They are marine eels, not sea snakes

December 12, 2017 by

Reports that swarms of what were initially mistakenly identified as venomous sea snakes had got caught in fishing nets in the east coast, had many puzzled and others worried with rumours spreading of an impending tsunami. But scientists have categorically said they are not sea snakes but a species of marine eel.

The hundreds of eels that caught in fishing nets. Pix by Adiran

These creatures had got caught in areas including Batticaloa, Kalladi and Nawalady. They were reported as having slender bodies with the largest specimen being about four feet long.

The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has identified the sea creatures as a species of snake eels. NARA’s Marine Biology Division Head Dr. Sisira Haputantri said that snake eels like fish have gills, a dorsal and anal fins, although not clearly visible like in the case of fish. However, they do not have scales and a tail fin but have tapering tails ending in a point. This gives the species the appearance of a snake.

Explaining further Dr. Haputantri said the species is scientifically categorised into genus Callechelys belonging to the family Ophichthidae. The name itself gives the hint of a snake with the term “Ophichthidae” originating from Greek ophis (“serpent”) and ichthys (“fish”). Some snake eels have coloured spots or stripes to mimic the appearance of venomous sea snakes to deter predators. These eels cannot be consumed as food and have no economic value, according to NARA.

Snake eels live mainly in sandy reefs burrowing in sandy or muddy bottoms waiting to catch their prey of crustaceans and small fish.

According to NARA the snake eels caught in the east may have been washed ashore as a result of conditions in the Bay of Bengal.

This is not the first time such an incident had been reported. Riayas Ahmed, a senior lecturer attached to the Eastern University said a similar infestation of eels was reported in 2012 during this same period of the year.

Marine Biologist Arjan Rajasuriya said that some oceanic fish species show spawning aggregations that could lead to them getting caught. However he said more research needed to be done to find out the reason behind this rare phenomenon.

Meanwhile, snake expert Dr.Anslem de Silva said it is easy to identify sea snakes as they have a rudder-like tail useful in swimming as opposed to the pointed tapering tails that eels have. He said 15 species of sea snakes have been recorded from Sri Lanka, all of them highly venomous. This includes the beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistose) commony called ‘Walakkadiya’ in Sinhala. It is regarded as one of the most venomous sea snake in the world.

Veteran diver and marine naturalist, Dr.Malik Fernando said divers occasionally encounter sea snakes and they are common in areas like the Gulf of Mannar. “Sea snakes are stunningly beautiful. They swim underwater hunting for their prey in reef crevices – many eat eels. I have seen them off Negombo. They show no fear of divers. And we have to dodge them when they come our way,” Dr.Fernando added.

Dr.Fernando who is also a medical doctor pointed out that snake antivenom available in Sri Lanka is not effective against sea snakes and warned not to meddle with them if one spots them on a beach or while diving.

Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/171210/news/they-are-marine-eels-not-sea-snakes-272310.html

Batticaloa fishermen with their unusual catch

Roadkill leads to discovery of burrowing snake

July 31, 2017 by

A new burrowing snake was added to the list of species endemic to Sri Lanka when International Day of Biological Diversity was marked on Monday, strengthening the country’s image as a biodiversity hotspot.

Mendis Wickremasinghe

A new non-venomous ‘shield tailed snake’ that lives under the soil was discovered from the Badulla District. The scientific paper describing this new species appeared in prestigious scientific journal ZooTaxa.

The new species is yet another discovery by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe, who recalls that he first saw the snake as a single roadkill specimen in 1999 in Beragala. Later, during an island-wide herpetology survey, Mr Wickremasinghe decided to search the area.

The researchers dug randomly selected locations that are habitats for such species. They got lucky and found a snake hidden under the soil layer of a banana plant of a home garden in 2010. The snake was found about 15 centimetres deep and had a highly-modified head, bearing a blade-like rostral scale for burrowing.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said about 30 individuals could be observed during subsequent visits to the same locations. More such snakes were observed from the same locality and in suburban areas like Haldummulla with some of them seen moving above ground at night.

The new snake belongs to a group called rhinophis. It was named rhinophis roshanpererai to honour the late Roshan Perera, who was an instructor of the reptiles group of the Young Zoologist’s Association of Sri Lanka in recognition of his dedicated services to wildlife conservation.

With the new discovery, this rhinophis genus now has 20 such snake species with 16 of them found in Sri Lanka that are endemic to the country. The other four snakes are endemic to India. Three of these Sri Lankan species have been recently described in 2009 and 2011. Mr Wickremasinghe said there could be more snake species that belongs to this group, emphasising need for more studies.

Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana and Gehan Rajeev too assisted in this new finding. Mr Wickremasinghe also thanked the principal sponsors, Dilmah Conservation.

New gecko species with black markings
A new species of gecko, too, joined the list of Sri Lankan species last month. This creature lives in the Knuckles range and was previously confused with a similar gecko species. The researchers Sudesh Batuwita and Sampath Udugampala extensively studied the features of these geckos and established the identity of the new species. They named it cnemaspis kandambyi.The gecko has distinct black markings on the nape and a black lateral stripe begins behind the eye and extends laterally beyond the origin of the forearm.The species was named in honour of Dharma Sri Kandamby, the former curator of the vertebrate section of the National Museum of Sri Lanka, for his contributions to the herpetology and for his guidance to a number of researchers.

Published on 28.05.2017 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170528/news/roadkill-leads-to-discovery-of-burrowing-snake-242678.html

Sampur pilot whales stranding will remain a mystery

July 31, 2017 by

Published on SundayTimes on 04.06.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170604/news/sampur-pilot-whales-stranding-will-remain-a-mystery-243484.html

A pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee were pushed back to sea last Wednesday by some navy-men and locals.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified them as short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus). While this is rare in Sri Lanka, there have been occasions elsewhere when pilot whales have run aground. Mr Nanayakkara points out that in February more than 400 pilot whales washed up on a New Zealand beach.

The pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee

Beached whales die due to dehydration, or drowning when high tide covers the blowhole. In some cases, they die by collapsing under their own weight.
Available literature indicates that about 10 species of whales – mostly toothed whales are more prone to being stranded than others.
Why whales get beached in an apparent suicide mission remains a mystery. Many whales use echolocation to navigate, so one theory is that man-made sonar in ships etc. may be interfering with whales and/or natural brain wave activity causing them to become disoriented. Seismic activities on the ocean floor too could be contributory factor.

