Archive for the ‘desert’ category

The Raptors and the Agamid

14 July 2009

(Reprinted from Indian Birds Vol 5 No 1, kind courtesy Aasheesh Pittie)

A posting to the desert for an army-man is not unusual and I got my chance to serve in this terrain in mid 2004, at Jaipur, after more than 20 years of service; on all previous occasions as a junior officer, I had passed through fleetingly with hardly a chance to notice or experience anything. Now a Commanding Officer, I eagerly anticipated getting a good look at the landscape and its wildlife.

At the first opportunity I wandered off into the desert in a Gypsy 4WD. Driving eastward along the NH from Jaisalmer towards Jodhpur, I saw an obscure desert track and turned onto it, speeding on the sandy track across the country, towards the beckoning dunes. On each side were wide-open spaces punctuated by the occasional ‘khejri’ tree Prosopis cinerarea. A cross-breeze trickled sand across the track and shadows grew long as the sun paused over dunes. A small desert fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla with a bushy, white-tipped tail (Menon 2003) ran away from the vehicle.

All of a sudden, a large lizard zipped across the road, a few metres ahead of me, and dived into the sand. Before I could apply the brakes, the lizard was gone. I could not register what exactly had happened, even though it happened again and yet again. Lizards zoomed past, left and right. I was driving across a lizard colony like a German panzer division across the Russian steppe. In the fading light, the impression that stood out fleetingly was that of a thick tail with black and white rings.

A few days later, I ventured across the same path at midmorning. I soon came across the colony of dust-brown lizards. Stopping the vehicle and getting out scared them away, so I resorted to driving up as close as I could and using binoculars. I looked hard and long at a large, snub-headed lizard with a ringed tail. I had finally met up with Uromastyx hardwickii Gray, 1827, Hardwicke’s spiny-tailed lizard or ‘sanda’ as it is called in Hindi (Daniel 1983).

Spinytailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).  Image by Clement Francis

Fig 1 - Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii). Image by Clement Francis

These lizards belong to the family Agamidae and are the only species of Uromastyx to be found in India—most of their relatives being North African or West Asian—with stubby legs holding a less-than-half-a-metre long cylindrical body barely off the sand, these vegetarian agamids hold up their large rounded heads, with flat snouts, smartly as they alertly look ahead. The slightest alarm sends them zipping off into their burrows in the sand. Their most interesting aspect is the tail. It has blue-gray spines arranged in whorls along its length, decreasing in size towards the tip, which is a pale or earthy yellow in colour.

The Uromastyx is one of the few lizards utilised by man. In North Africa, it is considered ‘dhaab’ or fish of the desert and relished by Islamic nomad tribes (Grzimek 2003). In India too, these lizards are caught for their meat, about which Malcolm Smith (1935) says, ‘…with certain castes of Hindoos it is a regular article of diet…the meat is said to be excellent and white like chicken… the head and feet are not eaten, but the tail is considered a great delicacy…the fat of the body is boiled down and the resulting oil is used as an embrocation and also as a cure for impotence.’

Uromastix hardwickii represents the southern and eastern limit of the extent of the Indo-African reptile fauna (Günther 1864). Interestingly, the lizard is named after a fellow-soldier, Major General Thomas Hardwicke, who is considered the first colossus of Indian natural history. He arrived at Fort William in 1778 as an artillery cadet in the Bengal Presidency Army, fought in the Rohilla and Mysore wars and was commended for gallantry on the battlefield. By 1809, he rose to command the Bengal Presidency Artillery. His span of duty and area of natural history study lay mostly in what is today Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh (Singh 2006).

I visited the lizard colony often—initially, I thought them ugly but soon found that they looked very good to my eyes. They were always basking in the sun. I spent a couple of hours one day trying to observe them feeding. I hoped to see them nibbling on the ‘siniya’ shrubs Crotalaria burhia or tufts of ‘buadiAerva pseudotomentosa (?) that dotted the landscape around them. A few Prosopis of the native variety, whose beans they are reported to eat (Daniel 1983), were present within a few metres of the colony. The colony itself was on a flat, firm gap between eroded sand dunes which had been stabilised by vegetation and were barely two meters high. The desert track meandered along this flat for a 100 m or so, which constituted the diameter of the colony.

