Field Notes: Roxburgh’s Ground Orchid

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Roxburgh’s Ground Orchid, by Eric Ramanujam

ROXBURGH’S HABENARIA OR GROUND ORCHID
HABENARIA ROXBURGHII

This is a small, rarely seen small (25 – 35cm tall) orchid – over all my excursions in the region I have seen it only once at the lip of a ravine in Kurumpuram Reserve forest – and at that time I did not know it was an orchid until a friend pointed out its salient features. Its IUCN status is not known, but it finds mention in Appendix II of CITES. Interestingly of the 1,295 species of orchids in the country all are included in Appendix II of CITES, except for the ten species of Paphiopedilum and Renanthera imschootiana, which find prominent mention in Appendix 1. Some may not realise the ramifications of this document: it simply means that if anyone is accused of collecting wild orchids of any species in the wild and possessing them privately and / or without proper documentation they are liable for arrest and prosecution.

It is quite a rare orchid and it would be an interesting exercise to find out its IUCN conservation status, but until date its official status remains DD (Data Deficient) which is the most dangerous category of all as it may disappear simply because its threatened status if any remains unknown and hence cannot be part of any policy which can push for its protection – a sad fate faced by many species of living beings.

Its rarity can be simply fathomed by its range not being clear. Wikipedia mentions that it is “Endemic to the South Deccan” . Way back in 2004 it is said to be recorded in Orissa. In 2006 it was recorded in the Eastern Ghats, Vishakapatnam, Dharmapuri Disrict and Salem and was interestingly used for snake bite – as the authors put it:

“10 – 15 tubers are crushed with 2 – 3 g each pepper and garlic.
 The extract is given orally in snake bite by Konda Reddies of Khammam District”.

Whether the guy given the extract lived or died is not mentioned.

There are beautiful images of this orchid at Talakona Forest in Andhra Pradesh (a wet deciduous forest visited by Bubesh and me, and where our associate S.R. Ganesh of Madras Snake Park has discovered a new species of frog with Bubesh’s help, Tharalu in Karnataka in 2014 and even in nearby Tiruvanamalai in 2015 .

All this goes to show how far back we are in addressing conservation concerns, in particular about a little studied taxon and how far we yet have to go in conserving nature and ourselves.

Further reading:

Misra, S. (2004). Orchids of Orissa. BSMPS, Dehra Dun.

Reddy, Ch.S., K.N. Reddy, C. Pattanaik & V.s. Raju (2006). Ethnobotanical Observations on some Endemic Plants of Eastern Ghats, India. Ethnobotanical Leaflets 10: 82 – 91.

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Mangrove Interpretation Centre, Pichavaram

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Mangroves in Pichavaram, by Karthik Easvur , CC BY-SA 3.0

Home to one of India’s largest and most important mangrove ecosystems, Pichavaram in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu has long mesmerised visitors with its spectacular maze of narrow waterways and overhanging mangroves.

The art department at Pitchandikulam is delighted to have helped design and create an interpretation centre on the site, on commission from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

The project consisted of two parts:

  1. an interpretation centre, with over a dozen artworks and a permanent exhibition on the biodiversity of the mangrove ecosystem
  2. a nature trail aimed at schoolchildren and tourists with nine carved stone pillars and seven kadappu stone slabs with oil paintings and information on local birds, marine life and distinctive botanical features such as the Rhizophora species of mangrove trees.

Over a dozen artworks were made for the mangrove interpretation centre, including a beautiful sea turtle who now takes pride of place hanging from the ceiling, and a complex five foot painted sculpture of a rhizophora mangrove tree, complete with roots.

Some of the artworks in our workshop being prepared

 

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The artworks installed in Pichavaram at the Mangrove Interpretation Centre

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Field Notes: The Violin Mantis (Gongylus gongylodes)

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

A striking name for a striking creature, the generic etymology has mythical roots: in the ‘Hellenica’ it is the name of one of two brothers, one lord of Gambreum, the other Palae. Another character too bears the same name, the Eretrian who entertained Xenophon, writer of the ‘Anabasis’. In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ it is the name of a Corinthian commander. The specific name is in allusion to its gangly gait and slender form. In lay man’s terms it is also known as the Wandering Violin Mantis due to its body shape, Ornate Mantis and Indian Rose Mantis.

This is one of the most bizarre looking mantises of which there are about 2,400 species belonging to 15 families and 430 genera. All mantises, which are closely related to termites and cockroaches (not stick insects or grasshoppers which bear a superficial resemblance), have triangular heads with bulging eyes supported by flexible necks. Their forelegs are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping insect prey, though some of the larger species will feed on small lizards, tree frogs and any other prey they can overcome. Their upright posture, while remaining stationary with forearms folded, gives the impression that they are praying. Females are larger than males and often practice sexual cannibalism, eating their mates after / during copulation. In the 1962 novel ‘Island’, Aldous Huxley reflected on the philosophical observation of death watching the mating ritual of a pair of violin mantises.

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

The Violin Mantis is characterized by extremely slender limbs with large appendages. Unlike other mantises it is not particularly aggressive and can often be found in groups without unnecessary cannibalism. Only the smaller male can fly. After mating the female deposits its eggs in an ‘ootheca’ (a type of egg mass containing many eggs and surrounded by foam which hardens into a tough casing for protection). The incubation period varies according to temperature and humidity, though the average duration is about 50 days. The male develops into an adult after 7 moultings, while the female develops after 8. The average lifespan is about 12 months.

To say the Mantis does not confirm to norms would be an understatement – its face alone would lead the uninitiated to believe that either it is a creature from outer space or something vile. All its other behavioural patterns too tend towards this ‘branding’ and it is not surprising that one Tamil name for it is ‘Saithan Kuthirai’, meaning the Devil’s Horse which is similar I believe to parts of Latin America and Mediterranean Europe. And these superstitions are not confined to the afore mentioned countries: African Bushmen, who should know better than their civilized bretheren, are careful never to touch a mantis as they fear the insect’s magical powers. In Japan seeing a mantis can be an omen of death. There are so many more beliefs that I cannot even dream of listing them here. But there is also the flip side of the coin: as the resting posture and hand position of the Mantis superficially resembles respect for God in prayer, Christians believe that the Mantis symbolises spirituality and piety and finding a Mantis in your house means angels are watching over you; Muslims believe that the Mantis always faces the holy city of Mecca.

Eric Ramanujam

Principal Investigator (Faunistics), Pitchandikulam Forest

The Greater Death’s Head Hawk Moth – Acherontia lachesis

THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH Acherontia lachesis
THE GREATER DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH (Acherontia lachesis) by Eric Ramanujam

This is a large moth with a wingspan of 13cm. It is found over much of South and Southeast Asia and quite often seen in Pitchandikulam at certain times of the year (there is a preserved specimen in the reference collection). It is a member of the family Sphingidae (hawkmoths, which are distinguished by their ability to hover) and one of three species of Death’s Head hawkmoths – A. lachesis is the largest member of the genus, hence the name ‘Greater’.

Acherontia moths are also known as ‘bee robbers’ because they feed on honey. Their proboscis is very stout and strong, enabling them to pierce wax cells and suck out honey. In addition, they are adapted to their unique way of life as they can mimic the scent of bees so that they can enter a hive unharmed to get at the honey.

The epithet ‘death’s head’ is because of the vaguely human skull-shaped marking on the thorax. Its defense behaviour is unique – if disturbed while resting, it raises its body from the surface and partially opening and raising its wings emits a startling squeak.

Eggs are laid on a variety of host plants of the families Solanaceae, Verbenaceae, Fabaceae, Olearaceae and Bignoniaceae among others. Mature larvae (caterpillars) attain a length of 12cm and occur in green, yellow and brownish grey forms with oblique body stripes and a tail horn. It is said that the tail horn is venomous but this still has to be verified. When molested the caterpillar throws its head from side to side and produces a repeated clicking noise – it doesn’t seem to use its tail horn in defense. The larvae are predated upon by parasitoids like the Ichneumon wasps and Tachnidae flies which lay their eggs in / on them and their young once they emerge begin feeding on the living host, keeping them alive until they complete their metamorphosis.

Parasitoidy is one of the six major types of parasitism and a very complex phenomena that ranges from a living animal having organisms gradually destroying particular body functions (primarily reproductive and intellectual), through anaesthesia induced creatures being slowly eaten alive to near overt predatorism, but not exactly being so. If one is so inquisitive about the phenomena one can google it, but there is much more to it than meets the eye – in fact the most interesting facts have been hidden away from prying eyes (by whom?) as it does not benefit human / animal rights. Self exploration will benefit those inquisitive enough to delve deeper into the phenomenon and bound to be illuminative at the very least.

Eric Ramanujam,
Principal Investigator (Faunistics)