International Year of Forests

Moist Deciduous forests of Western Ghats
When I first ventured into the pristine forests of the Western Ghats, I was astounded by the sheer variety of plants, from the simplest bryophytes to the complex angiosperms, forming one big single community. A nigh ten kilometres from the nearest human settlement, it is one of the few remaining megadiverse habitats around the world. There are large strangling lianas swinging in the wind, old eerily squealing bamboo echoing in the tropical hardwood forest, and melodious calls of birds that is only scattered into a sudden silence when a predator goes in search of prey. It is here that tigers and human hunters once lived in harmony – an unwritten treaty of peace between the two, now broken by modern man’s greed and grievance. Today, the population of tigers in this Tiger Reserve is deemed too low to be viable, and as encroachment and poaching presses from all sides, their future seems bleak.
Primary forest as a percentage of total forest area by country, 2010. Courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Source: : http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/65883/en/
All over the world, there are such small fragments of primary forests facing a serious threat from human development. About 60,000-130,000 sq. km of these are being lost or modified through deforestation and conversion of forest land for agriculture every year (FAO, 2005). In a study conducted by National Academy of Sciences, the world’s forest cover shrunk by 3.1% between 2000 and 2005, that is about 1,011,000 sq. km, citing several causes including human cutting and natural phenomena such as wildfires (Hansen, Stehman & Potapov, 2010), although the difference between cutting and wildfires is that wildfires boost regeneration in many cases. This alarming rate of forest loss makes a direct, adverse impact on the biodiversity.

About 50% of earth’s biodiversity is concentrated in only 6-7% of earth’s land area – the tropical forests (Stock & Rochen, n.a.; Ravikanth, Shaanker & Ganeshaiah, 2000). It is also here that most people rely directly on forest resources; hence it is disheartening to see that maximum loss of forest areas is occurring in countries having tropical forests, with 27% and 20.2% loss of tropical humid forests and tropical forests in dry regions respectively, from the overall forest loss (of 1,011,000 sq. km). These figures were recorded over the period of 2000-2005 (Hansen, Stehman & Potapov, 2010).
Annual net change in forest area, 2010. Courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Source: http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/62219/en/
As for 2005-2010 statistics, the above figure shows even dreadful numbers, with Brazil and Indonesia, the countries with largest, most diverse rainforests in the world leading the way for habitat destruction.

Deforestation is a serious issue because it affects entire ecosystems. When forests are logged, it may take hundreds of years to fully recover the biomass, or it may never grow to that extent at all, as is true for rainforests. Deforestation by building dams, clearing for agriculture, animal husbandry and industrial development can lead to release of enormous amounts of stored CO2 into the environment. It leads to erosion, and the associated flooding. Many animals and plants are endangered today primarily because of habitat destruction. In 2009, WWF released an annual list of 10 most threatened species around the world, which includes 5 species inhabiting forests.
Deciduous forests of Northern Western Ghats in Monsoon
India ranks 10th in the list of most forested nations, with the tree cover of about 20.6% of total geographical area of the country as of 2005 (Kishwan, Pandey & Dadhwal, 2009). This accounts for 1% of world’s forest area, inhabited by about 500,000 of the 10 to 30 million species on earth. A study conducted to record the conservation status of forests in India reported that although the population is on a steep rise since independence (a four-fold increase), the rate of loss of forests has remained comparable to the pre-independence period (Ravikanth, Shaanker & Ganeshaiah, 2000). This has been attributed to the strong policy for forest protection and vigorous forest conservation campaigns. Besides the implementation of Indian Forest Act, 1927; there has been large scale afforestation projects carried out throughout the country. Although this was a great initiative towards revegetation and increasing carbon stocks stored in forests (Kishwan et al, 2009), these projects were a big failure in the name of reforestation because of lack of research and, probably desperation to increase the green cover. Afforestation was mostly carried out as extensive monocultures of exotic species such as Australian Acacia, which grow rapidly, but inhibit growth of other native plants. The native fauna has not adapted to the exotic forests either, hence the biodiversity of such forests is extremely low. Fortunately, the issue of exotic plantations has been addressed by the Forest Department, but the general public is yet unaware of the impact of exotic species on native ecosystems. Albeit the slow but gradual progress in sustaining forests in India, there is a constant threat from encroachment, illegal deforestation and poaching of wild animals that requires urgent attention.
Mixed Carolinian and Boreal forests of Manitoulin Island in summer
Canada has the second major repository of northern forests after Russia (Global Forest Watch, n.a.), and ranks 3rd in the list of most forested nations. These Boreal forests store the equivalent of 27 years worth of global greenhouse gas emissions (IBCC, n.a.). Unfortunately, North America suffered the biggest forest loss during 2000-2005, of about 295,000 sq. km (Hansen, Stehman & Potapov, 2010). Canada is the world’s biggest timber exporter through logging, and is the key sector in Canada’s economy, leading to deforestation by extraction of timber, energy and mineral resources (Global Forest Watch, n.a.). The Tar Sands are also affecting Canada’s Boreal forests and its resident fauna. Tar sands oil development creates open-pit mines, habitat fragmentation, toxic waste holding ponds, air and water pollution. About 3,000 sq. km of forest and wetlands come under strip-mining, resulting in the loss of breeding habitat of about 480,000 to 3.6 million birds (Wells, Casey-Lefkowitz, Chavarria & Dyer, 2008). The Tailings ponds that hold many toxic pollutants such as naphtha, paraffin and by-products of petroleum leaches underground and into rivers, polluting aquatic as well as terrestrial habitats, ultimately affecting the overall health of the ecosystems (IEN, n.a.).

When we look at the reasons for the decline in forests, there is only one that is truly destructive – population growth and increasing consumer demand, and the resulting deforestation. The two countries discussed above, among many others, share different habitats, and yet share similar threats. Hence, although there might be a little difference in how-to sustain these forestlands; international laws and policies must be strengthened to protect them by coordinating with one another to tackle the environmental problems on a global level, especially concerning import and export of forest and animal products.

As the world population is set to touch 8 billion in 15 years, I cannot help but imagine the rate of deforestation going up and up, and with every percent rise, we are only acceleration our own demise, since we all, just like many other terrestrial animals, depend on forest resources either directly or indirectly. In order to raise awareness on sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development, the UN declared 2011 to be the International Year of Forests. This is a great initiative after the International Year of Biodiversity, with many programs at national and international levels developed to address the impacts of forest loss, to compel governments to take stringent actions against illegal deforestation, to encourage sustainable forest management, and create public awareness. What we as the citizens of the world can do is buy only sustainably harvested products that directly come from forests, such as paper and furniture and boycott goods that are produced by illegal deforestation, such as palm-oil, and invest in organizations actively engaged in sustainability and environmental management. After all, whether we live far from any forest, our life is still completely dependent on it – not because our clothes and chair are made from the trees, but because the very air we breathe comes from it.

References

FAO. (2005). Global Forest Resources Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/008/A0400E/A0400E03.pdf

Hansen, M. C., Stehman, S. V., & Potapov, P. V. (2010, March 17). Quantification of global gross forest cover loss. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/19/8650.full.pdf+html?sid=898ec507-56e5-4cac-bb9b- 4b64cc413fd5

IBCC. (n.a.). Canada's boreal forests: Shield against global warming. Retrieved from Boreal Songbird Initiative: http://www.borealbirds.org/resources/factsheet-IBCC-globalwarming.pdf

Kishwan, J., Pandey, R., & Dadhwal, V. K. (2009). India's forest and tree cover: Contribution as a carbon sink. Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun. Retrieved from: http://envfor.nic.in/mef/Technical_Paper.pdf

Ravikanth, G., Shaanker, U. R., & Ganeshaiah, K. N. (2000, Nov-Dec). Conservation status of forests in India: A cause for worry? J. Indian Inst, Sci. , 591-600. Retrieved from: http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=13380428

Stock, J., & Rochen, A. (n.a.). The Choice: Doomsday or Arbor Day. Retrieved from Universirt of Michigan: http://www.umich.edu/~gs265/society/deforestation.htm

Watch, G. F. (n.a.). Canada: Overview. Retrieved from Global Forest Watch: http://www.globalforestwatch.org/english/canada/index.htm

Wells, J., Casey-Lefkowitz, S., Chavarria, G., & Dyer, S. (2008). Impact on birds of tar sands oil development in Canada's boreal forests. NRDC. Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/borealbirds.pdf

IEN. (n.a.). What the tar sands need. Retrieved from Indigenous Environmental Network: http://www.ienearth.org/docs/WhattheTarSandsNeed.html

A day in the life of animals

There are fascinating activities going on in nature everywhere around us. Even right now, there is a small colony of Carpenter ants somewhere in your backyard working hard to find food during winter, but summer undoubtedly peaks in such activities, as the temperature rises and plants bloom and there is an abundance of everything for a short period of time. The struggle for survival, the game that constantly haunts every living organism on this planet, is even more competitive and ferocious, as prey try hard to protect their offspring, and predators try as much harder to provide food for their offspring.
An Osprey hovers over the north shore of Lake Huron on an overcast morning
During the summer of 2010, as I walked through tick and mosquito ridden forests of southern Ontario, I closely observed the life of some animals engaged in their daily activities. This is just a humble attempt at sharing a fascinating world I was fortunate to study. These animals are very common around us that have been studied and documented by many researchers, but there is something special about observing the behaviours in nature with your own eyes, than merely reading about them in books.

1. Birds are always a treat to watch, and it’s not surprising to see the number of naturalists as well as artists inspired by their behaviour. Whether it is a Rock Pigeon or an American Robin feeding in the backyard, there’s something about their dedication to finding food and alertness to any approaching danger, which is interesting to observe. During my stay at Manitoulin Island, I happened to glance out of the window at a Robin hopping around the backyard with something bright in its beak. I could not get a good look as it was pretty far, but I was lucky to have photographed it.
American Robin carrying a raspberry and an earthworm
Interestingly, the Robin was carrying a Raspberry and an earthworm in its beak. Now it is not surprising, as most birds do feed on worms as well as berries, but what’s surprising is that this Robin was seen carrying both at the same time. I’m not sure if the Robin was carrying the berry while it found the Earthworm, or if the Robin really enjoys eating earthworm-and-berries together, just as how we eat vegetables with chicken. Perhaps it was carrying it to feed the chicks, but considering that it was photographed on 14th August, most of the chicks must be fully grown by July-end and early August to be able to feed on their own.

2. Butterflies are always associated with flowers, but not many know that besides flowers, butterflies absolutely love visiting mud, rotting fruits and feces. They also prefer visiting dead animals, just to obtain extra minerals and salts, amongst other essential nutrients.
Little Wood Satyr getting some nutrients from a dead wasp
One day at Long Point, I was stalking this Little Wood Satyr. It suddenly stopped by a dead wasp, and lapped up some of the nutrients. This is common, as many butterflies will get nutrients from animal matter. But this wasp was trapped in a spider’s web, which makes it more interesting to observe how butterflies obtain nutrients indirectly from spiders. What we usually consider is spiders feeding on butterflies as they get ambushed or tangled in webs, thus providing nutrients for the spider; but here we have an odd case where a spider helped a butterfly get its share of nutrients!

3. While exploring a woodpile, I came across many Formica ants defending young ferns. These ants were the most common at Long Point, covering almost every niche, from rooftops to the sandy shores of Lake Erie. They probably also made the Tiger Beetles to flee, and kept snakes at bay in some habitats.
A tiny spider preying on a much larger ant
In this place riddled with firewood, I saw a Formica ant trapped in a spider’s web. Interestingly, the spider was so small, that it could barely hold onto the ant, which, the spider had somehow managed to trap in its web and inject a dose of venom. In India, I have seen a really small Orb-weaver take on a Dragonfly ten times its size. This shows how spiders, irrespective of their size, are crucial predators of other predators – as they keep their population under check, while ants and Odonates as well, in turn, keep spider populations under check by hunting them.

4. During my stay at Long Point, I used to walk around a lot, looking in every crevice and in thickets to find something unusual. Everyday, I found something I had never seen before. On all explorations, arachnids were almost omnipresent, with Harvestmen hiding beneath leaves, and Wolf spiders stalking in leaf litter.
Harvestman feeding on pollen
One day as I was exploring the undergrowth, I found a Harvestman strolling carefully under leaves – hiding from birds and other predators. What it did next was something unusual for an arachnid. The Harvestman appeared to be feeding on pollen. Harvestmen are opportunists, hunting small insects such as aphids and mites as well as scavenging on dead animal matter. Some feed on vegetable matter as well. This Harvestman apparently, was feeding on pollen. Although it is not as surprising, this is the first time I saw a Harvestman feeding on any plant material. I wonder, though, in what circumstances do Harvestmen feed on vegetable matter, perhaps to supplement their carnivorous diet with fibre? The Harvestman may have found tiny mites in the stamens, and was feeding on them, or it was attracted to the pollen simply because they are highly nutritious.

5. Manitoulin Island is the most interesting place that I have visited in Canada. It is home to a variety of birds, which can be observed as you travel along the road. In fact, most of our bird-of-prey sightings were possible while travelling, although walking on foot was rather easy to sight smaller birds, especially warblers.

On one such road trip, and a few since then, we saw a Broad-winged Hawk in a specific area – probably its territory. This hawk was sitting on a power cable just beside the road. It is in fact common for birds to perch on power cables, be it pigeons or starlings and especially some birds-of-prey, such as hawks and kestrels.
Broad-winged Hawk
What was unusual about this hawk is that, sadly, it appeared to have a string caught in its beak. On closer inspection, I figured it to be a fishing line. The string did not seem to tangle in its beak or on the foot, and appeared to be coming out directly from its mouth. It’s probably that the hawk consumed a fish that had a fishing line still hooked onto it. I hope there was no hook attached to the string, as it may be of a serious concern to the hawk. Albeit the inconvenience of a fishing line caught in the beak, the hawk appeared healthy and we saw him couple of times in the same area.

This incidence weighs on the ill-effects of fishing, mostly on part of careless fly fishing hobbyists. Many fishing lines, just like the nylon threads used to fly kites, cause damage to wildlife that we cannot fathom, partly because the broken fishing line gets lost under the water, or in some fish’s mouth, and ultimately forgotten, until the fish is consumed by a bird, which could lead to its death.

6. There was another interesting phenomena going on at Manitoulin in early July that was observed all over the island. This time, it was the butterfly problem. I was very glad to see many butterflies, more specifically Hesperiids all over the place, as these are my favourite family of butterflies. I was enjoying taking pictures of them, but something seemed amiss, because when there is too much of one thing in nature, something is very wrong.
European Skippers on Cirsium arvense
After coming home and doing a little research on European Skippers over the internet, I came across CBIF, one of the best government-run website for biodiversity that I have ever come across. It says, “In many places in the east, [European Skipper] is unbelievably abundant, outnumbering all other species combined. Even after almost a century it seems that native parasites have not yet developed a taste for this species.” One of the attributes of this species, that none other Hesperiid in Canada has, is the capacity of the eggs to overwinter, that were accidentally introduced in London, Ontario around 1910 in seeds of Timothy Grass.

This outburst is of a major concern to native butterflies, especially to other skippers that prefer to lay eggs on similar host plants. Interestingly, the populations of European Skippers fell to almost nil within two weeks. It will be worth studying their impact on other skippers next summer. Although I could not get data for previous years, I came across references to such an outburst at Manitoulin in 2009. If there is a long-term explosion of European Skippers at Manitoulin, it will also be interesting to look at their impact on native flora and other associated fauna, and if they have helped shape the vegetation on the island.

7. As I explored a patch of Ash trees in September, I came across interesting, inconspicuous insects in the thickets – a pair of Stick Insects. This was the first time I saw stick insects in Canada. This mating pair of Stick Insect, which probably is a Northern Walking Stick, Diapheromera femorata, is common in North America. Although I have seen Stick Insects in India, this sighting was special because most Indian species reproduce parthenogenetically, hence finding male Stick Insects is very rare.
A mating pair of Northern Walking Sticks
The Northern Walking Sticks, also known as Common Walking Sticks, are fairly common in southern Ontario, but thanks to their extreme camouflage, they are somewhat hard to find. The adults mostly live a solitary life, munching on oak, hazelnut and Wild Black Cherry leaves. Mating generally takes place late in summer, and the female drops eggs, which look very similar to seeds, to the ground. Sometimes these eggs are mistaken by ants for seeds which take them to their nest. The eggs hibernate throughout winter and hatch in early spring. The nymphs, who look like miniature stick insects are green in colour – a perfect combination of stick-like appearance and colour to blend in the early spring foliage.

8. If there were award ceremonies in the natural world, insects would take most of these awards for their exceptional abilities. There are beetles that can pull 1,141 times their own weight, or lift weight about 850 times their own weight, such as the Rhinoceros beetle. Then there are ants that can conquer or scare away any animal, some of which are capable of killing almost every visible organism that they can overpower in their path, like the Army ants. While I wasn’t fortunate to see the marching Army ants, nor heavyweight lifting beetles, I saw a combination of both – marching as well as lifting weights up a vertical wall, at Long Point.
Formica sp. of ant carrying dry plant material up a wall
The uphill march was that of Formica ants, commonly called Thatching ants. These ants were seen carrying dried plant material up the walls and under the roof of an abandoned cabin – with some of them carrying long, heavy objects such as leaves. Their way of carrying thing up a vertical surface was very interesting. To minimize the burden, the ants walked backwards up the wall, holding onto the object with their strong mandibles. If a human were to try this technique on a horizontal ground, he’d almost certainly fall over by the proportional weight and size of the object!
Another Formica sp. of ant carrying a dried leaf up a wall
This remarkable feat was undertaken by over a hundred ants, walking backwards straight up, and coming down to carry more stuff. I can only imagine how many runs a single ant must have taken to build a nest safe under the roof. On the other hand, the same ants formed a huge colony under a nearby fallen tree. There were so many, that you could hear them walking around the leaf litter if you stood a few feet from the nest. They were perhaps shifting their site, or were spreading to another territory.

9. As some animals build homes to rest in, one of the insects is rather smart to use a ready-made “bed of roses” as a place to rest. On one evening walk through the Carolinian woods, I came across this interesting behaviour of bees, resting inside flowers of red raspberries.

The light was already fading, and the towering woods brought darkness to the undergrowth rather quickly. I saw a few bees resting on top of flower buds, and many, interestingly, appeared to undergo daily torpor inside the flowers! Everywhere I looked, there were Big-headed Bees, probably of Megachile genus, resting peacefully inside Raspberry flowers. A pretty safe place to sleep in during nights, I must say. One quick search on the internet about this behaviour yielded positive. Some bees, mostly male Bumble bees and their kin that are usually solitary do indeed rest in flower heads, while the females return to the nest.
A Big-headed Bee resting inside the flower
As we all know, bees show many complex behaviours, whether solitary or social. In fact there are different ways in which bees rest as well, as some, like the one above prefer cosy beds of pollen and fragrant petals, while some bite onto a stick to rest, and others, mostly the social bees rest in their nests.

10. All the nesting animals turn competitive and protective during the breeding season. I happened to have experienced the fury of a concerned pair of Northern Goshawks in the month of May. Just as we walked on a dirt-bike road, we were attacked by these huge birds swooping over our heads. Although we expected this behaviour from the nesting Goshawks, it was pretty frightening at first. The male and the female took turns to swoop down over us, about a meter or two above our heads, and then rise up and circle around making shrill calls, as if warning us to back out. Although they never really touched our heads, I couldn’t help but stoop down whenever they made an “attack”, as its very intimidating to see a huge bird-of-prey with powerful talons swooping down over you.
A male Northern Goshawk giving warning calls
This pair of Goshawks was intimidated by our presence in the area, but we weren’t in the area to piss them off. I can only imagine the horror other birds must have felt near the nesting site! Northern Goshawks are a Species-at-risk (SAR) in Canada that breed in spring, and lay eggs by April – May. They mostly prefer mature forests; hence seeing them nest near Long Point was a great relief, but I wonder how the traffic of dirt-bikes and ATVs affect these SAR birds, as this sport is quite a menace near Turkey Point, especially near protected conservation sites where many species-at-risk animals reside and breed.

11. It is always interesting to observe a natural history event in action. Picture an evening in the African plains, with Wildebeest feeding on grass, and a Cheetah, who has just had a successful hunt, retiring for the day. As the night approaches, the lions prepare to hunt. You can imagine the tension in the lives of the Wildebeest. Even in the insect world, there are carnivores stalking herbivores all the time.
Aphids, Ladybird Beetle larva and an Aphid Wasp
There was an individual Ladybird beetle larva feeding on aphids on a grass stem. Later, that larva, probably with a full stomach, crawled to the bottom of the grass. Just as it was going past a few aphids, I could feel the tension being relieved in their tiny minds. But as the larva moved, another predator came and landed on a grass blade. This was also the nemesis of aphids – the Aphid Wasp. The wasp belongs to Family Crabronidae, Sub-family Pemphredoninae, and probably the genus Psenini. It specializes in hunting aphids, and carries them to the nest so as to lay eggs. The wasp larvae thus get a fresh supply of paralysed food – just another day in the life of insect predators and prey, like their larger counterparts.

It may seem unfair, that two efficient eradicators of aphids are stalking them at the same time. But if you look at the life cycle of aphids, which reproduce surprisingly quickly, do deserve such predators to keep their population under check.

12. With the struggle for survival taking place in the animal kingdom, there are some subtle, harmless interactions going on within different species. One of such very interesting behaviour was observed at Long Point.

An Eastern Garter Snake (head) rests on top of an Eastern Fox Snake (body)
There is an established residence of Eastern Fox Snakes (an SAR) where I worked this summer, so I was able observe them every day for a few months. On most days, there were three individuals basking in the sun, and on some days, there were Eastern Garter Snakes basking on top of the large Fox Snakes! I found this behaviour odd, but since Eastern Fox Snakes do not prey on other snakes, it was not surprising to find the two species basking together in peace. Furthermore, these two snakes are also known to hibernate together, hence they must have gotten to know each other much better. On a serious note though, both species are not known to be aggressive, which might explain how they can bask together, much similar to they way they hibernating together.

It was a long walk observing these animals from the tiniest insect to a large mammal that lasted for several months. It is difficult, but not impossible, to cover an entire day in the life of an animal, as it might take us years to cover every aspect of their lives, but just a glance at their daily activities can teach us a lot. Although their genes prompt them to do most of the work, we must not discredit their efficiency, dedication and selfless service to the ecosystem, that has ultimately helped us humans evolve – both ecologically and technologically – on the natural resources.