One day, my son and I had the rare privilege of observing a predator catching its prey. A few lizards basked outside their burrows while the rest were inside. All at once and apparently from nowhere, a brown raptor swooped straight down, with trailing wings and extended talons. Before the hapless lizards could gain shelter, it had caught a small agama. In the wink of an eye, the rest of the lizards were out of sight. The raptor’s sharp claws soon ended a few seconds of struggle. It remained on the sand about 60 m away, feeding ravenously. It was unaware of its audience, since its back was towards us, and I was forced to edge onto the dune and outflank it from the east. On reaching a vantage point, I had a good look at it through the binoculars. It fed hungrily for a good 15 min.

Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

Fig 2 - Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger) feeds on a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx hardwickii).

It was a dark brown falcon, with prominent moustaches and a white chest. Its thighs were dark-brown and it had a brown crown. Grimmett & Inskipp (2001), a book that I find handy, despite their pesky habit of renaming Indian birds, told me that it was a Laggar Falcon Falco jugger. I later had the identification reconfirmed through the kind courtesy of a member of India-nature-pix.

In about 20 min, the falcon had eaten the lizard. I could hardly see any remains. Angling to get a better view, I alerted it. After a moment or two, it flew off. I walked up to the kill, but had a hard time locating the forlorn grey tail, which was all that remained.

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

All that remains - a forlorn tail; the rest the falcon ate!

I visited the colony often, hoping to see more signs of predation. Since the local foxes are largely nocturnal, I had not had an opportunity to observe their feeding behaviour. I suspected that these lizards, and the many small rodents that poked their heads out after dark, formed part of their diet.

For a few months, nothing interesting happened during my field trips. Then in mid-summer, I chanced to go south of Jaisalmer. It was a windy day. The sand blew steadily, forming a constant desert haze. I found a small colony of Uromastyx next to the road. To my surprise, this time there was a raptor nearby. It was a large, brown, heavy-set Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax perched on a desiccated ‘rohida’ tree Tecomella undulata.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

A Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax) in the Thar desert.

The lizards and eagle appeared to be oblivious of each other and seemingly intent only on braving out the scouring sandstorm. The swirling sand inhibited the use of binoculars so I walked up to the tree, upon which the raptor took off into the brown swirls. Numerous white streaks on the bole and branches told me that it was a favourite perch. I sifted the litter at the base of the tree in the hope of getting pellets but found something else—desiccated spiny-tail fragments and a few bones. This seemed to indicate that the Tawny Eagle was a likely predator of Uromastyx.

Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and an Uromastyx tail.

Fig 3 - Debris below Tawny Eagle perch: bones, old pellets and a Uromastyx tail.

The Tawny Eagle was one of my constant objectives in the field—a strong and agile bird of prey—it was the predominant avian desert raptor. During a drive on 11th June 2006, along what I call ‘Eagle Alley’, a 10 km stretch of road between Pokharan and Khetolai, I counted 12 Tawny Eagles perched on wires, masters of all they surveyed.

A few days later, I returned to Eagle Alley to see a handsome Tawny Eagle, a beautiful near-orange-fawn in colour, sitting on a concrete fence picket near Chacha Odhaniya railway station. It looked at me very distastefully and proceeded to express its opinion of me by being violently sick! It then flew off without a backward glance. I suspected that it had just ejected a pellet and scrambled across barbed wire and thorn to get at it. I was gratified to find a sticky yellow-white pellet with spines of Uromastyx clearly visible. I photographed the pellet, delicately maneuvered it into a polythene bag and brought it home; but alas some over zealous house cleaning left me with no chance to dissect it.

The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

Fig 4 - The Tawny Eagle who expressed his opinion!

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx. Image - Ashwin Baindur.