Most of the whales have close-knit family units, so another hypothesis is that a pod of whales can accidentally become stranded when attempting to come to the aid of a beached whale that is sending out distress calls.
A pilot whale pod can be made up of 20 to 50 individuals, but large super pods with hundreds of individuals too are frequent. They are primarily matrilineal or a female-based society with strong family bonds, so if one swims on to the beach, the others could follow. They have an acute sense of hearing according to marine researchers, making them more prone to stranding. In 1918, over 1,000 pilot whales got beached in New Zealand.

Although the pilot whale’s behaviour resembles that of larger whale species, it belongs to the oceanic dolphin family. Pilot whales are large, robust animals with a bulbous head and no discernible beak. They are black in colour. A male pilot whale can grow up to 5.5 metres (18 ft) in length, whereas adult females are about 3.7 metres (12 ft) in length.

The short-finned pilot whale primarily feeds on squid while certain species of fish and octopus too are included in their diet. They dive deep 300 metres (1000 ft) deep or more in search of prey and spend great lengths of time at depth. Pilot whales are also known as the ‘cheetas of the deep’ for their ability of high speed pursuit of prey deep in the ocean.

Sinharaja elephant attacks raise villager fury

July 31, 2017 by

Published on SundayTimes on 28.05.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170528/news/sinharaja-elephant-attacks-raise-villager-fury-242684.html

Sri Lanka’s biodiversity hotspot, Sinharaja, is home to two elephants – but pressure is mounting to translocate them after one killed two villagers. Last week, some angry villagers demanded the elephants be removed as a man and a woman were killed in Cypresswatte village.

The recent photograph that shows an elephant in musth

The incident happened on May 16. The woman was killed at about 6:45 p.m., while the man was fatally attacked around 8 p.m.

A few days earlier, on May 13, the same elephant attacked a Wildlife Department jeep when the vehicle was involved in chasing the animal back into the forest. This incident was near Kudawa, Weddagala around 8.30 p.m. The panicked animal turned back and crushed the bonnet of the vehicle, slightly injuring those inside.

The elephant had been seen at other locations. It had paced around the tower on top of the Gongala Mountain. A photo taken at Gongala shows the elephant is in musth, which is the periodical rise of reproductive hormones of a bull elephant. At such times the animals are irritable and aggressive.

According to DWC records, the two Sinharaja elephants are responsible for 16 human deaths in villages such as Kopi-kella, Manikkawatte and Cypresswatte. Tea cultivations block their natural passages, forcing them to sometimes wander into populated areas.

Madura De Silva, the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, said that there were three elephants sometimes back – one female and two males. The society setup camera traps as a part of a project related to leopards and the cameras captured the movements of an elephant. With the data they mapped its range.

DWC director general, W S K Pathiratne, said a decision had not been taken yet to translocate the killer elephant. More wildlife officers will be sent to the are.

When asked if a radio collar could be fitted to track the animal, he said trapping the elephant would be challenging in the difficult terrain.

The elephant was in fact caught in 1999 by a team led by Dr Nandana Atapattu – a veterinary surgeon who was also a deputy director of DWC then. It took a team of 20 and a week-long effort. But villagers at the time, particularly the students of Kajuwatta School protested against removing the elephant saying it was an asset to the area. Dr Atapattu released the elephant.

At that time, there were records that the elephant charged but did not kill anyone.Environmentalist Jayantha Wijesinghe said these elephants roamed widely around Sinharaja, but attacked people only in some places. “The reason being that the villagers in these areas have harmed the duo, so the elephants become more aggressive,” he said.

The president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, Mr De Silva, said that in many areas, the local villagers understand the elephant’s movements and that helps to avert a potential disaster. He also said that because of the elephants, illegal activities such as felling trees for ‘walla patta’ and gem mining has been under control. “These elephants are the jewels of Sinharaja. it is better to let them be.”

The Sinharaja rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage Man and Biosphere Site.

Nandikadal lagoon fish perished without oxygen, says NARA

July 31, 2017 by

Published on SundayTimes on 11.06.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170611/news/nandikadal-lagoon-fish-perished-without-oxygen-says-nara-244783.html

Thousands of fish seen floating in the Nandikadal and another nearby lagoon in Mullativu this week died because of a lack of oxygen, experts say.

Nandikadal is where a decisive battle against LTTE terrorism took place in May 2009. So the news of the dead fish triggered more curiosity. The Fisheries Ministry directed the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency to investigate. One June 4, a team led by NARA’s head of Environmental Studies S A M Azmi visited Nandikadal.

Sea of dead fish. Pic by Thayalan

“Different species of fish ranging from shrimp, eels to modha were found in the mass fish grave. We tested the water in the lagoon and found that the oxygen level is zero in the affected section of the lagoon. So literally, these fish died due to depletion of oxygen in the water,” Mr Azmi revealed.

They did not find any bacterial infection.
He also pointed out that this is a common phenomenon.
The water level of the Nandikadal lagoon had dropped below the sand bar as a result of the drought and this prevented the flow of water between the sea and the lagoon.

“Usually a sudden rain that brings lot of nitrogen and fertilizer to a water body triggers an algal boom – a rapid growth of microscopic algae. The algae soon die and the decomposition process consumes a lot of the oxygen dissolved in the water rapidly depleting the lifeline of the fish in the water. Once in a while fish in Beira lake and other inland water bodies, too, die due to this phenomenon according to the NARA expert. The area in Mullativu got some rains on the 29th of May, but there was little time for such algae bloom,” he said.

Mr. Azmi believes disturbances of the bottom sediments due to activities such as fishing could have triggered different oxygen consuming processes that led to the sudden depleting of oxygen in the Nandikadal lagoon. He said it is rarely that they record a zero oxygen level in a body of water, adding that even in cases of fish deaths in other areas due to low oxygen, the level is not zero.

The NARA team advised that a section of the sand bar be excavated to let the sea water flow into the lagoon.
Mr Azmi said the NARA team heard from locals that this is a common occurrence at this time of year. “So it is advisable to cut this barrier every year around the 15th of May,” Mr Azmi said.

This could happen in shallow coastal areas as well. These areas are called ‘dead zones’ resulting in deaths of fish in the open ocean as well.

Unseen invaders afloat in plastic wasteAlong with the World’s Ocean Day on June 8, a high-level United Nations Conference on Oceans was held last week in New York.
Sri Lanka assured its support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.One of those goals is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’’, or goal 14.
Arjan Rajasuriya, coordinator, coastal and marine programme, IUCN Sri Lanka country office, said Sri Lanka should ensure sustainable fisheries, reduction/elimination of pollution, ocean litter etc.

