Green Vine Snake camouflaging with the surroundings at the Poomaale Collective in the Western Ghats.
Our planet is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old. During this time, the conditions and life on earth have undergone many changes – some rather drastic. Earth scientists have divided this history into neat eras and epochs marking the ensemble of life that existed at various times and the occurrence of major geological events.
The current period is called the Anthropocene – the era during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. We are experiencing and contributing to this change every day.
Robust and bountiful ecoregions like the Western Ghats are reaching their threshold under anthropogenic pressures too. We at Poomale, have a home in the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the privilege of looking after, observing as well as enjoying a small piece of the great Western Ghats in our backyard.
Tale of the Purple Frog
Just as the first raindrops of monsoon moisten the soft, humus-laden soils of the Western Ghats, filling the air with petrichor, a whole array of creatures stir to life below the surface of the earth. One among them is the Purple Frog. With a disproportionately large body like an inflated balloon and a small head that ends in a snout like a pig, the purple frog is one of the strangest-looking creatures alive. It lives an unusual life too.
It has spent the whole year hiding quietly underground, going about its life making tunnels for passage and feeding on termites. But now the monsoons are here, and it is time for the show to start. The male purple frog begins to sing, still buried underground. He has a window of about 2-3 weeks to impress a female. If he is successful in his pursuit, he will emerge to the surface with her for just one day! Unarmed and defenceless, it is a dangerous feat to expose themselves above ground. Many predators lurk outside. Various kinds of snakes and birds of prey like the Shikra, Serpent eagle or the Brown fish owl would be eager to grab this seasonal opportunity. However, the risk must be taken.
Purple Frogs mating in the monsoon – Photo by Nihal Jabin.
Nearly 3 times his size, the female will carry him on her back and go out looking for a suitable crevasse between rocks of a fast-flowing stream to lay eggs. Once their job is done they retreat into the underground until the next year. The tadpoles hatch from the thousands of eggs laid by each female. They depend on the seasonal streams and rapids to live, feed and grow into adults. At that stage, they are themselves a precious source of food for many creatures, including some local tribes. The survivors make the next generation. The new adults find their way from the stream into the ground and the same cycle follows.
The purple frog created ripples in the world of science with its big “discovery” only in 2003. Though locals were familiar with this frog, the formal scientific description of the adult form, with photographs and more, happened only recently. Because of its largely fossorial (burrowing) life, there is still a lot unknown to science about this species.
Its unique lifestyle is not the only thing that makes the purple frog special. Its closest relative in the evolutionary tree is found across the Arabian Sea in the islands of Seychelles (in East Africa). This makes the purple frog a living evidence of the continental drift theory. Many million years ago, a common ancestor of these frogs lived on the Gondwana Land. When the land split, the ancestral population split too. Each evolved into two separate (taxonomical) families geographically isolated from each other.
A Million Piece Puzzle
The Purple Frog is one among the 90% of over 250 amphibians found in the Western Ghats that are endemic to the region. Endemic means found nowhere else in the world. Similarly, there are many such birds, mammals, snakes, lizards, frogs, butterflies, dragonflies, plants and more that are found nowhere else in the world but here. And every now and then, we still continue to “discover” new species. Endemic or not, all creatures have wonderful stories to tell.
Stream Ruby Damselfly hovering over Kembuva River in the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
The hornbills, for example, have a unique nesting behaviour. The mothers imprison themselves in a tree hole for nearly 2 to 3 months to raise their chick(s). They do this by sealing the tree hole with their droppings, leaving just a narrow slit open. All through this time, the fathers laboriously work every single day to bring food to their families which is passed on through the narrow opening. Otherwise frugivorous, during this period, they hunt everything from lizards and frogs to other little birds, to provide protein to their young ones. Once the chicks fledge, they all return to a predominantly fruit diet dispersing seeds far and wide. That is why they are called the farmers of the forest.
The cicadas, whose sound fills our forests in the months of summer and monsoon, lay their eggs in the ground and perish. The eggs hatch and the wingless nymphs feed on the sap from the roots of plants for nourishment and growth. When the conditions are optimal above ground, they emerge in thousands and moult into winged adults who sing their bellies out (yes, they make sounds from their abdomen!) to look for a mate and breed before dying.
Bridal Veil mushrooms growing in the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
The large diversity of mushrooms, including the famous bioluminescent fungi of the Western Ghats, are some of the most delightful creatures in our forests. But little do we think of mushrooms as just like the fruits of a tree. The actual tree is the incredibly large, unbroken, underground network of fungal threads (mycelium) that are connected to probably every single plant and tree in the forest, operating the immense system of nutrient production and exchange that keeps the forest healthy and thriving.