The freshly egested pellet shows spines of Uromastyx.

Lydekker (1895) states about the Saker Falcon Falco cherrug that, ‘In the Harriana Desert of India these falcons feed largely on a spiny lizard of the genus Uromastix.’

The Saker Falcon is, of course, a winter visitor to the Indian Subcontinent, while the Tawny Eagle and the Laggar Falcon are residents. The Spiny-tailed lizard, being locally common in patches, is probably a significant food source for these birds of prey of the Indian Desert.

Soon after, my unit moved out from Rajasthan and I saw my last Spiny-tailed lizards on a stormy July evening braving the sand sitting close to their shelters. Nearby somewhere, I was sure, were Tawny Eagles, girding themselves against the gritty dust storm, which brought my tryst with the desert to an end. Our special train chugged out of Lathi at nightfall and I left the desert and all its mysteries behind me yet again.

Acknowledgements

Nandan Kalbag for identification of plants; Dr J. Pranay Rao of Raptor Conservation Foundation, Hyderabad, for confirming identities of the raptors mentioned in the article; Pervez Cama, Ashok Captain and L. Shyamal for encouragement and guidance.

References

  • Daniel, J. C. 1983. The book of Indian reptiles. Mumbai: Bombay Natural History Society. Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C. & Inskipp, T. 2001.
  • Pocket guide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Grzimek, B. 2003. Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia (second edition): Vol. 7—reptiles. Farmington Hills, Minnesota: Thomson-Gale.
  • Günther, A. C. L. G. 1864. The reptiles of British India. London: Robert Hardwick. Electronic reprint of 2000 by Arment Biological Press.
  • Lydekker, R. 1895. The Royal natural history. Vol 4. London: Frederick Warne.
  • Menon, V. 2003. A field guide to Indian mammals. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley & Penguin India.
  • Singh, Lt. Gen. Baljit (Retd). 2006. Fauna and Flora: contributions by the Indian Army officers 1778–1952. http://www.usiofindia.org/article_Oct_ Dec06_13. htm. (Accessed: 10th December 2008).
  • Smith, M. A. 1935. The fauna of British India including Ceylon and Burmah, Reptilia and Amphibia: Sauria. Vol 2. London: Taylor and Francis.
  • Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) articles on Uromastyx hardwickii, Aquila rapax and Falco jugger.

Notes

All images (less the first one by Clement Francis) are by Ashwin Baindur and are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 2.5.


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My Secret Garden

16 January 2009

It was a childhood wish of mine to have a secret garden all to myself. I did realise the dream when I was much older and the garden I had then was not quite secret; no garden of a commanding officer’s house can ever be so, no matter how small. Despite this, it contained a secret world which was invisible to all who passed through or passed by but was always available to me whenever I wanted to place the cares of office behind and was ever a source of delight and fascination.

My secret garden

My secret garden

As gardens go, it was a slip of one, hardly 20 yards by 25 yards, just large enough to form the facade of the small two-roomed bungalow in the desert of Jaisalmer where I lived. Indeed it had only a single tree, a patch of grass, some creepers on the fence and a few potted plants but it was peopled by creatures who gave me small glimpses of their lives.

My day begins early, the ploonk plink of bulbuls and the caw caw caw of the crows is infinitely preferable to waking up with the help of an alarm clock. It is just after dawn, the sky is still grey as the sun has not risen over the dunes at the horizon and the breeze which blows cross the sand is still cold. The last vestiges of night-life can occasionally still be seen. Today, a flicker of movement at the corner of my eye causes me to turn my head, just in time to catch a last glimpse of the tail of the large desert monitor (Varanus griseus) who lives behind my bungalow in a hole amidst a tangle of barbed wire. He has a regular nocturnal beat at this time of the year which takes him through the matchbox-sized gardens of the three bungalows side-by-side, then around the large store-house, into the transport yard, across the bordering dune, and back along it on the far side till he rounds the dune, crosses a road and is back into the tiny gardens.

