A fish species in missing evolutionary link traced

These have special features; they can live on land and in water

CUDDALORE: A rare fish species called “mudskippers” have been recorded by researchers of the Centre for Advanced Study in Marine Biology of Annamalai University at Parangipettai estuary near here.

A rare fish species found in the Vellar estuary at Parangipettai in Cuddalore district

These tiny species, measuring just 67 mm in length and weighing 22 mg, have got special features which enable them to live both on land and in water. Called ‘vaetti uluvai’ in Tamil, they are the missing link between fishes and amphibians in the evolutionary ladder, according to T. Balasubramanian, Director of the Centre.

He told The Hindu that during the survey conducted recently in the Vellar estuary at Parangipettai near here under the University Grants Commission-supported project on gobiid fishes the researchers identified a mudskipper variety, Periophthalmus variabilis.

The Director said the species were aptly called mudskippers because they had mudflats as their habitat and had the habit of skipping or hopping around. The fish had got protruding rounded eyes that could move in all directions.

Its pectoral fins resembled more of the forelimbs of frogs, with which it attains mobility and climbs on to vegetations. Mr. Balasubramanian further said that the fish digs burrows in mudflats that have a gentle slope towards the sea and have a depth of up to one-and-half metre.

During high tide, the burrows would get filled with seawater and during low tide the waves would withdraw, allowing to make its appearance, he added.

Principal Investigator V.Ravi, also Assistant Professor in the Centre, said mudskippers played an important role in the food chain. They feed on fish eggs, nematodes, smaller crabs and insects, and, are, in turn, food for birds and otters. Mr. Ravi said mudskippers would lay eggs within the burrows and male fishes would oxygenate the eggs by blowing air. The eggs would not get washed away because they had an adhesive filament that made them stick to the walls of the burrows. This sensitive creature would swirl in the burrows at the very sight of a predator.

The mudskippers have medicinal quality and are being used as a remedy for anaemia and to prevent frequent urination in children.

Mr. Ravi observed that in China, South Korea and Japan the mudskippers were cultured extensively for food and the Centre would evolve a suitable strategy for its proliferation through captive breeding.

A.V. Ragunathan – From THE HINDU

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Stranding response programme for endangered marine species suggested

Wildlife Institute of India says this will strengthen cause of research

CHENNAI: The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, has suggested to the Centre the initiation of a stranding response programme for endangered species of marine animals, WII scientist B.C. Choudhury said here on Thursday.

Addressing a two-day national consultation workshop for identification of research gaps in coastal and marine biodiversity conservation hosted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Prof. Choudhury said a stranding operation (involving rehabilitation of rare species that wash up on the shores sick or injured), provided scientists a unique opportunity to study these creatures out of their natural habitats.

Pointing out that many of the threatened species such as the dolphins, river terrapins and horse shoe crabs remained least studied specimens, Prof. Choudhury said a stranding programme could strengthen the cause of research in this direction.

Prof. Choudhury said India’s coastal and marine ecosystems were under increasing threat in spite of the great importance accorded to balancing livelihood issues and economic output to the national GDP along the 8,500-km coastline with ecology conservation. He advocated a multi-Ministry collaborative approach to the conservation agenda for the coastal and marine environment.

Prof. Choudhury pointed out that traditionally, the contribution of densely populated coastal regions to national wealth was much higher than that of land-locked systems. The coastal zone was home to half the world’s population, two-thirds of the largest cities and contributed half the tourism earnings.

Priorities

Prof. Choudhury spelt out as the priorities macro-level research in coastal and marine habitats, floral and faunal diversity values and identification of natural and anthropogenic threats. Some of the least-studied systems, in spite of their significant ecological importance, were sand dunes, estuaries, salt marshes, inter-tidal mud flats and sea grass beds, he said.

In her inaugural address, Aruna Basu Sarkar, Chief Conservator of Forests and Director of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, called for integration of policy framing, implementation, research and community engagement for an effective coastal and marine biodiversity conservation programme.

