Archive for the ‘Habitats’ Category

Prof. Biju’s talk

by on Monday, February 13th, 2012

EES lab at the University of Peradeniya, had their first invited speaker, and it was non other than the renowned systematist & conservation biologist Prof. S. D. Biju from Delhi University.
He gave a lucid introduction to (vertebrate) life on earth, and highlighted the amphibians in space and time. He explained how the general public was mobilized towards amphibian conservation in India. Now frogs in India are as charismatic as the Tigers and Elephants!
Following is an abstract of his talk, and a brief introduction about the scientist:
LIFE: understanding with uncertain knowledge – halting human induced amphibian extinction
SD Biju, Department of Environmental Studies, Systematics Lab,
University of Delhi, Delhi 110 007
Abstract: Life happened on earth 3.5 billion years back and human life came in much later. In spite of scientific progress, about 70% of species still remain undiscovered and nameless. We have discovered about 1.7 million species on land and in water. So what remains undiscovered is a huge portion of our biodiversity.
Against the background of still unknown richness of biodiversity, this century has witnessed rapid extinctions of species. Millions of species are disappearing directly as a result of human destruction of natural habitats.
There are about 7000 species of known amphibians. Among vertebrates, they are the third largest group – after fishes and birds. Many amphibians are yet to be discovered and many aspects of the known species are unknown. On the express road to discoveries, descriptions and conservation action is an urgent need.
Amphibians were the first vertebrates to venture out onto land. The earliest amphibians resembled modern coelacanth and lungfish both of which have leg-like fins that enabled them to crawl on land. Once acquiring solid land, these animals underwent drastic adaptations that sowed the seeds for the evolution of all higher group of vertebrates. Though small in size, amphibians have successfully survived the massive upheavals on earth which wiped out the midgets as well as giants like dinosaurs.
Currently, these hardy survivors of cataclysmic events are helpless to handle habitat destruction that threatens them with extinction. As agents of this massive habitat destruction, it is high time that we take action and conserve these beautiful creatures before they go extinct.
Amphibians fascinate us not only because they have lived on this earth longer than us but also because of their beauty, behaviour and biological characteristics. Many amphibian activities have human friendly results: they control pests of agriculture and vectors of diseases like malaria. They contribute to healthy ecosystems by being a vital link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Amphibians are also an asset to biomedical research; by studying the permeable skin of amphibians, scientists have made advancements towards potential painkillers, HIV and skin cancer treatments.
Frogs are indicators of ecosystem health. Silence of frogs is a loud message that something is seriously wrong with our ecosystems.
Relevant Publications
Biju, S.D. and Bossuyt, F. 2003. New frog family from India reveals an ancient biogeographical link with the Seychelles. Nature  425: 711-714.
Biju, S.D. and Bossuyt, F. 2009. Systematics and phylogeny of Philautus Gistel, 1848 (Anura, Rhacophoridae) in the Western Ghats of India, with descriptions of 12 new species. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 155: 374-444.
Roelants, K., Gower, D.J., Wilkinson, M., Simon P. Loader, Biju, S.D., Karen Guillaume, Moriau, L., Bossuyt, F. 2007.  Global patterns of diversification in the history of modern
amphibians. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA 104 (3): 887-892.
Biju, S.D., Ines Van Bocxlaer, Varad B. Giri, Simon P. Loader and Franky Bossuyt. 2009. Two new endemic genera and a new species of toad (Anura: Bufonidae) from the Western Ghats of India. BMC Research Notes 2009, 2: 241.
Biju, S.D., Roelants, K. and Bossuyt, F. 2008. Phylogenetic position of the montane treefrog Polypedates variabilis Jerdon, 1853 (Anura: Rhacophoridae), and description of a
related species. Organisms, Diversity and Evolution 8: 267-276.
Ines Van Bocxlaer, Simon P. Loader, Kim Roelants, S.D. Biju, Michele Menegon and Franky Bossuyt. 2009. Gradual Adaptation Toward a Range-Expansion Phenotype Initiated
the Global Radiation of Toads. Science 327 (5966): 679–682.
Michael Hoffmann, ……….. S.D. Biju (and others) 2010. The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates. Science 330, 1503-1509.
About the speaker:  Sathyabhama Das Biju (SD Biju) is Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies (Systematics Lab, University of Delhi. He has a PhD in Biology (Animal Science: Amphibians) from Vrije Universiteit (Brussels) with the greatest distinction, as well as a PhD in Botany (Plant Systematics) from Calicut University. He is also Scientific Associate at the British Museum of Natural History, London and a visiting researcher/faculty at Vrije Universiteit, Brussels. Biju specializes in systematics of Indian amphibians, with over 30 years of field experience. He has discovered over 100 new species of amphibians (52 formally described till 2011), including the description of a new family, six new genera and the smallest Indian tetrapod. Biju is the recipient of the prestigious IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group’s Sabin Award for the year 2008 in recognition of his amphibian research and conservation initiatives. The award carried a cash prize of 25,000 USD and a citation. In 2011, Biju received the Earth Heroes – Wildlife Service Award by Sanctuary Asia. Presently,
he is the coordinator of Lost! Amphibians of India program, an initiative to rediscover 50 ‘lost’ amphibians which have not been reported after their original descriptions, for a period ranging from 30 to 170 years He is also the Project Director of Western Ghats Network of Protected Areas for Threatened Amphibians (WNPATA) project

