush Sobha and Vinay but the bear did it with a snort and put a good distance from us and sat down.
We the people and the bear were awestruck, we the people bunched together and Bhurelal the park guide with his bear-safety kit of pressurised horn, pepper spray and a heavy bamboo staff stood as the bulwark. The bear looked at his feet and at the puzzled herd of Gaur ahead of us. He was calming, he might have been preparing for a siesta. River Denwa was at its brim, the backwater had some froth and it surfed at the forest behind the bear like mousse. If he had to scram away, river-bank away from us was ideal or barge towards Gaur ahead of us or unexpectedly rather expectedly at us! After nearly five minutes of watching each other he stomped along the river-bank away from us and he stopped again looking at the Gaur and us.
Sobha and Vinay investigated the tree where the furry liftoff took place, we learnt that the grass and weed were bent and the earth was exposed enough for a bear to bum in, several bent grass blades were dry as though frequently used. The Chironji tree stood like a mast for a climbing ziziphus’ thorns that sucked itself into a cave for the bear. No claw or neb mark as any usual signs of a bear could be investigated nor was any dropping except a brave frog’s poop. Are we really in the living room of a bear!? The bear watched unwelcomingly from the Denwa creek.
Often feared to be aggressive, Sloth Bears are animals that operate mostly during dark hours or gloomy weather, possible reasons could be to avoid disturbances from people and other animals while digging termites or sucking up fruits, other reasons could be for bees being inactive during night which is a part of their social-insect-cuisine. But a dark animal burying sensors into earth by closing eyes- although not a great eyesight, but a pair of nostrils picking acute smells yet buried with innate stoppers on. A person running into a bear unwarily like Sobha and gang would surprise any animal including humans, who when surprised would either take flight or fight. Imagine what a wild animal could do with four inches long claws, piggy-backing year old cubs, flabbergasted and having history lessons from grandparents or bear-talks of cubs picked up by Kalandar men for entertainment!
Sobha and gang decided for the safety of ourselves and the bear and Bhurelal’s job to take a detour, around the Gaur herd with much vigilance to not wake another bear!