Sometimes, late at night I find a large, prickly and wicked looking arthropod, the solifuge, who patrols my garden each night for insects and small life. Of him, I have written elsewhere.

The hedgehog creeps by night!

The hedgehog creeps by night!

About him and the Varanus, the hedgehog does not know or care, for about once a fortnight, he pays me a visit.

It is always dark when he comes for a sip of water from the squirrel-bowl. He easily finds his way in but for some reason stumbles on his way out and so I notice him. He scrambles between the bowl and fence but there is no exit there. He tries the jird’s hole but I lift him and place him on the road outside my bungalow free to go where he wills.

He is easily trapped, and since taking a good picture is difficult, so one day, I catch him and keep him till day-time when I photograph him.

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehogs are difficult to identify and my guides are not quite comprehensive and the descriptions not specific enough, so, like a lot of amateur naturalists, I call it an Indian Hedgehog and leave it at that.

Night too leaves behind a few small villains, who now appear or can be found where they were not present the previous evening. I am referring, of course, to the scorpions who have the knack of turning up where you never expected to find it – on the outside of the ‘macchar-dani’ (mosquito net), in the folds of the towel on the rack, three feet above the ground or in your boots, the one day you forget to check. Then, its a ”EEYOWW’ followed by the immediate,abrupt and merciless extinction of the perpetrator and later on a local anaesthetic and some salve. A few bites later, you realise it was the fright and unexpectedness which raced your heart more than the pain and it was your ego that required the balm more than the sting.

Curses! Discovered again!

Curses! Discovered again!

Fortunately, I have never found, horror of horrors, the arch-villain, in my shoes or garden – the saw-scaled viper. I’m sure he must be there for my garden is fenced with old duck-boards standing upright, but I never saw him. Nearby yes, but never in my garden.

But lets put these night-time experiences away, for the sun has peeped over the dunes. At this time, strangely, it is not the birds that draw you but the bees. For my garden boasted two hives of bees. They appeared almost together one year after the winter had passed. The largest was in the tree and belonged to Apis florea, the Dwarf Honey Bee. The second hive in the thatch of my garden fence behind a bamboo ‘patti’ screen was the hive of Apis cerana, the Asiatic honeybee. For a brief period these hives flourished, each oblivious of the other, and just as suddenly died out in the autumn. But while they were there, the humming of bees around the sunlit portulacas gave an almost-ethereal feeling to me drowsing in my plastic garden-chair under the tree.

The hive in the tree!

The hive in the tree! (Apis florea)

The hive in the thatch.

The hive in the thatch. (Apis cerana)

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The authorities pipe water twice a day, once in the early morning and once ofter dark. So in between these times, you are dependent on water in the roof tanks and stored water in the bathroom buckets. Water is life in the deserts. The pipeline supplying the garden has a small leak at the place where it bends around the garden corner and there it leaks. Each morning, the garden creatures are treated for an hour or so to a thin lamellar flow across a patch of cemented pavement. I have forbidden its repair so that the creatures can get their small but just desserts!

The bees buzz here across the garden from the hive , and like teenagers wearing many pocketed jeans, they pick up water in the small cups or satchels on their legs and take off for the hive. I imagine this water is used to keep the queen and the larvae air-conditioned through the summer. The bees drink greedily of this water and long after it has stopped they crowd the fence, pipe, wet gravel and moist soil with an unquenchable appetite.

Its not just humans who store water each day!

Its not just humans who store water each day! (Apis cerana)

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water.

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water. (Apis cerana)

Seeing this and the fact that their presence kept some small creatures away I added two more sources of water. A pot of water hung from a tree branch for the birds and bees and a earthen water-bowl for the squirrels, jirds and other creatures at ground level. Since I was watering them, I decided to feed them, so I added a small wooden feeding tray. The carpenter was so gratified at being asked to do so noble a task that of his own he added a bird-house to the tray. I did’nt have the heart to put him right but gave him an extra shabash! Anyway, the bees now started raiding the water-pot in the mid-morning and afternoons too!