Conservation and biogeography of threatened Amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja

by on Friday, January 27th, 2012

This work was presented at a Theme Seminar at SLAAS 2011,  and later published in FROGLOG 100. This is a slightly shorter version of that.
Despite some recent remarkable discoveries of new species, Sri Lanka has already lost 21 species of Amphibians, this is about half the confirmed extinctions in the world. Nineteen of these Sri Lankan forms belong to genus Pseudophilautus, all of which are terrestrial direct developers and many of which are habitat specialists, often requiring the shade of a canopy covered forest for survival. Eighty six percent of the currently known 67 Pseudophilautus species described from Sri Lanka are threatened with extinction (CR, EN or VU, IUCN Redlist Categories) or are extinct (EX). Eastern Sinharaja (ES) harbors 10 Pseudophilautus species of which 5 are Critically Endangered (Ps. procax, Ps. papillosus, Ps. lunatus, Ps. simba and Ps. limbus), 4 are Endangered (Ps. poppiae, Ps. ocularis, Ps. auratus and Ps. decoris) and 1 is Data Deficient (Ps. regius); seven of the ten species are endemic to ES, highlighting the importance of ES as a refugium for threatened frogs. Many of the Pseudophilautus, including the seven ES forms are point endemics (very restricted distributions). The point endemic nature of Pseudophilautus is due to a combination of the following characteristics: terrestrial direct development, habitat specialization, requirements of unique climatic conditions and constraints to reproduction.
Through ex-situ and in-situ observational studies and molecular phylogenetic analyses it is confirmed that all Pseudophilautus species show direct development. These frogs also show two major reproductive behaviors: soil nesting (most species) and arboreal nesting (only seen in three species); both these behaviors are observed in ES Pseudophilautus species.
Seven of the ES species, especially the Critically Endangered forms are only found in canopy-covered forests. Three of the ten species are found both in canopy covered forest and grasslands. The forest species specialize further by selecting certain perching heights and microhabitats (distance from water) within the forest strata. Species that survive in grassland take refuge amongst litter and grass tufts.
Recent microclimate monitoring work by us for temperature, relative humidity, light intensity and UV-radiation daytime fluctuations are dramatically different for forest habitats (includes natural and regenerating forests) and degraded grasslands and roads. However, the nighttime, fluctuations were more or less similar in all habitats. Some of the forest species, do not hide but lay on leaf surfaces, exposed to the subdued light and UV rays (in small amounts, UV is important for frog metabolism) that filters through the canopy, this they will never be able to do in an open habitat due to extreme conditions. So it seems that daytime climatic conditions, that are regulated by the particular habitat types is important in species distribution, rather than the night time conditions. When restoration of habitats is attempted, aiming to conserve amphibians, the conditions needed during the daytime should be closely considered.
When the distribution of Eastern Sinharaja Pseudophilautus are traced on a molecular phylogenetic tree (that of Meegaskumbura and Manamendra-Arachchi, 2011) it is apparent that they are distinct evolutionary lineages representative of the major clades of Pseudophilautus in Sri Lanka. The basal nature of several of the clades and the high endemicity suggest that ES is a montane refugium and a center of endemism. Moreover, sister species of some of the Eastern Sinharaja Pseudophilautus are found in Lower Sinharaja (Kudawa) region (eg. P. decoris and P. mittermeieri, P. procax and P. abundus, P. papillosus and P. reticulatus sister species pairs). This shows the importance of maintaining the quality of habitat of Eastern Sinharaja and also the connectivity between Eastern and lower Sinharaja.
Several species that were not discovered in extensive surveys that were carried out from 1996-2004, have now arrived in ES. These are Pseudophilatus rus (LC: least concern, IUCN category), Ps. hallidayi (VU) and Ramanella obscura; all these species are not threatened. If these species already occurred in Eastern Sinharaja prior to 2004, we should have found them, as they are common species where they occur (non threatened IUCN statuses also suggests this). However in 2005, Ps. rus was observed on the roadside to Morningside Bungalow; Ps. hallidayi was observed near Morningside Bunglow and R. obscura was observed in a regenerating forest patch; however at the time, their population size was low. By 2011, Ps. rus, was very common and occupied all habitat types; R. obscura and Ps. hallidayi were still a small population. In 2011, a dramatic drop of Taruga fastigo (CR), and Ps. decoris population was also observed.
The issues discussed and the trends delineated portend a bleak future for the Pseudophilautus and other endemic animals of ES. The entire Sinharaja, together with ES, provides a gradual gradient for animals to disperse, especially with climatic change. In the event of a warming event, mid-elevation species can migrate over to ES, if they are to track colder climates.
Thus the maintenance of this altitudinal habitat gradient is critically important for the conservation of both ES and lowland rainforest forms of Sinharaja. To ensure the non-establishment of invasive species, and to facilitate the ES endemic species, immediate action is needed to connect many of the scattered forest fragments through research driven reforestation programs. Activity, such as road building, encroachments, new plantations, which destroys connectivity in ES area should be minimized, while research activities and reforestation work is maximized. We have now started a long-term monitoring study in Morningside, which is being extended to an effort to restore critically important habitats.