What is a Biodiversity Hotspot?
High endemism is one of the reasons why the Western Ghats are ranked as one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. But being a biodiversity hotspot is not all good news. A region gets globally nominated as a hotspot when it fills 2 criteria. First, it should have at least 1500 endemic plants. Second, it should have less than 30% of its original vegetation cover. Biodiversity hotspots are therefore, by definition, the earth’s biologically richest and most endangered terrestrial ecoregions.
A Calotes lizard catching the sun filtering through the forest. Shot at the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
Conserving the Western Ghats is important for reasons beyond just its unique wildlife. They are the last remaining largest continuous stretch of forests for the Asiatic elephants to roam. They are wintering grounds of many migratory birds. They are home to the spices (pepper, cardamom and so on) that carved our modern human history. They are a major source of rivers that provide water to all of peninsular India! The list is much longer.
The first big loss of native forest cover in the Western Ghats goes back to colonial times with the introduction of tea and coffee plantations alongside the timber industry. Though no new forests are being cleared for plantations, there is a new devil on the scene – development. But that is a topic of a long discussion. Despite being aware and sensitive to wildlife issues, both of us enjoy coffee, appreciate driving on new, broad roads and depend on a constant supply of electricity and internet connectivity. But we also believe that there has to be a solution. Conservation has to be a part of and not the adversary of developmental goals.
Using plant diversity as a measure for ranking is just one aspect of biodiversity. The Western Ghats region is extremely rich in the variety of creatures that live there. The stories of the purple frog, the hornbills, the cicadas and the wild mushrooms are just a few of the thousands of stories that unfold in this hilly region every day. The lives of these characters are not only fascinating but also complexly interconnected and interwoven into a multidimensional web that is hard to fathom.
The Web of Life
A glimpse into the lush rainforests of Western Ghats. Shot at the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
Let’s try and explore this web. Consider a few of the limited elements that we know of in the purple frog’s story.
1) Loose, airy, clean soil – amphibian skin is porous and toxins in its environment can adversely affect their populations.
2) Enough dead vegetative matter for decomposers like mushrooms and termites to thrive – the purple frogs feed exclusively on termites and nothing else as far as we know. That leads to the necessity of a healthy forest cover.
3) A good termite population – this in turn ensures a nutritious soil cover by breaking down dead matter and acts as an important source of protein for various small and large animals like the sloth bear or the geckos that also feed on termites.
4) Timely, regular monsoons – if the monsoons see a dry spell after the first few showers, all the eggs dry out; if the monsoons are weak the seasonal streams don’t flow with the expected velocity and volume, the tadpole population and growth gets affected. If the tadpole numbers get affected, the predators that feed on it get affected.
5) Clean, free-flowing seasonal streams – if the streams get polluted or dammed, the population of tadpoles once again gets affected. If the tadpoles don’t make it, the next generation doesn’t come to be. Of course, these clean, seasonal streams support much more than just tadpoles of purple frogs!
If drawing connections between just one species and its immediate ecosystem is so complex, imagine drawing connections to every aspect of every life that shares this planet with us. What an amazing web we live in!
Preserving Our Natural Heritage
Chestnut-headed bee-eaters perched on an open branch – their favourite spot. Shot at the Poomaale Collective, Coorg.
The antiquity of creatures like the purple frog or the podocarp trees, that have survived and witnessed millions of years of the history of the earth, from the era of the dinosaurs to today, make us feel especially responsible for their safety and conservation. Can we allow them to become extinct now? And particularly, due to our actions?
Everyday conveniences have begun to make us uncomfortable. We check the source before we buy our coffee. While driving in the countryside, we carefully scan roads to see if there’s some little creature trying to cross. Each time we see the use of unnecessary lights all night long, we let out a sad sigh. We are sure many of you reading this essay, feel the same way.
Our planet is vulnerable, but knowing that has proven insufficient to make us humans act. We need to know this threat in the same way we know the danger of a fall while standing on the edge of a vertical cliff. A level of understanding that forces us to act in a certain way. Maybe the mere feeling of discomfort towards modern comforts and conveniences among our kind is a start to an internal revolution – a growing reflex – that’ll turn the tide on our loss of wild spaces – rainforests, deserts, glaciers or coasts – treasures definitely worth preserving.