Waste dumped on the Wellawatte beach

Much of the pollution of our seas comes from the land in various forms such as non-biodegradable waste including polythene, plastic, chemical waste from household detergents, vehicle service stations, factories etc.

Mr Rajasuriya cited pollution of the sea from Panadura to Negombo as an example. There are two sewage outfalls – one in Dehiwala and the other in Modera. All the new condominiums are spewing out high volumes of polluted water and massive loads of toilet waste. “Where one or two houses stood in the past, now we have high-rise buildings with about 20 to 30 apartments. Just imagine the increase of waste-water alone and the volume of sewage,” Mr Rajasuriya points out.

Sri Lanka is also concerned about invasive alien species. Studies are being done in ports and fishery harbours on the possible invasive species coming into our waters from ballast water and hulls of ships and fishing boats. But we are completely ignoring invaders attached to floating plastic debris. Much of the floating plastic waste that goes from land add up to large floating piles (rafts) of plastic litter floating out at sea. Eventually currents and wind bring them to shore. Many invaders can come through these sources, but we are not giving much attention to these floating plastics, Mr Rajasuriya worries.

Waste washed up on the beach in Mullaitivu. © Arjan Rajasuriya.

 

Living with landslides: Community-based programme teaches combat techniques

July 31, 2017 by

As landslide deaths become increasingly regular in Sri Lanka during heavy rains, a community-based science programme offers a life-saving mechanism. Getting to know about an imminent landslide even a second earlier could make a big difference, but often the early signs are ignored. To address this issue, an ambitious programme was launched last year.

Nature often gives early landslide warnings such as changes in the landscape, cracks on walls and difficulty in closing or opening doors or windows. (read the box story).  Drawing people’s attention to such early warnings is one of the aims of the Community-Based Landslide Early Warning Project (CBLEW). It teaches people in a landslide-prone community to monitor early signs and prepare an initial response.

A house in Biyagama affected by a landslide. Pic by Lal S. Kumara

The National Building Research Organization (NBRO), the premier institution responsible for dealing with landslide prevention, has identified several risk zones.

NBRO Geologist Darshani Rajapakse said the CBLEW project had been introduced to about 100 villages in Badulla, Nuwara Eliya and Kegalle.
The first step of the programme is to educate the communities on early signs of a landslide and how to respond when disaster occurs. The villages are then taught how to use simple equipment such as a rain gauge, a basic but useful device that can save lives.

According to scientists, 75mm rain for 24 hours in a landslide-prone area should put the people on ‘alert’ while 100mm rain upgrades the risk level to a ‘Warning’. A rainfall of 150mm for 24 hours means it is time for ‘evacuation’ for safety.

The third stage of the programme trains the villagers to map the danger zone, identify safe areas to run in case of a disaster and plan safe passage for evacuation. The last stage of the project involves the setting up of a monitoring committee consisting of active participants chosen from the community.

Ms. Rajapakse said the communities were also taught how to use extensometers which monitor earth movements. She said the NBRO had plans to set up automated extensometers in risk areas where cracks had been sighted. If any major movement of the earth is detected, relevant people are notified through a text message.

According to NBRO studies, 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s land or 13,000 square km in 13 districts is landslide prone, with the Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Kandy, Kegalle, Ratnapura and Kalutara districts being the top seven districts on the danger list. Areas with isolated mountains and earth mounds in the Monaragala, Kurunegala, Gampaha, Galle, Matara and Hambanthota districs have also been identified as danger zones. The NBRO said it wanted to implement the CBLEW project in all the areas identified as danger zones.

Published on 28.05.2017 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170528/news/living-with-landslides-community-based-programme-teaches-combat-techniques-242728.html

Early warnings of a landslide

  • Changes occur in your landscape such as patterns of storm-water drainage on slopes (especially the places where runoff water converges), land movements, small slides, flows, or progressively leaning trees.
  • Doors or windows stick or jam for the first time.
  • New cracks appear in plaster, tile, brick, or foundations.
  • Outside walls, walks, or stairs begin pulling away from the building.
  • Slowly developing, widening cracks appear on the ground or on paved areas such as streets or driveways.
  • Underground utility lines break.
  • Bulging ground appears at the base of a slope.
  • Water breaks through the ground surface in new locations.
  • Fences, retaining walls, utility poles, or trees tilt or move.
  • A faint rumbling sound that increases in volume is noticeable as the landslide nears.
  • The ground slopes downward in one direction and may begin shifting in that direction under your feet.
  • Unusual sounds, such as trees cracking or boulders knocking together, might indicate moving debris
  • Collapsed pavement, mud, fallen rocks, and other indications of possible debris flow can be seen when driving (embankments along roadsides are particularly susceptible to landslides).

Source: http://www.weather.com

Fishing net may have killed dugong and calf

July 31, 2017 by

Wildlife offcials suspect that the carcass of a female dugong found afloat in the northern seas off Mollikulam on Thursday July 27 with a new-born calf may have been drowned after being trapped in a fishing net.

Dr Sevvandi Jayakody of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of the Wayamba University, said that the female was over seven feet in length and the calf was about three-and-a-half feet in length and well developed. She said she was saddened.

Dr Lakshman Peiris of the Department of Wildlife, said the aminals may have died of suffocation after they had been snared in a fishing net.
The dugong needs to surface to breathe from time to time. If one gets entangled in a net it would not be able to to breathe. In this instance, the mother may have aborted the baby.

Dugong (dugong dugon) known as ‘Muhudu Ura’ in Sinhala, is considered to be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters. They are seen only in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay area in the northern ocean. They are protected by law, but a number of dugongs get killed every year. Dynamite fishing is a major threat, while other fishing gear such as gill nets are death traps. Last year, at least 13 dugongs were killed.
Ocean Resources Conservation Association, reports that another dugong was killed last month in Pukkulum, Wilpattu.

A project funded by Global Environment Fund Project and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund with management of the United Nations Environment Programme is carrying out ground work to help protect dugongs. Experts are surveying the dugong habitat to identify a protected.

Sri Lanka is also a signatory of the memorandum of understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their range (Dugong MoU) of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.07.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170730/news/fishing-net-may-have-killed-dugong-and-calf-252575.html

Ocean-going jumbos possibly disoriented

July 31, 2017 by

Wildlife experts have not been able to adequately explain why a few elephants had been sighted in distress in the oceans closer to shore in the east and even in the deep seas. Some suspect they had been disoriented. Elephants are known to be able to negotiate lakes, reservoirs and rivers. Once again, this week, the navy helped to rescue two elephants seen in the waters off Trincomalee.