Morningside Threatened !

by on Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Over the past 540 million years, since what is referred to as the Cambrian Explosion when hard bodied animals and many other lineages first evolved, there have been five major biodiversity extinction events (popularly known as mass extinctions), where most of the organisms that were living on earth were wiped out. These extinction events were caused mostly by factors such as bolide/meteorite impacts on the Earth, volcanism and in a few instances by the evolution of distinct groups of organisms such as diversification of ferns, pines, conifers and flowering plants. Depending on the type of factor under issue, and the timing of the event, often either predominantly marine organisms or terrestrial organisms perished. However, currently, a single species, human beings, are causing the sixth major global extinction event. This is at an instance when our Earth is holding the greatest diversity of organisms ever to inhabit the Earth. Current human activities are influencing inhabitants of both the aquatic and the terrestrial realms.
Sri Lanka of course has not been spared. Pre-historically, Sri Lanka has lost even a portion of its most charismatic vertebrates such as Lions, Tigers, Hippos, Rhinoes and Gaurs probably due to the basic activities of the Neolithic Balangoda man. More recently, over the last 200 years or so, forms such as Vil-Aliya (a marsh dwelling elephant), several prominent fish species and 21 species of frogs have been lost to Sri Lanka and the world; the loss of less well known insects, mollusks and other invertebrate extinctions remain un-quantified, perhaps forever. Continuing and hastening this trend, Sri Lanka is now on the verge of applying an unprecedented amount of pressure on one of her most important ecosystems, which harbour many point endemic species (species found only in a single locality and no where else in the world).
Morningside, with open Patana type meadows, rippled by knurled cloud forest patches, troughed through by gurgling mountain streams, undoubtedly holds the deepest secrets compared to any habitat in Sri Lanka. Over the last ten years or so, together with several colleagues, we have been frequently visiting the Morningside region to explore its biota. Through these visits and research we discovered a number of amphibians, small mammals and gekkos that are scientifically important. We found and described several new species of tree frogs (Psedophilautus poppiae, P. decoris, P. auratus, P. ocularis, P. simba, P. lunatus, P. papillosus, P. procax and Polypedates fastigo). Of these, except for P. auratus, all other frogs are only found in the Morningside region (not even in the western side of Sinharaja). These frog species are new to science and were recorded for the first time in the Morningside area. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes these species as being Critically Endangered species. Critically Endangered species are those that have an extremely high risk of facing extinction in the wild, based on a set of IUCN criteria that can be applied globally. All these frog species are habitat specialists that require, among other conditions, the shade and humidity of the montane cloud forests for their survival. These species are not found in the open grassland and heavily degraded habitats with wide diurnal temperature fluctuations, and they will also not traverse such habitats.
We have also found new forms from other groups of organisms. During our work we noticed that the Crocidura miya, a montane shrew species, from this region had different coat characteristics and also a shorter tail relative to its body. Further study of its features and its genetics showed that this is a species also new to science. We named it Crocidura hikmiya. As a common name, though we called it the Sinharaja shrew, we discovered it for the first time from the Morningside region. This was done because we recognize Morningside as a single biogeographic unit with Sinharaja. Its distribution is wider than the aforementioned frogs, and goes down to about 450 m above sea level. So far, this species is found only in Sinharaja and the Morningside region. From the frog and the small mammal examples reported here, it is evident that there are species restricted just to the Morningside region, and also species restricted to Sinharaja reserve and Morningside area; meanwhile there are also several frog species that are restricted to the Sinharaja-west area, and not found in Morningside.
