Thursday, September 22, 2005

New beetles at Bandipur

Shankar Bennur

A group of entomologists and naturalists of Mysore have identified a wide variety of ants, beetles and butterflies found during a survey at the Bandipur National Park, a part of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This first survey conducted at the park by Mysore-based Green Club, a trust dedicated to nature studies, has provided a platform for advanced research on insects.

The club, set up with the objective of conservation of nature and wildlife research, has submitted a preliminary checklist of ants, beetles and butterflies to the Forest Department. However, some new species of insects are yet to identified. The club is seeking the assistance of expert taxonomists for identifying certain new species of butterflies.

“Insects play an extremely important role in the ecosystem. But many species of insects are on the verge of extinction due to eco degradation. One of the most important roles insects play is the pollination of flowering plants. But insects are seen as agriculture pests which is wrong since many of them are benefactors of humans. They are the link in the food chain and biological controllers by feeding on the carcasses of dead animals,” explain Mr R S P Rao and Mr Amog of the club.

The club’s research on insects was supported by the University of Illinois, the Forest Department and Dr Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, a fellow scientist at the Centre for Insect Taxonomy and Conservation of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). Prof Mike from the University of Illinois encouraged the club’s research by offering certain techniques for insect collection.

Significantly, the survey has disclosed that the park is home for 85 species of butterflies, including some rare species. Likewise, 27 species of ants and 41 species of dung beetles have been identified in the survey conducted for a period of one and half years in four seasons in Bandipur forests that is spread across 800 sq kms. More then 150 volunteers were involved in the survey.

Only seven species of ants and seven species of dung beetles are yet to be identified. Nine species of extremely rare dung beetles, including Copris Indicus, Onthophagus Rana, Onthophagus Ensifer, Onthophagus Beesoni, Onitis Singhalensis, represented by single specimen in the collection of the survey have been identified in the park.

Mr R S P Rao argues that many people do not know that 40 per cent of crops are depended on insect pollination. Many are not interested in insect studies . “Therefore, we took up the research making use of available resources. Many scholars have supported our initiative,” he said.

Mr Rao expressed confidence that the research will help in preservation and advanced research on insects. “We started our activities with nature camps and adventure sports. Subsequently, we focussed on environmental awareness programmes for the public. Research in the field of wildlife and nature related aspects have been taken up since last three years,” Mr Amog explains.

In fact, an exhibition of insects collected during the research was conducted at the century-old Mysore Zoo. “We got overwhelming response from the public. They were surprised to see a wide variety of insects. Our prime goal is to educate the public on the world of insects,” he informed.

The club’s next aim to hold insect exhibitions in schools and colleges and highlight the role played by insects for ecosystem. The Green Club has plans to take up advanced research on insects if it gets assistance from research institutions.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pilots Track Monarch Migration Across North America

21 September 2005

The Monarch is the world's only migrating butterfly. Each year tens of millions of these fragile insects make a round-trip journey across North America to Mexico and back. Now a group of humans have embarked on a bold mission to track the Monarch's migration and help protect the insect and its habitat.

On a soccer field near downtown Washington, Francisco Gutierrez is working with his crew to assemble his ultralight aircraft. The veteran pilot has painted the wings black and gold -- just like a monarch butterfly's.

"It's exactly the same as a hang glider," he says. "You can see now they are putting down the wing and then we put in a unit with the engine that can carry two people - pilot and passenger. This light aircraft is like a butterfly for us. We are like monarchs and sharing the weather with them. So they don't fly. We don't fly."

Francisco Gutierrez and a team of co-pilots from Canada, the United States and Mexico are flying the migration route of the Monarch. Their journey in the Papalotzin - which means little butterfly in the ancient Aztec language - began in August in Canada and ends in November in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, where Monarchs hibernate in winter.

"It is amazing that this incredible insect that weighs less than one gram flies 5,500 kilometers each year with no problem," Mr. Gutierrez says. He adds, "Not one, but millions of Monarchs from North America go to this place that is just an area of a few square miles."

Monarch expert Lincoln Brower from Sweet Briar College is on hand to welcome the pilots and crew to Washington, one of more than a dozen stops they'll make between Canada and Mexico. He says the Monarch's realm is a three-country phenomenon. "The monarch migration is dependent upon what happens in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and particularly in the U.S.," he says, "because the Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed plants. The caterpillars can't eat anything else. And the females never make a mistake. They only lay on milkweeds."

By November tens of millions of monarchs born in the United States and Canada will converge on the high elevation fir and pine forests of central Mexico.

Carlos Galindo-Leal is forest coordinator for World Wildlife Fund, a co-sponsor of the tracking mission. He says despite a reserve established to protect Monarch habitat, illegal logging continues to destroy valuable forestland.

He says the successful efforts to halt this practice reach beyond the Monarch to the ecology of the region. "The Monarch is only one species. It is an important species, but these forests have a lot of unique species," Mr. Galindo-Leal says. "These are really tall mountains. The monarch is basically sitting at 3,000 meters and up there are species endemic to the mountains - salamanders, birds and a number of species. No only do we protect these species, but the water - about 30% of the water that is there goes to the main cities including Mexico City." So protecting the Monarch butterfly's habitat he says, improves the lives of people as well.

Monarch expert Lincoln Brower says a sustainable environment requires balance between human and economic uses of the land.

"You just can't keep extracting," he says. "You are going to destroy the biodiversity on vast areas of this planet."

The pilots and crew tracking the Monarch migration route share Mr. Brower's passion for the insect. The team - which is producing a movie about their journey - is also writing a daily web log that details their progress and invites you along for a virtual ride with the Monarch butterflies.