Bees besiege the suspended matka

Bees besiege the suspended matka

The white-eared bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucotis) who wake me are not the bulbuls one meets elsewhere in India but are of the white-cheeked variety but without the pointed crests that their cousins from the hills sport. Earlier considered a subspecies, I am told they have been promoted to the rank of a separate species.

The handsome desert bulbul!

The handsome bulbul of the desert!

They fly around, peck at things, warble in the bushes, or on the fence and provide a running commentary on all that’s happening throughout the day. They, along with the squirrels and jirds are my constant companions and I love them dearly. Indeed, one pair did try to nest in the thatch fence but they abandoned the attempt due to a unseasonal heatwave. I pamper them with choicest grains and by shooing away the ‘Bharadwaj’ (Greater Coucal) bird when he calls upon me. They reward me with their melodious calls and assume coquettish postures for my amusement.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The other residents of my garden include sunbirds, sparrows, doves and crows. The sparrows nest in the eaves, the doves in the storehouse rafters, the crows somewhere in the ad hoc repairs of the roof in my backyard and the sunbirds I know not where.

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

It is during the hot hours of the day when I find my most interesting guests. Sometimes it is a Roller perched on a branch under the tree enjoying the coolness just under the canopy where the loo cannot reach directly. On other occasions its a White-browed Fantail, about whom I am constantly admonished by birdwatchers not to refer as a flycatcher any more. Let him catch the two-winged insects, but he must NOT be named as such, declares one soul who fixes me with a glare as if I had just used the much-abhorred ‘n_’ word in a congregation of politically correct citizens.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

During the hot hours of the garden, the creatures are to be found in the shadiest, coolest places. Some, for no conceivable reason why, try other methods. The squirrel who lives in my garden is one such. At this time the birds cling to the shade but off the ground, the jirds are deep underground while Wally the squirrel, so named because he scarfed walnut kernels from her one day, insists on remaining on the sandy floor in the dappled shade below the tree. So to remain in that spot, he resorts to all kinds of tricks. Sometimes, he is on his belly with four hot feet off the ground. Sometimes he grasps the tree trunk while standing on his hind-feet. Intent on his cooling tricks, he fails to notice the bucket of water I send halfway across the garden. Suddenly sodden, he is shocked for an instant before taking off up the tree but I do hope I have helped him remain cool.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

One doesn’t quite expect to find butterflies in the desert but they were present alright. The common danaids were present since their foodplant the Aak or Calotropis was present. In my garden. Every day I saw tiny blues which I discovered to be the Dark Grass Blue Zizeeria lysimon. There was also a Pioneer which stayed awhile and moved on. Insect life must exist in greater variety than one expects small pockets in the desert as I also saw a wasp meticulously scour the garden presumably for caterpillars.

The Dark Grass Blue

The Dark Grass Blue

The visiting Pioneer

The visiting Pioneer

The wasp on the hunt!

The wasp on the hunt!

The star of the garden is, of course, the jird. Most people call him ‘gerbille’ or ‘kangaroo mouse’; he is neither. His short, rounded ears, chubby body, long thinly haired tail with dark tassel, and shorter legs than one would expect of a mouse looking like a miniature kangaroo, he is the cutest of desert creatures in my garden.

Meet the jird!

Meet the jird!

One day he turned up in my newly developed garden strolling in as if he owned the place. This was followed by a detailed reconnaissance on his part which culminated with the selection of a spot by the gate where there was adequate shade available. He then proceeded to dig as swiftly, continuously and urgently as he could, realising the risk he faced of being without a bolt-hole. Every few minutes or so, whenever he felt unsafe or uneasy, he would pause and sit upright, facing this way and later that, till he was certain danger had passed. Then he would resume with renewed vigour. Sometimes his head was not seen as it was buried deep but the rear part of his body and his feet were rapidly jerking upwards above the ground level ejecting a constant stream of sand from the hole. Finally, the burrow was done but it was becoming dark.