This is not the first time that Morningside has come under threat, as Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke also elaborated in his article in The Island (21st Sept. 2011). In addition, there is constant pressure on this ecosystem that is sometimes not quite that evident. For example, in 2004, when we were doing fieldwork for the mammal studies, we stumbled on a forest clearing operation. It was by the gravel road leading to Morningside, apparently on LRC land.
There were tree trunks everywhere and a wide gap had been opened up in the forest canopy. When we reached the Forest Department bungalow in Morningside, the bungalow keeper, who also acts as a watcher of the surrounding forest, was in total despair. A top politician and police officers were responsible for this destruction and he was fearful of them. As a duty to our nation, we had to report this, and we did, actually to the President of the country of that time, Chandrika Kumaratunga. To her credit, getting to know what was going on, she stopped the whole operation within two days, sending off the police officers and severely disparaging the minister under issue. Morningside was saved then; the high-powered encroachers of the LRC lands were vanquished at the time.
After this, and even before that clearing incident, there was a move by the Forest Department to acquire the land surrounding Morningside under their protection. Over the years, a fair amount of progress was made in demarcating what was actually under the Forest Department’s protection and identifying the land that can be easily be acquired. Even sources of funding were delineated. But for many reasons, the project slowly died down. However, the desire for the political elements to encroach this paradise never died. This not only persisted but grew stronger; elaborate plans were drawn to draw and instigate even the people and the clergy of the surrounding villages under issue.
In 2004, the villagers of the region were very much against clearing the forest in this area, especially to be used by the politicians. However the issue of Morningside has cropped up again. This time, in the form of a road that traverses this fragile forest to maximize access to the LRC lands. It is now being told that the government is only trying to improve a road that had already existed, for the benefit of the communities that live there. They further justify this by disclosing that the road is actually outside the Sinharaja World Heritage Site and in the Morningside area. Scientifically, this really is an issue that needs close focusing.
Robert McArthur and E.O. Wilson (world renowned biologists) during the 1960s came up with an idea now popularly known as the theory of island biogeography. This theory aims to explain the species richness of an area (an island) through immigration and extinction. Factors such as the distance from the main source population affect the immigration rate and extinction rate. Further, the extent of land area determines the survival rate of the species that immigrate. In its original formulation, this theory involved only islands, but it has also been used to explain the species richness even in fragmented habitats that are isolated, due to human habitations or desserts, or even mountain-top adapted species that are restricted just to the mountain tops.
Morningside is not only a montane isolate, but also an area surrounded by human habitations, except at one end. This end is the western side of the Morningside reserve, which is connected to the Sinharaja World Heritage Site. More importantly at this end, Morningside has a natural gradient starting from about 1400m down to the lowland areas of Kudawa (at about 450m). This uninterrupted gradient allows the movement of many organisms across the elevational range. For instance, due to a cooling or a warming event, various groups of animals and plants can disperse up or down along this gradual gradient. If however, an effective barrier is created between these two upper and lower elevation areas, the connectivity is lost and this will result in extinction of a large number of species. The more effective the barrier, the better it is at preventing the exchange/movement of organisms. So if the government improves the so-called road from west to east, together with tourist hotels or tea estates along the road on LRC lands for a good measure, the barrier for the movement of fauna of the region is pretty much complete. Except for some birds and small and large mammals, the highly specialized forest species (who are already critically endangered) will never cross that barrier. This will effectively prevent immigration of organisms and that would contribute to extinctions, not only of the Morningside region, but also those of the Sinharaja region as well.
Genetic analyses carried out by us also shows that the Morningside region is a center of endemism. When frogs of the region are considered, within their clades, they are some of the most primitive (basal) lineages that exist in Sri Lanka. This suggests that this area had been a refugium from various threat factors (such as climatic change) during the prehistoric times. Usually, an area that is considered as a center of endemism also holds the greatest genetic diversity. So what we are going to loose through the loss of Morningside is not only just a “couple of species” but also the ancient evolutionary lineages and a large amount of genetic diversity that is unique to Sri Lanka.
If people can be shifted from their historic dwellings to make way for developmental projects such as reservoirs and roads, why cannot they be shifted, if they have outstanding woes, to keep one of our most valuable natural heritages intact? Or can the villagers not be gainfully employed in nature based tourism as done in Western Sinharaja or in the Knuckles region (Pitawala Pathana-Illukkumbura- Deanstone areas)? Sustainable utilization of resources is fine, but as has already been pointed out, Morningside is not a sustainable resource in a traditional context; once lost, we would lose a fauna and a flora that has evolved in this area at least over the last 40 million years; hence, interference here should be kept to a minimal.
The current government of Sri Lanka has been given an overwhelming mandate by the people of Sri Lanka to make intelligent decisions. At this point, the will of the people of Sri Lanka is to conserve Morningside and Sinharaja forest as it is. Of course, a few villagers and politicians who will directly benefit from building a road or any other infrastructure development will always support such initiatives. But it is the duty of a responsible government to be discerning and do what is right, in determining among other things, what is best for Sri Lanka and its biodiversity. If this issue is handled properly, this will place us on a moral-ground from which we can advise other nations, even larger nations, to follow. However, we should not be an example for an environmental disaster, especially where a World Heritage Site is involved.
Here I have outlined the value of just one facet of the biodiversity of Morningside, and the threats that would ensue by the “development” of the land area between Sinharaja and Morningside. Many others also have already pointed out the value of the Morningside region. Now, conservation biologists, environmental activists, researchers, intellectuals and the public are keenly observing how the government will act in resolving this issue, as a substantial part of the island’s treasure trove of her endemic flora and fauna will be decimated, if this area is not scientifically managed and made a conservation area.
Given the uniqueness and the impoverished nature of the organisms of the area, urgent steps should be taken not to degrade the habitat further, but to restore some of the degraded habitats so that the area available for the organisms of the region can be expanded, including the small gap (current footpath) that exists between Morningside and Sinharaja. The Government should not take this footpath as an excuse to divide Morningside area and Sinharaja. As we did as graduate students, many more students should be encouraged to do more research in the region, so that we better understand this ecosystem and interact with the people of the area so that we learn from each other. We pledge our support to any such initiative, so that this hotspot of endemism can be saved from destruction, while empowering the people of this region.

(Author is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Zoology, Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya.)