K. Siva Kumar, WII scientist, said the workshop was the starting point in the consultative process to evolve a roadmap for future research on coastal and marine biodiversity conservation in India.

The specifics of the workshop include identification of research gaps, prioritisation of research, mandating specific roles for partnering institutions.

From THE HINDU

Biodiversity challenges ahead

The world needs to act quickly to counter the erosion of species. The task is particularly important for India, one of the 12 mega-biodiversity centres.

May 22 marked the International Day for Biological Diversity. It commemorates the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that day in 1992. As of December 2009, exactly 192 countries and the European Commission were signatories to it. This year has been declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

Biological estimates suggest that the number of species may be 10 times those described so far. Plant and animal species from major families are still being discovered in rainforests. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The term biodiversity denotes the variability of life forms on earth. It is a vital resource that needs to be assiduously conserved as it holds the key to progress in medicine, agriculture, forestry and other fields.

Globally, 1.4 million life forms have been named and described by science. Biological estimates suggest that the number of species may be 10 times those described so far. Plant and animal species from major families are still being discovered in rainforests. Over 300 new fish species have been described from the Amazon region. Amphibians have recently been reported from the Sathyamangalam forests in Tamil Nadu.

Botanist Alvin Gentry estimates that 15,000-20,000 species of tropical flowering plants are yet to be documented. But then, this diversity is being eroded on an unprecedented scale. During the last 200 million years about 100 species became extinct in each century due to the natural evolutionary process.

At the same time, evolution ushered in new life forms that more than compensated for those that were lost. Today, the extinction rate is approximately 40,000 times higher than this background rate due to human depredations. For the first time an enormous proportion of terrestrial plant species that form the basis of land ecosystems remains threatened. Previous mass extinctions had no palpable effect on terrestrial plants.

But today, one-fifth of all plant species on land face annihilation in the next 20 years. A disappearing plant can take with it 10-30 dependent species such as insects, higher animals and even other plants. According to one estimate, we may already be losing 100 species a day.

Indian scene

India is one of the world’s 12 mega-biodiversity centres, and the subcontinent one of the six Vavilovian centres of origin of species. Some 45,000 plant species and over 89,000 species of animals have been documented here, comprising some 6.5 per cent of all known wildlife.

The faunal diversity comprises inter alia 2,500 fishes, 150 amphibians, 450 reptiles, 1,200 birds, 850 mammals and 68,000 insects. Although India is designated as a mega-biodiversity area, it also has two of the world’s most threatened ‘hot spots’, the Eastern Himalayan region and the Western Ghats. To quote Professor M.S. Swaminathan, both are paradises of valuable genes but are inching towards the status of ‘Paradise Lost.’

At least 10 per cent of India’s recorded wild flora and possibly more of its wild fauna are on the list of threatened species; many are on the brink of obliteration. Of the wild fauna, 80 species of mammals, 47 of birds, 15 of reptiles, three of amphibians and a large number of moths, butterflies and beetles are endangered. Out of 19 species of primates, 12 are endangered. The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) are among species that have become extinct. There must be many more that have been annihilated, unrecorded either because they were not that spectacular or because their existence remained unknown.

Causes of erosion

The primary cause for this erosion of diversity is human greed. Never before has one species influenced the environmental conditions all over the planet to such a magnitude as today. The human species now uses 40 per cent of the planet’s annual net photosynthesis production. The consumption of two-fifths of the planet’s net food resources by one species is incompatible with biological diversity and stability. Loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, overexploitation of plant and animal species, the impact of exotics and invasive alien species, industrial effluents, climate change and, above all, the greed of man are causing the erosion.

The introduction of exotic species can pose a threat to indigenous diversity. Invasive alien species include plants, animals and pathogens that are non-native to an ecosystem and that may cause economic or environmental harm or adversely affect human health. According to CBD reports, invasive alien species have contributed to nearly 40 per cent of all animal extinction. Introduced fish species threaten to decimate the diverse fish fauna of big African lakes. Exotic weeds such as lantana and parthenium pose forest management problems.