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Tired but satisfied, he went to have a sip in the newly installed water-bowl but instead sat up at the edge and shrieked angrily. Peering to see what was the problem, I espied Mr and Mrs Todarmal stolidly sitting in the water. Only after I had driven off the indignant toads and changed the water, and also hidden myself in the verandah, would the jird take his sip of water.

The Toadar Mals

The Toadar Mals

Now, master of all he surveys, he shows himself during the day only when it is not too hot. Then he emerges from his burrow, does his personal grooming and then clambers up the side of the bowl to drink his water. Thirst satisfied, he seeks to satisfy his palate. This he does by raiding the bird-seed spilled over the edge of the feeder tray or by nibbling pieces of grass sitting outside his burrow. Should another jird enter the garden, there is a thorough free-for-all until he has vanquished the interloper.

One day I saw another slightly smaller jird and realised he had a mate. But alas, I was not fortunate enough to see their progeny as the military authorities cottoned onto the fact that I was enjoying myself thoroughly and decided to remedy the fact by posting me to the North East.

The honeymooners

The honeymooners

Though I am no longer physically present in the desert, in my mind’s eye I can still return to enjoy those pleasurable moments that were once my good fortune to experience.

Solifugids ko salaam!

13 January 2009

(Hindi  :  Hail the Solifugids!)

In my family, it is usually my son, Aashay, or me who exclaims at the beauty of a bird or goggles at the Chinkara loitering amongst the dunes. My daughter Aditi, is the sophisticate, who has a been-there, done-that attitude towards this whole ‘animal thing’. Animals do not interest this ten year old; she is into horror films, the more gory and Gothic the better. So it was with some surprise that during a trip in 2006 to the Jaisalmer desert, where I was posted, that Aditi had an interesting interlude with, of all things, Solifugids.

Solifugids are mysterious arthropods. Unknown to most people, they are misunderstood even amongst those who are familiar with them. I suspect that the only people who might be supposed to know about them, scientists, don’t actually, because till date none of them has bothered to tell me anything about these strange creatures!

What are solifuges, you ask? Don’t worry, I take no offense at your query. Solifuges are large members of the tribe ‘arthropods‘ (meaning jointed creatures). The arthropods consist of the millions of six-legged insects, and the many more-than-six-legged other creatures such as crabs, spiders and the various -pedes. A solifuge is not an insect but one of the others, a relative of the spiders, and other eight-legged creatures, which are referred to as Arachnids. The clan is scientifically so named because of its dislike for the sun. They take refuge from the sun, so Sol (meaning Sun) and refuge (meaning refuge) = Solifuge. Get it?

As far as the common names are concerned, the common people have not quite decided what they resemble more – spiders or scorpions so that they are commonly referred to, both as wind-scorpions and camel-spiders! And sometimes, most insultingly to all solifugids, they are also called sun-spiders or sun-scorpions despite their obvious and lifelong abhorrence of the sun.

If a Solifugid is disturbed by day, he will first of all dart into the coolest shade he can find which may well be your shadow. If you move away and so does your shadow, you should not be surprised to find the solifugid following in order to keep out of the blazing sun. This behaviour can be quite un-nerving to those who don’t know much about Solifugids and has led the birth of many urban legends about Solifugids in Iraq amongst American soldiers.

The desert floor is the hunting ground of these creatures who spend their day deep in the crevices of rocks or nooks amongst roots or wherever they can hide from the heat and light of the Sun. They emerge after dark, still careful to keep in the deep shadows or even deeper, if possible. Being cup or saucer-sized, a Solifugid in the light is guaranteed to get screams from the female members of a party. In actuality, they are completely and totally harmless to man!

Each self-respecting garden in the Thar desert has a solifugid so did my garden in ‘Casa Grande’ as we colloquially referred to my modest bungalow. So it happened one day, as we sat in the garden at dusk with some of the verandah light weakly illuminating patches between our legs and those of the chairs, that a shadowy figure darted in between causing my wife to involuntarily lift and fold her legs onto the chair.