The rescue operation in progress

They had been detected by sailors on a patrol boat about one kilometre from shore near Round Island at about 6:30 am onSunday, July 30. A team of divers and three more fast attack craft were called in to guide the jumbos back to land. The divers secured a rope around the elephants to help drag them to shore.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation Trinco range office was also alerted to the incident. Around 11:40 am, the two elephants reached the shallow waters around Foul Point in Trincomalee. From there, the wildlife team took control and drove the elephants back to a nearby forest patch.

Trincomalee wildlife range officer, K A Srimal, said they were two young elephants and appeared to be in good health. Two weeks ago, the navy helped to pull to shore another elephant which had gone swimming.

On July 11, a lookout aboard a Dvora patrol craft saw an object about 8 nautical miles offshore from Kokkuthuduwai in Kokilai at about 9:00am, Lieutenant Commander MBC Perera later recalled. It turned out to be an elephant in distress. The rescue was complicated and dangerous and it took nearly 12 hours, ending only at late at night.

He recalled heavy rains at the time and rough seas.

Divers called to the scene took major risks trying to wrap a rope around the belly of the beast to help pull it to shore, slowly. Videos show that the creature appeared spent from struggling against strong currents and could not react aggressively to the human presence.
A navy diver did however recalled being struck by the struggling elephant’s foot and being pushed 10 feet under water as he attempted to cast a rope around the animal. It was about 4:00pmwhen the sailors began to haul the animal, stopping on occasions to allow it to catch up. When they reached the shallows, it was7:30 pm. Wildlife officers came in to help once the creature walked on to shore. The elephant was chased back in into the forest around Pulmuddai.

Wildlife ranger Mr Srimal said elephants had been seen in inland reservoirs such as Gal Oya, Udawalawe, and Maduru Oya.
There are also historical accounts of jumbos swimming on to islands in Trincomalee from the mainland.

Howard Martenstyn remembers seeing a swimming pachyderm back in the 1960s when one swam to Elephant Island from the Trinco dockyard area. Elephant researcher Dr Prithiviraj Fernando suspects that the elephant seen far from shore in the deep seas may have been disoriented and was dragged away by a strong ocean current.

He also remembers that in 2010, an elephant was seen in the seas near Norway Island off Sampur. It has been a translocated animal and had a radio collar. Dr Fernando believes it ended up in the sea in an attempt to find its way back to home. The elephant, named ‘Brigadier’ was found dead, later, having fallen into an abandoned agro-well.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.07.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170730/news/ocean-going-jumbos-possibly-disoriented-252509.html

Fading fortunes of the native Vesak flower

May 10, 2017 by

A species of orchid that blooms in May and commonly called Vesak mal is becoming rarer. Plant experts say habitat loss and over collection from the wild are causing its decline.

The Vesak orchid. Pix by Bushana Kalhara

Scientifically known as dendrobium maccarthiae, it may have got its local name because it blooms in the month of Vesak. It is a light violet-pink flower with a paler lip and a purple blotch in the centre. It is a larger variety of wild orchid. The flower is about 6 centimetres long and 7.5 cm across. The photos accompanying this article were captured by Bushana Kalhara from the Kukulugala forest patch in Ratnapura two years ago in late May. He says the flowers were on the canopy about six metres above ground.

A specialist on orchids, Dr Suranjan Fernando, says the flower grows in south western lowland forest patches in Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kalutara and Colombo districts. The core area of the distribution is northern and western parts of the Ratnapura and Kalutara districts. It is also found in the western parts of Kegalle, southern part of Colombo and northern part of Galle district.

“The reason that this orchid is not found in other parts of the lowland wet zone is still a mystery,” Dr Fernando says.

Like most of the other wild orchids, it is an epiphyte plant that grows harmlessly on tall trees getting moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. The species usually grows in the upper parts of the tree trunks and large branches of mature trees.

It is a popular Sri Lankan flower and has been featured in stamps issued in 1950 and 1994. The orchid is also the provincial flower of Sabaragamuwa.

1950 stamp featuring Vesak Orchid

The former head of the Botanical Gardens, Dr Siril Wijesundara, reveals that there was a plan to use the Vesak orchid as a local alternative to the poppy to commemorate war heroes following the end of the war against Tamil terrorists in 2009.

It has caught the attention of collectors and exporters since the colonial days because it is endemic to Sri Lanka. Collecting the orchids from the wild for ornamental purposes led to its decline in the 1900s. This led to its listing as a protected species from 1937 with the inception of the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. Even the Forest Ordinance protects the Vesak orchid.

The former head of the Customs Biodiversity Unit, Samantha Gunasekara who is also an orchid lover says he once saw an ad on e-Bay that listed a plant for sale.

He was certain that it had been gathered from the wild.

Dr Fernando says field observations in the past 10 years have shown that the flower is in decline.

A number of other wild orchids are also threatened.

In Sri Lanka, orchidaceae is among the largest families in the country with 191 known species with 57 endemic species. Orchids grow in many habitat types in Sri Lanka, but highest number has been recorded in diverse ecosystems found in the wet zone.

According to the 2012 National Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora, four orchid species are likely to be ‘possibly extinct’ as they have not been recorded for a considerable time. Sixteen species are ‘critically endangered’, threatened with becoming extinct, while 54 species are categorised as ‘endangered’. And 60 species fall into the ‘vulnerable’ category.

A number of showy orchids are also in demand. The Red List 2012 lists phaius wallichii (star orchid), rhynchostylis retusa (fox tail), and vanda tessellata are commonly collected by growers and flower enthusiasts. Habenaria crinifera (naarilatha), ipsea speciosa (nagamaru ala), anoectochilus spp. (wanaraja), zeuxine spp. (iruraja), are taken from the wild for medicinal purposes and because of various mythological beliefs associated with each species.

Published on SundayTimes on 07.05.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170507/news/fading-fortunes-of-the-native-vesak-flower-239451.html

Samanala reserve reveals new species

Another new orchid species was added to Sri Lanka’s Orchid Checklist a few weeks ago. It was found in the Adam’s Peak (Samanala) Nature Reserve in Kuruwita-Erathna foot path in the Ratnapura district.

The researchers Tharaka Priyadarshana and Ishara Wijewardhane say the orchid was first discovered on December 31, 2015, while they were conducting research with the National Wildlife Research and Training Center. Anusha Atthanagoda, Nandun Arangala, Asanka Jayasooriya and Pankaj Kumara too have been among those who supported this discovery according to a scientific paper.

The new orchid belongs to an orchid genus called oberonia that has about 200 known species globally. They are also called fairy orchids. The new orchid is named oberonia meegaskumburae to honor the senior researcher Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura of the Peradeniya University.

The new orchid

Declining loris populations risk lives on power lines

May 9, 2017 by

The rescued loris. Pic by Tharindi Pathirana

As tall trees in urban gardens become rarer, the loris appears to find electric wires an alternative way to move around. But many end up being electrocuted.

One lucky loris that got stuck on a power utility post last Monday was rescued in Anuradhapura town.

Young Tharindi Pathirana who lives near the SOS Children’s Village in Anuradhapura town heard screams around 9:00 pm. It lasted about 20 minutes. With her father’s help she began looking around and they found the frightened creature. But, by the time they reached the location, it had fallen to the ground. They took it home and alerted the wildlife officers, but they could not come until the following day to take custody of the animal.

Sri Lanka is home to two species of loris, namely, the gray slender loris and the red slender loris. These species have two subspecies, each restricted to various parts of Sri Lanka.

The Sunday Times contacted Chaminda Jayasekara – the naturalist of Vil Uyana hotel who also published a book about the loris to help identify the species that was saved in Anuradhapura. He identified the animal as a grey slender loris, which belongs to a subspecies scientifically categorized as loris lydekkerianus nordicus.

“I have come across at least five loris deaths due to electrocutions during the past six months. Last March, I saw a loris death at Kaduruwela in Polonnaruwa,” Mr Jayasekara says. He lists Polonnaruwa, Girithale, Anuradapura, Mihinthale as areas in which electrocutions occur often.

A number of loris have been seen in urban settings where power lines are abundant and it seems these insect hunters use the utility posts and lamp posts as places to find prey.

Mr Jayasekara also said he had witnessed a number of loris killed in collissons with vehicles on roads.

Loris researcher Saman Gamage says translocating these animals should be done with caution as there are a number of subspecies in various parts of the country. Translocating could result in species mixing.

Mr Gamage points out that loris populations can survive in many isolated patches of forest, but the numbers are declining.

Published on SundayTimes on 07.05.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170507/news/declining-loris-populations-risk-lives-on-power-lines-239405.html

An electrocuted loris. Pic by Chaminda Jayasekara

Another electrocuted loris

Wilpattu 2012

Gentle marine giant stays more on our waters

April 30, 2017 by

A whale shark seen with a swimmer off Colombo. Pic courtesy Nishan Perera

As the sightings of whale sharks increase in our waters, experts say the world’s largest fish needs to be protected.

“We still know very little about whale sharks, but the fish is already ‘endangered’ and highly threatened by both target and bycatch fisheries,” says marine biologist from Blue Resources Trust, Daniel Fernando. He made the remarks at a lecture at an event organised by Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club this week.

The blue whale is the largest creature on Earth, but since it is a marine mammal, the crown of being the largest fish goes to the whale shark. A whale shark can grow up to 40 feet (12 meters) or more and weigh about 20 tons. The average whale shark is 8 metres long, but the ones found in Sri Lankan waters are 6-7 metres according to Mr Fernando.

Scientifically classified as rhincodon typus, the whale shark called ‘mini muthu mora’ in Sinhala is in fact a species of shark. But unlike other sharks, they do not have teeth and they are filter feeders that depend on plankton. By opening their huge gaping mouths closer to the surface, they scoop in these plants along with any small fish.

Divers have reported more sightings in the seas off Colombo.

Nishan Perera, a marine biologist who has made regular dives in the oceans off Colombo, reported more whale shark sightings in February and March when these fish are seen in our waters. “Two or three whale shark sightings during this period is normal, but this year there were dozens of encounters,” Mr Perera said.

A giant whale shark seen in colombo seas (c) Sanjeev de Silva

The Maldives is a famous destination for whale sharks and queries revealed a lower number of encounters in Maldivian waters when there was an increase in our waters said Mr Perera. The whale sharks have spots on the body and its pattern is unique for each individual. So, the Sri Lankan marine biologists also shared the photos of the whale sharks seen in Sri Lankan waters with other international whale shark databases to verify where they are from.

It could be the same individuals seen in different occasions, but the fact that they are seen more often means that the fish that are used to passing through our waters are staying a little longer than previous years.

Author of the “Sharks of Sri Lanka”; Rex I De Silva says the large number of recent sightings baffle him. He says these fish usually migrate to areas rich in plankton. These areas are where there is an upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the depths. So, it is possible that, fuelled by changes in hydrologic factors, such upwellings are now occurring with greater frequency in our coastal waters. Upwellings encourage the growth of plankton which, in turn, attracts other plankton feeders such as fish. Whale sharks also feed on fish (especially small scombrids) which are attracted to the plankton.

Changing oceanic patterns due to global warming is another reason according to the expert. However, these are just suggestions as to why whale shark sightings have become common in recent years. We just do not have sufficient data to draw firm conclusions, cautioned Mr De Silva.

Howard Martenstyn, another expert, points out that there are more nutrients in the western seaboard compared to 2016 as evidenced by increased rainfall and river outflows and that may explain more whale shark sightings. Mr Matenstyn also reminds us that the number of sightings in the same area does not usually equate to the number of whale sharks, highlighting the need for more supporting data and investigations.

The whale shark is a gentle giant, which allows divers swim with them. They pose no danger to humans but an accidental blow from the powerful tail can cause injury. Experts advise keeping a minimum distance of 1.5 metres from the front of the body and 3 metres from the rear.

The whale shark takes about 15 years to mature to reproduce and is vulnerable to overfishing. Sri Lanka passed laws banning the catching of whale sharks in 2015, but awareness of such regulations, along with implementation, is often lacking points out Daniel Fernando.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170430/news/gentle-marine-giant-drawn-to-our-waters-238733.html

Experts urge Sri Lanka to join global effort to protect sharks 
Sharks have slow reproductive cycles and cannot be fished at levels similar to other fish. But sadly, Sri Lanka is among top 20 shark killing countries ranked at 14th place according to a 2013 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group.

The Fisheries Department says that steps have been taken to protect sharks. Five species are protected by law, including three species of thresher sharks, oceanic-white tip shark, and the whale shark. The department says it even distributes tools such as de-hookers and line cutters among fishermen that can be used to release sharks caught in nets or hooks.

But more needs to be done to protect these apex predators in our ocean near the top of the marine food chain and help regulate populations of species in the marine ecosystem, the experts say.

Sharks are also important to the economic survival of the fishing industry and have the potential to attract tourists. So Sri Lanka should follow the example of the Maldives and other nations to support international conservation and protection of sharks, marine expert Howard Martenstyn, says.

Several species of shark migrate into different areas of oceans governed by different countries. So to protect them, the Convention of Migratory Species initiated a memorandum of understanding on the conservation of migratory sharks in 2010. Sri Lanka has not yet signed this, but marine experts say this would be a great step forward in recognising the value of sharks within our national and regional waters, points out Daniel Fernando.

Sad plight of a whale shark in Galle, 2014- photo courtesy Lankadeepa

Real Sal blooms thrive despite the ‘cannon ball’

April 30, 2017 by

In full bloom: The real Sal flower at the botanical gardens, Peradeniya. Pic courtesy Peradeniya Gardens

The flower with pinkish fleshy petals and strong fragrance regarded as ‘sal’ is a favourite flower of the Buddhists. But they are not aware of its real identity.

While Vesak is only few days ahead, the real sal trees in Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya are in bloom. According to botanical gardens sources, the trees start flowering in early April and still there are unopened buds on higher branches. So, it is likely they will be flowering closer to Vesak and you may still have a chance to witness the real sal, in the gardens.

‘Sal’ is sacred to Buddhists as legend has it that Prince Siddhartha was born in a garden of sal trees in Lumbini and His Parinirwanaya occurred in Kusinara again under sal trees. Vesak commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment (Buddhahood), and Death (Parinirvana) of the Gautama Buddha, so it is interesting that a flower associated with two notable events bear flowers closer to the period of Vesak.

However, the real sal is a small white flower that blooms in a tree scientifically called as shorea robusta. Though these flowers are smaller and has no fragrance, there is indeed some sacredness in its appearance.

But then what about the large pink flower with a strong fragrance that we commonly know as sal?

The pink flower blooms in the cannon ball tree (couroupita guianensis). While the real sal tree is native to India/Nepal, the imposter is native to South America according to botanists. The cannon ball tree bears large rounded fruit that resembles a ‘cannon ball’.

Dr Siril Wijesundara – botanist and the former director general of Botanical Gardens Department says that the first sal tree has been planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1880, but sal trees had existed elsewhere in Sri Lanka before that. He recalls there are about seven sal trees in the gardens.

The real sal tree, shorea robusta, belongs to a family called dipterocarpaceae to which the ‘hora’ trees belong to. The sal tree can grow up to 35 metres and a girth of about 2 to 2.5 metres in about 100 years under favourable conditions according to botanists. Sal is also a popular timber tree in Asia. Like hora, the fruit of shorea robusta has tiny wings to assist its distribution in the wind.

The flower misidentified as sal, has pinkish fleshy petals and a strong fragrance. The large flower is about 6 centimetres wide and has a hood-like bulge which conceals a small white nodule in the centre of the flower that looks remarkably like a small stupa. Up in the hood, there are finger like structures, which some see as deities worshipping the stupa. So, the imposter tricks the unwary Buddhists to think it is the real sal flower. The tree doesn’t have any timber value.

Dr Wijesundara also pointed out that Buddhists in Thailand too regard the wrong flower as the sal flower. Tracing back the history of the misidentification, Dr Wijesundara pointed out that in 1901 King George VI planted a cannon ball tree in the Peradeniya gardens and it was identified as couroupita guianensis, meaning that this mistake was not detected. Dr Wijesundara recalls seeing a mural by S.P. Charles at Colombo Museum, which featured the wrong tree. So he believes the mistake could have occurred later.

More mistakes continued.

To mark the peace talks of 2002, the tree planted at Rose Garden Hotel by Anton Balasingham, and Professor G L Pieris, was also the wrong sal plant.

Even in movies portraying the life of the Buddha, the cannon ball tree has been seen.

Prof Namal Gunathilake – another veteran botanist, shares an incident where the mistaken identity of real Sal tree caused trouble. At an Ayurvedic conference, one research team that tested an Ayurvedic recipe reported that the combination of medicinal compounds doesn’t work. But when Prof Gunathilake queried about the compounds they used, it was revealed that they used the barks of the wrong tree.

Sunil Sarath Perera – a song writer and a pioneer environmental activist said that the sal tree is recorded in history.

A Sal tree planted by Nepali King in 1980s in Peradeniya Botanical Gardens

The Salalihini Sandeshaya which has been written during the Kotte era has referred to sal trees and the Dutch Thombu clearly mentioned ancient village names referring to sal. Mr Perera said that Salpita Korale where he was born is such a name and in Kirulapone villages such as ‘palle pattuwa’, the name refers to the location of sal trees.

Mr Perera has also seen the aesthetic side of sal forests in India. “In north India there are stretches of sal forests. With its ivory colour flowers and less undergrowth, the sal forests are tempting for anybody to rest under their shade. He says it is not surprising that Queen Mahamaya decided to rest in a sal forest. During his three-week stay in Jim Corbett National Park, Mr Perera had visited the jungle, riding on elephants in search of royal bengal tigers.

The Botanical Gardens Department in 2012 under the guidance of Dr Wijesundara distributed about 900 sal saplings to temples around Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the fragrant, beautiful cannon ball flower qualifies for religious offerings.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170430/news/real-sal-blooms-thrive-despite-the-cannon-ball-238746.html

Climate change affects sakura blooms   

In Japan, the blossoming season the sakura or cherry blossoms, is slowly coming to a close. The season starts in March and lasts until early May when cherry trees in different regions come into full bloom on different dates.

Having analysed the dates of these blooms in Kyoto in Japan since 800 AD, Japanese scientists have found that the sakura is blooming earlier. They worry that this is a result of global warming, where a warmer March stimulates the trees to bloom early.

A graph showing early full bloom of sakura based on historical data

Sakura bloomed in Nagoya, Japan (c) Makiko Yashiro

Enjoying the nature at backyard on Earth Day 2017

April 22, 2017 by

Today is #EarthDay2017 and the theme this year is “Environmental & Climate Literacy”. I had a little field visit with my little ‘birding colleague’ who had her first experience of millipedes. She was fascinated that millipedes have so many legs and the way they are getting coiled when disturbed.

..We also visited the garden enjoying the nature in the backyard. On our way, we also got the chance to pluck few rose apples (ජම්බු).

Regarding millipedes, I wanted to tell my little daughter that these creatures would be a group that will be badly affected by climate change as more severe doubts are due to hit this part of the world. A research paper also stated that elevated atmospheric CO2 and changes in plant community composition are expected to alter leaf litter quality affecting millipedes.

We are already facing disasters that are highly charged due to climate change. Sadly, I believe that my daughter’s generation will have to face more severe disasters due to climate change. On this Earth Day, let’s all determine to do our part to protect environment and act in a way not to fuel global warming atleast for their future.

Let’s all hope there will be better tomorrow for my daughter’s generation (including the biodiversity of the earth)…!!!

Source for Millipede data: http://www.senckenberg.de/files/content/forschung/publikationen/soilorganisms/volume_81_3/32_david.pdf

Message on the Earth Day by Executive Secretary of Convention of Biological Diversity:
Message_Mother_Earth_Day (2)

Infographic showing number of people who do not think climate change is not that serious
http://www.downtoearth.org.in/factsheet/convenience-in-denial-57655

Enjoying nature at backyard on Earth Day 2017 – Dulithi trying to pluck a rose apple (ජම්බු)

Dulithi showing the rose apples that she pucked

They they have so many legs..?? – Dulithi observing millipedes

Curious – A closer look at the millipede

Aggregation of millipedes

We also found a shell of a snail

Urban excitement over barn owls

April 17, 2017 by

Kirulapana Barn owl showing its beauty (c) Shantha Jayaweera

The barn owl is a rare bird in Sri Lanka categorized as ‘near threatened’ in the 2012 National Red List, but it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke that one was seen in Kirulapona on April 1.

It had been attacked by crows and had fallen from the roof of a four-storey building, where it had taken refuge. It was handed over to wildlife expert Shantha Jayaweera who later released it. “Even through it had been attacked by crows, there were no external injuries.”

The barn owl (tyto alba) is a beautiful owl species with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upper parts. Its scientific name means, ‘white owl’. Barn owls have adapted to living among humans. Granaries, warehouses, old buildings where its favorite prey, rats and mice, live attract the owl.

Mr Jayaweera thanks all those who ensured the owl’s safety. He stressed that owls do not represent a bad omen, but helps to remove harmful pests such as rats. According to National Geographic, on average, a wild barn owl eats about four small mammals a night. That is 1,460 rats per year.

The barn owl is about 34 centimetres in length but its long wings make it looks bigger and elegant when flying. It mainly hunts by sound rather than by sight where its acute hearing can detect the slightest movement and sound of its prey.

The barn owl’s heart-shaped face collects sound in the same way as human ears and its hearing is the most sensitive of any creature tested, according to some literature. Barn owls are faithful lovers. A pair mates for life unless one gets killed. It breeds between February and March.

Mr Jayaweera, who is a senior member of the Young Zoologists Association, recalled that the National Zoological Gardens once received an injured barn owl from a public library few years ago. Responding to a post on social media, many shared sightings in Colombo and the suburbs.

“I have seen barn owls in Duplication Road, Fife Road, and near the Golf Club,” said Rex I De Silva.

Namal Kamalgoda had seen one in Town Hall, the National Museum and also in Dehiwala.

Others reported sightings in Pettah, Fort and surburbs such as Kottawa, Moratuwa and Ratmalana.

The rescued barn owl with Shantha Jayaweera

Environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardane, who is also an expert on birds, stressed that unlike other rare birds of Sri Lanka, the barn owl is mostly found in old buildings in towns.

Another bird expert, Moditha Hiranya Kodikara Arachchi, shared an observation of a barn owl in Kandy inside the old Electricity Board building. “This barn owl was day-roosting on fans in the office without any trouble, until it was chased away because of droppings all over the office,” he said.

Experts fear that rat poison could harm these owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, even a rodent eating a dose is not enough to kill it, and it may carry the poison in its liver for several months. So, before a poisoned rodent dies, the weakened rat may be caught by a barn owl, which then ingests the poison. Unfortunately, no research has been carried out on the effects of sub-lethal doses on wild barn owls.

“There could be a viable population of barn owls throughout Colombo and many other urban areas. It is an iconic bird in our urban settings,” said veteran ornithologist, Prof Sarath Kotagama.

He is inviting the public to share their barn owl sightings in Colombo and suburbs. Note the date and location by email:urbanbirds.srilanka@gmail.com or call 071- 8440144.

Barn Owl facts (c) Barn Owl Trust

Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/urban-excitement-over-barn-owls-237094.html 

Red light for spearfishing

April 17, 2017 by

Following continuing action by activists and reports in media including the Sunday Times, the government has banned spearfishing.

The gazette notice last month says: “No person shall engage in any fishing operation using spear guns or hand held spears within Sri Lanka.” The regulation also specifies that no person shall use or possess, or have on board any local fishing boat, any spear gun.

Spearfishing is a method of killing fish by a shooting a ‘pointed spike’ using a ‘spear gun’. Earlier, spearfishing was done by skin divers, but now scuba kits allow divers to remain under water longer to target larger, valuable fish species such as grouper and hump-head wrasse, which are also highly threatened.

Marine activists welcomed the ban.

Some of the large reef fish such as Napolean Wrasse are threatened

But there are those who claim spearfishing is a sustainable method, as it only removes the targeted fish and there is no by-catch.

“But if we specify a list of fish not allowed to be speared, will those spearfhishing in our waters adhere to such guidelines? How can we monitor?” asks marine activists. They say a total ban is the solution.

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources, M C L Fernando said the support of the navy and the Coast Guard are needed to enforce the ban.

The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act bans several methods of fishing.

Mr Fernando said the department and the ministry were planning to regulate few other fishing methods, including bottom-trawling.

TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran submitted a bill in Parliament proposing to ban bottom trawling. But some technical issues have surfaced and the bill will be re-drafted and resubmitted by the Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, the Director General of the Fisheries Department, Mr Fernando, said.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html 

Some of the illegal fishing methods

Another dugong butchered in Mannar

April 17, 2017 by

Can giving incentives for abandoning illegal fishing methods save dugongs and other threatened marine life..? 

Caught red-handed – Dugong meat found in the 3 wheeler with the culprit

Two people who were arrested while transporting 80 kilos of dugong flesh in a three-wheeler have been released on bail by a court.

There were detained on Sunday, April 9, by the navy at Thavulpadu in Mannar and handed over to to regional officers of Department of Wildlife Conservation. They were then produced in court and released on surety bail of Rs.100,000 each. The DWC unit in Mannar is investigating, according to Channa Suraweera who is overseeing its marine unit.

Dugongs recorded in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka continue to be hunted for meat and are now believed to be ‘critically endangered’ locally. Killing a dugong or the possession of its meat was banned in 1970s. Dugongs are often killed when entangled in fishing nets as well as through dynamite fishing.

Despite the laws, the killing [as bycatch] continues [with atleast 13 dugongs killed last year].

Marine activists say innovative methods are needed to discourage fishermen from killing dugongs. A trial is underway in Kalpitiya, Puttalam and other areas where dugongs are found. The project aims to give financial aid to the fishermen to replace illegal fishing gear.

A Kalpitiya fisherman inspecting his Sea Bass cage

“We have replaced about 30 illegal nets in Sottupitiya area in Kalpitiya. An agreement was also signed with fishermen not to resort to illegal methods,” said Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, which is implementing the initiative.

This initiative is financed and managed Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment (UNEP) under the ‘Dugong and Seagrass Project’ that also functions in number of other countries of the Dugong range.

The project is also helping fishermen to set up crab cages and sea bass cages in the shallow waters, Mr Kapurusinghe said.

There is high demand for sea bass, also known as moda. The baby fish are being fattened in metal cages set up in shallow seas. Lagoon crabs, too, are being raised this way. “Raising sea bass is profitable. So this is an added income for us,” said Mr Priyantha, a local fishermen who plans to set up a sea bass cage in Kalpitiya.

The project is part of an international effort across the dugong range. It is an incentive-based approach to dugong and seagrass conservation. It is funded and managed by the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment.

The project, which ends in April, is also supporting alternative livelihoods for fishing communities including batik, sewing, dried fish packaging, coir mat production, and ornamental fish breeding.

During a recent media visit, we got a chance to meet a fishing community in Serakkuliya in Kalpitiya.

K B Nilmini, who has taken up sewing, together with a group of housewives said she can earn a decent living. “Our men used nylon nets to catch more fish. It is not legal, but that was a way to earn enough money. But, now, as I can support the family with the income from sewing clothes, we can abandon illegal fishing,” Ms Nilmini said.

But the numbers engaged in illegal fishing is large and they need to be persuaded to give up the practice.

Sewing for getting an additional income for abandoning illegal fishing

[Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html. Please note that some corrections are required from the edited version. This blog post is published with all the corrections] 

Koha’s call overseas comes from another species

April 11, 2017 by

Singer of the Avurudu song – the Male Asian Koel (c) Udara Samaraweera

The Koha or Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) is considered the harbinger of Sinhala and Tamil New Year for its beautiful song aimed at attracting a mate.

Its call can also be heard beyond Sri Lanka’s shores.

The Koha’s call is heard even in Australia, reminding Sri Lankans who live there of Avurudu.

One Sri Lankan who heard the bird sing, asked last year: “What on earth was a Koha doing in Sydney?”

A search on the video sharing social media platform YouTube suggests the Sydney Koha is different. It is not the same species found in our island, but the Eastern Koel or Pacific Koel scientifically classified as Eudynamys orientalis.

This bird is also called the Common Koel and its male is easily identified by its glossy black plumage, tinged with blue and green, and striking red eye – similar to the Koha found in Sri Lanka. The female has glossy brown upper parts, heavily spotted with white, and a black crown.

But unlike in this part of Asia, the Koels in Australia start to sing in September or October. According to BirdLife Australia, the Eastern Koel is a species that migrated to Australia from areas north – New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines. It breeds in northern and eastern Australia, mostly in Queensland and NSW, southwards at least to Sydney, where they are common in the suburbs. A few venture into eastern Victoria, and vagrants have been seen as far afield as Melbourne, the Murray River and Adelaide. They remain until March or April, when they return to their non-breeding grounds.

This explains what Sri Lankans living in Australia have been hearing.

It is colloquially known as the rainbird or stormbird, as its call is usually more prevalent before or during stormy weather.

The male Pacific Koel that sings a song very similar to our own Koha

According to the literature, the closely related Asian Koel, Black-billed Koel and Pacific Koel form a superspecies which are sometimes treated as subspecies. Superspecies is defined as “a group of largely allopatric species which are descended from a common evolutionary ancestor and are closely related but too distinct to be regarded as subspecies of one species”.

The Asian Koel is a brood parasite which lays it eggs in the nests of some other birds. In Sri Lanka, the Asian Koel particularly chooses a crow’s nest. But in the Australian conditions, the Eastern Koel lays its eggs in the nests of Red Wattlebird, friarbirds, the Magpie-lark and figbirds that are usually smaller than the Koel. The young Koel will grow to nearly twice the size of the parents, but the foster parents continue feeding it until they realize the mistake.

Eventually, the young birds migrate northwards, usually later than the adults, to return as a breeding bird the following spring, accordign to the BirdLife Australia.

The songs of the male Eastern Koel amazingly resemble those of the Koha in Sri Lanka. Visit http://www.youtube.com and search for “Eastern Koel Calling” to listen to their calls.

Pacific Koel (female)

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170409/news/kohas-call-overseas-comes-from-another-species-236486.html 

Rare bottom-dweller is a vulnerable fish

April 9, 2017 by

‘Why humans are so cruel..?’ could it be Shark Ray’s last thoughts..?

In the animal kingdom, there are species that look alike, or ‘hybrids’, between two or more creatures. Marine creatures with such features often go unnoticed, but the fish caught in nets off the southern coast puzzled many as it appeared like a shark and a ray (‘mora’ and ‘maduwa’ in Sinhala, respectively).This strange fish had ‘shark like’ fins and tail. However, its head looks like a ray and had ray-like ‘wings’. The fish photographed by Devsiri Peiris last month is said to have been caught accidentally in a fishing net. It is about five feet long and a male.

“It is a fish we call ‘shark ray’, known by fishermen  as ‘thith mora’’’, says Rex I. De Silva – an expert on sharks. “Despite its Sinhala name, it is not a shark but a ray,’’ he says.

The shark ray is scientifically named as Rhina ancylostoma also called mud skate as it is found in sandy bottoms doing bottom feeding. Due to the shape of its head the fish in this group is also known as ‘guitarfish’. The one caught is a Bowmouth Guitarfish. According to literature, this large species can reach a length of 2.7 m (8.9 ft) and weight of 135 kg (298 lb). They are found in depths of up to 90 m (300 ft).

Shark expert, Mr de Silva says the species is rare. “Nevertheless the species appears in very small numbers from time-to-time in fish markets. I have seen them at Negombo, Kalmunai and Kirinda markets,” Mr De Silva says.

The Red List of Threatened Fauna by IUCN categorises the shark ray as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. Other than getting caught in fishing nets, dynamite fishing, bottom trawling pose a threat to shark rays. Habitat degradation and destruction too threaten this rare fish.  Published on SundayTimes on 09.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170409/news/rare-bottom-dweller-is-a-vulnerable-fish-236477.html

The Shark Ray or Guitar fish with fins similar to that of sharks and upper body similar to a ray (c) Devsiri Peiris

Shark ray in New Port Aquarium – she has given birth to 9 pups