Global warming

Global warming and climate change pose threats to plant and animal species as many organisms are sensitive to carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere that may lead to their disappearance. Pesticide, troposphere ozone, sulphur and nitrogen oxides from industries also contribute to the degradation of natural ecosystems. Poaching puts pressure on wild animals. Elephants are being hunted for their tusks, the tiger is being shot for its skin.

Nature is beautifully balanced; each little thing has its own place, its duty and special utility. Ecosystem stability is a compelling reason for preserving biodiversity. All living organisms are an internal part of the biosphere and provide invaluable services. These include the control of pests, recycling of nutrients, replenishment of local climate and control of floods.

Target 2010

The Conference of the Parties (COP) established under the CBD at its sixth session in 2002 set common global targets to reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2010. These include:

• Conservation of biodiversity at the level of ecosystems, species and genes;

• Addressing risks such as invasive alien species, global warming and developments that threaten the natural environment;

• Maintaining the function of ecological services that support human livelihood;

• Maintaining the rights of the aboriginal people and protecting their traditional knowledge;

• Ensuring equal and equitable distribution of profits from the use of genetic resources.

COP-10 will be held in Nagoya in Japan in October 2010 to review the progress made in biodiversity conservation targets and discuss the establishment of clearer rules for access to and benefit-sharing of genetic resources. The outlook indicates that biodiversity is declining at all levels and on geographical scales. However, targeted response options such as the expansion of protected areas, resource management and pollution prevention can reverse this trend for specific habitats and species. For instance, protected area coverage has doubled over the past 20 years and terrestrial protected area now covers 12 per cent of the earth’s surface. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, with the declaration of the Kanyakumari, Sathyamangalam and Megamalai sanctuaries the percentage of protected area in the total forest area has gone up from 14.79 per cent to 20.01 per cent in the last three years. The introduction of a system of joint forest management over 20 million ha in the last two decades has minimised biodiversity losses. Similarly, the implementation of the Tamil Nadu Afforestation Project over the last 15 years with people’s participation has helped restore forests and rejuvenate biodiversity over 6.5 lakh ha in Tamil Nadu.

Water quality in Europe, North America and Latin America has improved since 1980. The National River Conservation Plan and the National Lake Conservation Plan of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests aim to improve water quality in rivers and lakes. But only the active participation of all stakeholders including local bodies, industries and the public at large can bring glory back to rivers and lakes. The experience in other developed countries indicates that such transformation is not impossible. Conservationists are looking to COP-10 to come out with a better strategy to achieve the biodiversity targets.

What Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said in 1980 is relevant even today: “The interest in conservation is not a sentimental one, but the rediscovery of a truth well known to our ancient sages. The Indian tradition teaches us that all forms of life — human, animal and plant — are so closely interlinked that disturbance in one gives rise to imbalance in the other.”

Our welfare is intimately connected with the welfare of wildlife; by saving the lives of wild plants and animals we may be saving our own. Time is running out. We can no longer remain spectators. We need to think globally but act locally, rededicating ourselves to protecting biodiversity in forests, coastal ecosystems and in our own neighbourhood.

(Dr. S. Balaji is an Indian Forest Service officer belonging to the Tamil Nadu cadre and is an expert in biodiversity assessment. He is Chief Conservator of Forests, Chennai. He is at balajisrinivasagopalan@gmail.com)

From THE HINDU

Marine species washed ashore

RAMANATHAPURAM: Dozens of fishes and endangered marine species were found washed ashore off Mandapam coast on Saturday.

Unusual:Fishes and endangered marine species washed ashore at Mandapam.

Many marine species were found floating along the shore. Though the dead fishes were found floating in patches here and there, a large number of marine animals were found dead at Munaikadu shore near Mandapam.

Sea cucumber, seahorse and other rare species were among those found dead. The colour of the sea had also changed in patches. It looked muddy and yellow in several areas. Bad odour had been emanating from the seashores. Meerasa of Munaikadu said around 5 km stretch between Mandapam and Uchipuli was littered with dead fishes of all sizes.

It was not clearly known what caused the death of fishes. However, the local fishermen said it could be because of low oxygen level in the sea. They also did not rule out the possibility of high temperature. Officials of fisheries and forest departments were yet to visit the spot.

From THE HINDU

Himalayan wilderness yields 350 new species

Smallest species of deer ever known among new forms of wildlife discovered

By Lewis Smith

Monday, 10 August 2009

TRIMERESURUS GUMPRECHTI: Gumprechts green pit viper is venomous and grows to at least 130cm

TRIMERESURUS GUMPRECHTI: Gumprecht's green pit viper is venomous and grows to at least 130cm

One of the last frontiers of nature has yielded more than 350 new species of animals and plants in just the last 10 years. The eastern Himalayas contain vast tracts of remote and inaccessible terrain that few scientists have managed to reach and which provide a home for some of the planet’s most mysterious animals.

New species are turning up at a rate of 35 a year and highlights uncovered in the region since 1998 include the miniature muntjac (Muntiacus putaoensis), also known as the leaf deer, which at 60 to 80cm tall and 11kg is the smallest species of deer in the world, and the Arunachal macaque (Macaca munzala) – the first new monkey to be found in a century.

Among the most visually striking are the red-footed but otherwise bright green flying frog (Rhacophorus suffry) and Smith’s litter frog (Leptobrachium smithi), which boasts huge golden eyes and was described by the WWF, which has compiled a report on the region, as “among the most extraordinary-looking” frogs in the world.

Other new species include catfish with sticky stomachs, a luridly green pit viper, a freshwater beetle living at 5,100 metres above sea level – higher than any other beetle – and a bird restricted to a site less than a square mile.

Overall, from 1998 to 2008, two mammals, two birds, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, 244 plants and more than 60 invertebrates have been identified in the region, according to the WWF report, The Eastern Himalayas – Where Worlds Collide.

The area is already the stronghold of the Bengal tiger, the only home of the snow leopards and the last sanctuary of the greater one-horned rhino, but has so much unknown wildlife that researchers expect many more discoveries to be made in the future.

The eastern Himalayas – divided between Nepal, Bhutan and parts of China, India, Bangladesh and Burma – is regarded as one of the most rugged and beautiful areas of the world.

Mark Wright of WWF said: “The exciting thing about this is it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know everything about the world. But this report shows there’s still a huge amount out there about which we know almost nothing. Even once we’ve ticked the box of identifying a species we have only just scratched the surface of what there is to know.”

Although they have only just been discovered, the new animals and plants are already under threat, as are many thousands of other species in the region. “While we can be really happy and excited about finding them, the elephant in the room is climate change,” he said. “We know that along with the Poles, mountain areas are going to be the regions most heavily impacted by climate change. The data we have suggests it’s warming in the Himalayas far faster than the global average.”

The impacts, such as the spread of disease, the destruction of crops and the large migrations of people desperate to move to other parts of the world, will eventually be felt as far away as the UK.

“One in five of all mankind gets its river water from the water that rises in the Himalayas. One way or another, that’s going to come back to haunt us in the UK at some stage. We will have to pick up the cost.”

Discoveries have also been made of species which lived in the region millions of years ago and were preserved when they became encased in amber resin.

Among the creatures preserved in amber was the earliest known gecko (Cretaceogekko burmae), from 100 million years ago which was identified in 2008. Others included the oldest known tick and the earliest recorded mushroom.

The region is a hotspot for wildlife and harbours a huge number of species including 10,000 plants, 300 mammals, 977 birds, 176 reptiles, 105 amphibians and 269 types of freshwater fish. WWF has launched the Climate for Life campaign to raise public awareness of environmental problems in the Himalayas and is working with local communities to help them cope with the impacts of climate change.

The wealth and variety of wildlife being found in the region makes the eastern Himalayas comparable with better recognised ecological hotspots such as Borneo.

However, despite its remoteness only 25 per cent of the original habitat remains intact and the plants and animals face threats including illegal logging, the spread of agriculture, poaching and pollution.

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By THE INDEPENDANT