”Ashwin”, she said, ”there is a crab under my feet!”

”Dont worry dear, just a desert crab, I’m sure!” was my enlightened response. Those were the days when I too was ignorant about Solifuges, not having been introduced to any, thank you!

The kids immediately said, ”Where, where?”

But the solifuge wisely decided to stay out of the limelight and so a torch was sent for and obtained. The torch beam was pointed here and there between our legs but with limited success, for, the creature, once illuminated refused to stay put! Now this became a prestige issue for the family. I always maintain that any creepy or crawlie which heads towards us does so at his own embarrasment and risk. The family rallied together and cornered the recalcitrant beast. It was a most curious creature!

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

A solifuge looks like a thorny, bristly, cross between an insect and a large spider. Though it may look poisonous or venomous, it is not. It has an insect-like body but with eight ten legs instead of six, with the forward-most pair of ‘leg’s actually being pedipalps which are used for feeding and capturing prey. The solifugid has a pair of eyes perched closely together at the top of his head and you very soon get the feeling that he understands whatever is happening and knows everything! The solifugid kept moving throughout the garden and we succeeded in getting photographs by night despite my inexperience in photography.

At that point of time my kids were going through a scorpion fetish. The scorpion mania took the form of not just asking questions about scorpions or reading about them, but by incarcerating any scorpion foolish enough to come within ten yards of the two. Aashay in his quiet confident way mastered the art of capturing scorpions safely and painlessly. He would herd a scorpion onto a large piece of cardboard and once the creature got onto it he would place an empty jar upturned over it and flip the cardboard so that the scorpion first found that he was trapped on a cardboard with glass all around, then found himself falling through space into the glass-jar as it was inverted. Many unwary scorpions on venturing out after dark now found themselves part of a glass-jar menagerie. But with Solifugids around, scorpions are small game. Inevitably, desires escalated and it was resolved that there was no reason why they should not catch a Solifugid, so the scorpions were gratified to gain clemency, a larger piece of cardboard and a larger jar were procured and in due course of time the Casa Grande solifugid was trapped!

''Soli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family.

''Solli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family. Note his pointed jaws which are chelicerae. He has two above and two below which have a strong pincer grip.

Aditi promptly declared that the scorpions had been Dada’s pets so this pet was hers! This was violently contradicted and like siblings the world over the two feuded and had a fierce yelling match with accusations and counter-accusations. The matter was finally resolved with a truce suggested by the Missus that the Solifugid was to be shared till they procured another when they each would have their own! My forceful remonstrations that while by catching the Solufugid they had proved a point but that keeping it would not be a good idea, were not even acknowledged by anyone.

If you have a pet, it must have a name. So Solifugid number One was promptly named ”Soli”! The Solifugid then proceeded to become the darling of our lives. It had a large plastic bread-box as a temporary home. Here he paraded while he was inspected and examined and shown to anyone within range!

Solli took grave exception to being disturbed. Even a finger extended towards him outside the translucent box angered him. Then he would sway back and forth on his legs waving his forward pair threateningly and gnashing his jaws in a up-down motion. At one time, he took such an exception to a toothbrush waved at him that he jumped and almost succeeded in escaping out of the box. This performance increased his value and he became a dearer pet to Aditi.

Gesturing fiercely with his front legs!

Gesturing fiercely with his pedipalps!

The very next day, another Solifugid, this time a juvenile was caught in a neighbouring compund, and there was another fight before it was decided as to which Solifugid belonged to whom. The juvenile then underwent the indignity of being christened ”Rustam”. Rustam was overall smaller in size, his legs were proportionally smaller, he was more docile or well-behaved but he was never quite as interesting as ”Solli”.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

That night I had nightmares of finding myself sharing the bed with a solifugid instead of my wife! Fortunately for all concerned, the Solifugids had resolutely refused all offers of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food so that I could lay down the law. The kids agreed very reluctantly to release them but not without an elaborate release ceremony the following evening. Though Rustam and Solli had ended their membership of the Baindur family, Solli continued to be seen on his night-time hunts in the garden.

