Tracing Monsoon: Part III: Order in Chaos

It rained for the entire day on August 28, and a little more on the next, and has been for the past three days. Mumbai region received most of its share of rainfall on August 19, a day when I went to one of the most treacherous pass in the Ghats to trek on one of the most treacherous forts I’ve been on this year.

It is raining as I write, but August was nothing like August rain is supposed to be, even if it was better than July. The region is still facing a deficit by more than 30% (September 1, 2012, Times of India). Yet if you go a few hundred kilometers from the city, the paddy fields are saturated and bathed in an aura of a rich lemon-green. The monsoon outburst of life, natural and planted, is at its peak.
Bagadwadi bathed in monsoon
To call it an explosion of life is akin to the theory of the formation of our universe, the Big Bang: that single moment of an “explosion” that took us by surprise even after it has been approximately 13750000000 years since. Life, when it began, began as a sort of a big bang, spreading outward forever, and forever it goes on. But to compare a theory to what it gave rise to: life, is where we reach a paradox.

I find the term explosion of life apt for life in monsoon, but the trajectory of particles flowing out of an explosion is rampant and uncoordinated. It is chaotic. The explosion of life, however, is the most systematic process that ever took place after the Big Bang. What’s worth admiring about this explosion in monsoon is that it has a lot of room for uncertainty – at which we will take a look in Part V of Tracing the Monsoon.

The trajectory of life-forms is just as numerous, just as complex, but excellently coordinated and well timed. Monsoon happens to be the most ideal season to observe this explosion in detail. And it is only when you see the details that you’ll find the order in chaos.

Every organism has a role to play on this planet; whether it is a mosquito, most of which are pollinators of various plants, or the wolves that take down only as much as they need to survive. But it is not as easy as it looks. Life has had the time to form complex, divergent pathways for every organism to survive. Some of these pathways, unfortunately, may end abruptly for those who only took birth but became food for the survival of the other.

During the July of 2011, I was out exploring Yeoor Hills where I stumbled upon a Robberfly that had just metamorphosed. It was brilliantly white with striking red eyes. This teneral Robberfly staggered upon little boulders as its cuticle slowly hardened, darkened, and the hoemolymph pumped into its body and wings, growing in size and strength.

This Robberfly once lead the life of a grub, degrading the dead organic matter into smaller pieces, enabling other organisms to decompose it easily, and pupated amidst dense leaf litter. After metamorphosis and the final stage of growing into adulthood, it would feed on other arthropods, primarily insects, and grow stronger to find a mate. It would then feed on a number of insects that feed on plants, thereby controlling the herbivore population in its capacity.
The hunt: Phlegra stalking a teneral Robberfly
But this tender fellow was being stalked. Two large eyes and two more were staring at the young unaware Robberfly. And slowly the eyes moved, in swift jumps, closer.

The Jumping Spider belonged to a species in the genus Phlegra, an active hunter of the undergrowth of the Western Ghats.
The hunt continues
The Jumper, although smaller in size, pounced upon the callow and seized it from behind, burying its fangs into the soft thorax. The Robberfly did not submit so easily. It rebelled, tried to fly, and protested until the effects of the venom rapidly take over.
The hunt ends.
The Robberfly ultimately succumbed to the attack. And with a raised forelimb announced its forfeit.
All of this took place within five minutes. The spider, unaware of my presence, retreated under a small plant as its venom dissolved the Robberfly from the inside.

It was Darwin’s survival of the fittest in action, at its rawest. Two great hunters of their respective niche: the Jumper of the undergrowth, and the Robberfly of the lower canopy, clashed in a common but an unlikely battle to survive. And being a human, I reconsidered the helplessness of the teneral Robberfly, not yet fully grown to really defend such an attack, and the Jumper’s obvious upper hand over the situation. Had it been that the Robberfly escaped, it would have fed on others, and the Jumper might have gone hungry. But in this situation, it was clear to me that life and its trajectory is complex. There exists no straight path to attain peace, or death. Nothing is fair, and life, as an entity – whether it is the Robberfly or the Jumper, will go on.

On another incident, I saw Robberflies feeding on a variety of other insects. Monsoon is the best season to observe them feeding, as they hunt down actively by day. One species was recorded to feed on a Housefly, a Horsefly, a Weevil, and its own kin, a Robberfly, this monsoon.
Robberfly preying on a Weevil
The Robberfly is yet unidentified, but from its size and key markings I believe it belongs to the same species. This gregarious behaviour can be attributed to only one: the explosion of life. Robberflies are found throughout the year in Western Ghats, but are in diversity and abundance during monsoon. It is perhaps because the abundance of its prey is more during monsoon.
Robberfly taking care of intraspecific competition (the predator is female and the prey male)
What I find perplexing is the way Robberflies take care of the competition for hunting. Hunting of other species to reduce competition – interspecific competition – is rather common in the natural world, and is one of the important factors responsible for the survival of the fittest. But intraspecific competition, where members of the same species compete with one another for the same resource is pretty rare if you don’t consider Homo sapiens sapiens.

It is mostly observed in gregariously carnivorous animals, and especially where resources are scarce. Intraspecific competition is commonly seen as stealing of prey item, but is less often violent.

During monsoon, it is commonly observed amongst insects because of the fact that monsoon results in an increase in prey item and therefore that of the predators – which may happen to be the same species. I observed it for the first time amongst Robberflies, but it is completely normal given the circumstances.

One of the most curious things about Western Ghats, which is observed in very few places around the world, is the presence of a colony of hunters we always considered solitary: the Social Spiders.

Belonging to the family Eresidae, commonly called Velvet Spiders, the Stegodyphus pacificus is one of the few species of spiders in India that are social. The Sahyadri harbours several colonies of these unique spiders, where they build nests, overpower prey, feed and breed together. Young ones and older adults live together in complete cooperation.
The typical Social Spider nest at Sindola Fort
In fact individuals of the species of Stegodyphis found in Africa, which when transferred over more than 20 kilometers, accepted each other and immediately cooperated in conspecific colonies, according to one study, showing interspecific tolerance between S. mimosarum and S. dumicola. This study showed “no differences between the contacts with strange individuals… one individual introduced into a foreign colony even joined some local individuals in subduing a prey insect within 5 minutes.”

This goes to show that interspecific, or intraspecific competition as is observed amongst the solitary hunters like Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and Asilids (robberflies), is rather less in frequency amongst social invertebrates – but of course, the social organization amongst bees and ants (and humans) may prove otherwise.
Stegodyphis pacificus
These social spiders that look too cute and cuddly are living too good a life of coordinated hunters, exploiting the explosion of life of monsoon from their neatly hanging sticky nests upon the slopes of Sahyadri. And as every too-good-to-be-true colony, they overfeed and over-breed, and ultimately result in loss of resources, as has been documented in this manuscript.

Amongst the higher animals – the vertebrates, the explosion of life of monsoon has also increased the competition for survival. There are birds chasing birds, mammals stalking mammals, and, in the undergrowth, a whole world waiting to be studied.

On a fine night at Matheran, when it had just stopped raining and we were in search of snakes, we found a youngling of a Vine Snake (Ahetulla nasuta) curiously looking upwards with its neck curved in  the figure of ‘S’. Slowly it dolled, advanced, and stopped and listened.

Up on the leaf sat a tiny four-legged creature, its vocal sac fully expanded, singing the notes to attract a lover – Raorchestes bombayensis.

And with that call the snake stirred in an instance, its slow, lazy movement transformed into a burst of energy driven from the muscles in its neck, and lunged towards the sound.
A young Vine Snake stalking a Bombay Bush Frog
We are well aware that snakes cannot hear per se, but can feel the vibrations of the sound. This snake, more often than is it’s wont, relied more on this sense than its tongue. It is very common amongst snakes to smell out their prey with the vomeronasal organ, or with heat-sensitive pits. This little guy used its vibration senses, which I believe he did because it is particularly an arboreal snake, where vibrations from sounds or from branches are easier to trace.

The frog quickly went silent and jumped to another plant, leaving the Vine Snake behind in the silence that extended for a long time. In this bush a snake lost its chance to secure a meal early in the night.

But not all is as competitive and as ruthless, mirthless, or straightforward as it seems. To secure food is key to survival, but so is to procreate.

Monsoon, as much as I portray it to be a fine season to hunt and kill, is rather renowned by the fact that it is the season of love.

And love is in the air.

On the same night we saw the young Vine Snake hunt, we also came across a pair of snails – the male trying to lure the female to mate. But it’s not as easy in the snail world as it seems.
Snails.
Reproduction in snails is complex and a long procedure. There is a courtship phase, where the hermaphrodites coax each other for mating, and which may last for several hours to most of the day or night. The peculiarity of snails is the presence of a “love dart”, which is embedded by the male counterpart into the body of its partner, carrying the sperms.

The snails we saw were courting, and it would have taken all of the night to observe them. We decided to leave them under the cover of the darkness and proceeded to track other projectiles of the monsoon outburst.

A few weeks since then, we found another male belonging to another species in another order coaxing a female in its own peculiar style.

We were treading the Sindola Fort, a small, but precarious, mountain along Harishchanragad, a large fort up from Malsej Ghat. We started from a village Bagadwadi, and treaded steep cliffs and slippery rocks on the wettest day of this year.

Life here was: exploding in every nook and corner. A small flock of Baya Weaver, a passerine bird, nestled on a Bombax ceiba.

The males of this bird weave elaborate, inverted funnel shaped (or round-bottom flask, if you will) nests of grasses of just the right age, length, and strength.
A Baya Weaver female (sitting at the entrance of the nest), checking out the
construction as the male flaps and sings.
The females come down from their excursion to check on the nests. They sit at the entrance of the nest, and dance, and check key weavings. All this while the male is chirping and flapping its wings, watching her from behind the nest. The other males are chirping vehemently, inviting the females to their nests.
The same female goes to inspect another under-construction nest
The females visit several such under-construction nests, their objective but one: to check whether the nest is weak and if it will fall. If it falls, they do it intently, so that the males build another stronger nest. This ensures that their eggs won’t fall off the branch once the female moves in. This behaviour is very interesting to observe, and shows a very distinct natural instinct that is extremely orderly.

And while we observed the animals, invertebrate and vertebrates alike, engaged in procreation, plants seemed to have taken a step further that simply startled me.

Ceropegia is a genus of a plant in the family Apocynaceae. It is one of my favorite too. Every naturalist I met agrees that this plant has the most wonderful flower. Its shape is unique, its arches formed by the corolla elegant, its colours royal, what’s more, it is rather uncommon if not rare.
Its a trap! Ceropegia vincaefolia
I like Ceropegia for one more thing: their close association with small insects, majority of which are flies. Research shows that flies (and beetles) are one of the crucial pollinators of Ceropegias, and the smaller ones find it easier to enter through the tower-like flowers and reach the bulbous base – from which, to your pleasant surprise, they will never escape. The Ceropegias are therefore also called Trap Flowers.
Ceropegia rollae grows along the cliffs
Several species of Ceropegia have downward pointing hair near the neck which enters into the bulbous portion of the flower. Once the insect treads through this neck and to the bulb-like structure, they cannot go out. In this way the plant ensures its complete pollination. Sometimes the pollinators, unfortunately, die. In several species, according to the botanists, the flowers fall off as soon as the plant is fertilized, liberating their prisoner.

Intraspecific competition now seems less scary than a flower imprisoning an animal.

By the end of August, we were a witness to some amazing behavioural adaptations of the flora and fauna around us. On the wettest day this year, I came home merrily listening to bullfrogs croaking along an overgrown playground near my home.
Sonerila scapigera on the rocks
And on the rocks, that are lifeless, ephemerals blossom.
Hygrocybe sp.? A red mushroom on the ground
And on the soil, littered with leaves, grows mushrooms.

And all of this is happening at the same time at this moment as the rain is brandishing its presence along the steep slopes of Sahyadri. The multitude of life in monsoon may seem chaotic from far but is really well organized and orderly from up close. Its ways towards survival, love, and towards procreation are long, arduous, and deviant. They often incline towards being discordant, vindictive and power-wielding, but that is up to the beholder to perceive.

We’ve entered into the last month of this season. By the end of it all, monsoon would have brought naught but life, and given a meaning to all that exists in this side of the world we call the Western Ghats.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed tracking the monsoon through your post. Your choice of the word 'explosion' is perfect for that is exactly what it is. Totally uncontrolled and uncontrollable, a rush of life swarming at you from all sides ... definitely our most exciting season.

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