Free at last!

Free at last!

Soli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Solli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Thus ended the saga of the strangest pets that our family had!

The beetle which changed colours

9 January 2009

One comes across the wonders of natures almost accidentally. In June 2006, on the thirteenth to be precise, my son Aashay and I had driven along the Pokaran – Jaisalmer road to look at Tawny Eagles, who are easily found every few hundred metres perched on the wires or poles. On the way back, we stopped to say hello to a local acquaintance. He stood at his present place of labour, a dolomite mine the concession of which he had taken. The mine, near Chacha village, some 20 odd kms from Pokaran, consisted of an area approx 200 yards in diameter in the middle of which there was a large pit some ten yards across and about ten feet deep. Inside, the pit had tunnels leading from the sides which my friend claimed were quite long and winding and undermined almost all the area of the mine. On the surface, occasional holes with large piles of white dolomite stones around the entrances hinted at the warren below.

The dolomite quarry where we found the beetle.

The dolomite quarry where we found the beetle.

As fathers are prone to do, conversations turn to worldly matters or ‘shop’ so Aashay went wandering around the mine. A fatherly warning followed Aashay that he should stick to the beaten tracks only.

Fifteen minutes later, I walked upto Aashay to fetch him. It was 8.30 and time that we made our way back home for breakfast. Aashay was bent over, peering at something on the ground. It was a beetle scurrying on the ground.

”Pappa” he said, ”there’s something strange about this beetle!”

We followed it as it meandered amongst through the broken stone and sand. It was beautiful, almost completely white with a few black markings. A white beetle being a novelty, I was keen to get close and take a photograph but the beetle did not cooperate. Realising it was being pursued, the beetle changed tack and now hurried along on a twisting path towards some Aak bushes (Calotropis spp). A picture on the ground was difficult to get so Aashay chased it trying to scoop up the dodging creature. This he did, only to lose it a few seconds later. We did however succeed in taking a few snaps.

What was truly amazing was that the beetle, which was almost completely white when Aashay had spotted it, gradually turned darker and darker until finally it was almost completely black with only a very thin white edging.

The creature finally reached sanctuary – a cluster of Aak roots with twisted branches, dried leaves and small crevices into which it disappeared. The Rajasthani locals who worked the mines told us that the beetle turned black with fright but would recover to its original pattern after 15 minutes or so.

Immediately after we encountered the beetle it began turning black.

Immediately after we encountered the beetle it began turning black.

Scooped up in Aashay's hands for taking a good snap, it has almost turned completely black.

Scooped up in Aashay's hands for taking a good snap, it has almost turned completely black.

Later I put up the images on Wikipedia WikiProject Arthrpods talk page, hoping for an identification. Doug Dynega, an entomologist and museum curator in the States, responded whith what appears to be the key to the mystery:

”It’s a Tenebrionid, but I can’t be certain of the subfamily. From what I can see in the photos, the white “markings” are, like in many desert Tenebs, not markings, but fine cuticular wax deposits. I’d never heard of the beetle being able to change the amount of wax on it, so I have a better explanation, based on what one can observe; the wax layer is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture), and when it does so, it loses its reflectivity. Holding the beetle in your hand will greatly increase the humidity in the airspace near the beetle. This makes some sense as a desert adaptation; when humidity is low, the beetle reflects more sunlight, and when humidity is high, it reflects less. I’ve just never heard of the phenomenon, and can’t confirm it myself. What you need to do is catch one, kill it, and experiment. If it’s that sensitive, even breathing on it should have a noticeable effect. If it can be confirmed, it might even be something to publish, assuming no one has documented it before.”

Sadly, we left the area soon after and could not go back to explore this mystery any further. A pretty little puzzle waiting for someone to unravel it!

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Notes.

1. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.

2.  Comment by Doug Dynega published under GFDL copyright from Wikipedia at the Talk page of WikiProject Arthropods on Wikipediaaccessed on 08 Jan 2009: