Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Roadkill leads to discovery of burrowing snake

July 31, 2017

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

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

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.

Living with landslides: Community-based programme teaches combat techniques

July 31, 2017

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

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

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

Real Sal blooms thrive despite the ‘cannon ball’

April 30, 2017

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

Koha’s call overseas comes from another species

April 11, 2017

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 

Prehistoric man stirs to life as scientists find clues to the past in ancient caves

November 20, 2016

Our pre-historic humans took refuge in caves that hide many secrets that are helping archaeologists piece together how humans evolved thousands of years ago, the respected archaeologist, Professor Raj Somadeva said.

Recent excavations in a number of caves have produced archaeological finds showing how prehistoric humans, initially living as hunter gatherers, gradually moved to a living based on agriculture.

The changing climate at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago triggered this change, and evidence of the missing era between Balangoda Man and written history is gradually being assembled.

Prof. Somadeva made these revelations last week at a news conference organised by the Science and Technology Ministry to brief media about the archaeological research being carried out through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

With this funding, a number of caves inhabited by pre-historic man are being excavated. “We are having two field work sessions every year, each about one-and-a-half months long during the dry seasons, February-March and August-September. The rest of the year is devoted to analysing the findings and documentation work,” Prof. Somadeva said.

Research on human evolvement in Sri Lanka was pioneered by Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala who excavated skeletal remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in 1955 from sites near Balangoda. He named this Homo sapiens balangodensis, commonly called Balangoda Man, a being that lived 38,000 years ago. Some 36 skeletons of Balangoda man have now been unearthed from different parts of Sri Lanka together with stone tools.

We have little evidence of the transformation of this man to the modern era. Written history indicates that a population from neighbouring India colonised Sri Lanka, and this is attributed to Vijaya’s arrival.

Of course, those who came from India could have brought in a technically advanced culture, but the humans who lived on the island were already an advanced group and it is likely that our pre-historic man’s culture mingled with the introduced culture, Prof. Somadeva believes.

There is little evidence on the pre-Vijaya era and that is the period the archaeologists are trying to unearth. Prof. Somadeva calls this transition period a “twilight period of our history”.

His team found 35 different half-burned grains from the Lunugala cave they studied. Carbon dating confirmed these to be 6,000 years old. “Perhaps this is clear evidence that our ancestors started experimenting on their own with edible grains,” Prof. Somadeva said. “Today there are about 64 varieties of edible green leaves available in a village market – who found that these were edible? There are lots of plants with medicinal values – who found their medicinal                       effectiveness?”

He says most of these knowledge came from the experimentation of early home-grown humans.

The archaeologists also found pendants and other non-utilitarian items, and Prof. Somadeva said this is evidence that our early humans showed cognitive ability, knowing the concept of self.

They also found shark teeth in some of the caves. The sea is about 40km from the location of the findings so this indicates our prehistoric man travelled to exchange items from other tribes that lived closer to the sea.

The scientists have also found colourful beads that could have been used for necklaces which have been sent to a laboratory in the United States for carbon dating to determine their age.

The team also found artefacts believed to have been used in rituals, including a sharp stone tool with a bloodstain on one side. Finding bloodstains on such artefacts is extremely rare. Prof. Somadeva said scans by the Medical Research Institute found red blood cells but more was needed for extracting DNA; the team is still hopeful of this.

The archaeologists are also seeking help on the star formations in the skies above Sri Lanka thousands years ago. They have found a piece of rock with holes in it, similar to artefacts found in China and Israel. Chinese archaeologists think their stones indicate stars in Orion’s Belt, and the Sri Lankan stone could be similar. “During the drier period, the stars look bright so this could be something our historic humans used to try to read the sky to predict climate,” Prof. Somadeva said.

The findings could effectively make a paradigm shift of the history that we know at the end of the project, he predicted.

Exploring life in the darknessCaves with areas of different light penetrations can be refuge to some of the least studied animals and plants. The scientific study of organisms living in caves is known as biospeleology, and Peradeniya scientists recently studied caves in Nuwara Eliya to explore the life in the darkness.

Research by Chathurika Munasinghe of the University of Peradeniya under supervision of Prof. K.B. Ranawana on the Mandaramnuwara and Rotupihilla caves in the wet zone was presented at the Wild Lanka symposium recently organised by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The researchers walked through these caves exploring different light zones such as the entrance zone, twilight zone and dark zone, recording temperature, humidity and light intensity every
five metres.

Six vertebrate and 12 invertebrate animals were identified in the Mandaramnuwara cave and six vertebrate and 11 invertebrates were identified in the Rotupihilla cave, Ms. Munasinghe said.

Bats are common in both these caves with the common wentwing bat and rufous horseshoe bat being the most common. Insects and spiders accustomed to darkness were also found.Also seasonally the edible nests swifts build  in the darkness of these caves.

Caves in Sri Lanka are largely unexplored, so the research team suggests conservation measures and education to increase public awareness were important to minimise damage to these cave
ecosystems.

Published on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161113/news/prehistoric-man-stirs-to-life-as-scientists-find-clues-to-the-past-in-ancient-caves-216781.html

Wreckers of underwater treasures must be stopped

December 13, 2015

Fish are being dynamited as they shelter in the historically important shipwrecks scattered around Sri Lanka’s coastline, damaging valuable eco-systems and putting tourist earnings at risk.

Underwater grave: Dead fish at the site of the British Sergeant wreck. Pic by Nishan Perera

Blast fishing is one of the most destructive fishing practices, used to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. The explosion destroys underlying habitat such as coral reefs that supports fish as well as other marine life.

Fishermen detonated explosives in the wreck Orestes, also known as Tango Wreck, which lies off Hikkaduwa, according to divers posting on the SubAqua Club forum.

A few months ago, another incident was reported by diver and marine expert Nishan Perera who took photographs of many dead big and small fish floating near the British Sergeant wreck off Passikudah after a dynamite fishing explosion. The wreck suffered some damage and nearby coral had been broken.

“On that day we reached British Sergeant around 9am and there was some fish floating on the surface, gasping for air,” said Thusitha Ranasinghe, an amateur diver who witnessed the destruction.

“We immediately knew that the ship wreck has been dynamited a few minutes ago and that the fishermen had left when they saw us coming.

“When we dived there were a lot of dead fish on the seabed and trapped on the deck of the sunken ship, and a lot of half alive fish trying to keep their buoyancy and gasp for a last bit of air,” he added.

There could be more than 200 shipwrecks around the coast, about 50 of which can be reached by diving, according to the comprehensive Dive Sri Lanka website.

Five hundred years of trade, commerce, conflict and war from the time of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British resulted in a vast amount of shipping traffic all round the coast and a corresponding high number of wrecks, Dive Sri Lanka states.

Most of these wrecks have been located, including world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, which was sunk off Batticaloa.

Shipwrecks creating special underwater attraction providing shelter for marine life becoming potential to be steady magnets for dive tourism that is still in at fancy level.

There is also the danger that fishermen dynamiting a wreck might do so carelessly while there were divers underwater. The Editor of Dive Sri Lanka, Dharshana Jayawardena, recalled one such incident, “It was scary.

It sounded like a tank exploding underwater, and the foreign tourists who were underwater with us were really scared. Fortunately, the dynamiting happened about 1km away, but the tourists with me swore they would not come again to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayawardena said.

“The dive industry in Sri Lanka is poised to grow hugely so this will have some real impacts on our international standing and ability to compete in the international dive market quite apart from the terrible environmental consequences” said Naren Gunasekera, who is lobbying to stop blast fishing.

Statistics show there are 23.7 million certified scuba divers in the world with 2.7m going on diving holidays. They are reportedly big spenders so this niche tourist segment would be economically beneficial but if we destroy our corals and shipwrecks there wouldn’t be anything to attract the tourists, Mr. Gunasekera points out.

A sunken ship turns to an artificial coral reef, providing living and breeding habitat for enormous amounts of marine life. Dynamiting these shipwrecks for their fish and the metal is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Dynamite is not only used on coral reefs and shipwrecks, it is being thrown into nets where large schools of fish are caught in order to prevent the fish tearing the net. Marine mammals such as dolphins and even the endangered dugongs are reported to be killed by dynamiting.

Sadly, because the destruction happens underwater, only divers can see the damage. It is important that the authorities understand the issue and take action to stop it, marine activists say.

It is, however, very difficult to carry out raids at sea to nab blast fishing culprits as they are highly organised, using mobile phones to convey alerts of approaching navy or police boats and dumping the evidence.

The fish die mostly of the shock wave, hence there is no physical damage that helps to prove they have been killed by blast fishing.

“Action to stop blast fishing needs to be taken on land, not at sea,” says Arjan Rajasuriya who was formally at National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“Find out how these fishermen get dynamite and take action to stop it at source.”

As blast fishing is widespread, happening daily in many parts of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajasuriya points out that those who illegally acquire a huge amount of dynamite should in any case be considered a threat to national security.

“In the same way that police and security forces nabbed the terrorists during the time of war, a good intelligence network is needed to find the source of the dynamite supplies and then stop them getting them into the hands of fishermen,” he said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.12.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151213/news/wreckers-of-underwater-treasures-must-be-stopped-174949.html

The underwater crime scene - fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

The underwater crime scene – fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene - fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene – fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

The tuskers of Kalawewa now have a sanctuary

October 29, 2015

Adding another national park to Sri Lanka’s protected areas, the government declared the wilderness around Kalawewa and Balaluwewa a sanctuary.

Kalawewa is particularly famous for tuskers © Rajiv Welikala

Kalawewa is particularly famous for tuskers © Rajiv Welikala

Wildlife and Sustainable Development Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera declared open the national park yesterday. Environmentalists welcome the move saying the protection was long overdue.

The Kalawewa reservoir was built by King Dhatusena who ruled the country in the fifth century. He also built the Balaluwewa and linked them to make a very large tank to be used for ancient agriculture. These tanks were renovated and now hold water all year around, attracting wildlife.

In the case of elephants, as happens at the Minneriya and Kaudulla tanks where the “Gathering” of elephants takes place as the water levels drop in the dry season, the tank bed becomes lush grassland, providing the animals with fodder. As the Kalawewa-Balaluwewa complex is fairly shallow, the effect is more noticeable.

GPS radio-tracking of a female and male elephant by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Centre for Conservation and Research has shown that some of the herds remain in the vicinity throughout the year.

Elephant herds on the banks of the Kalawewa are particularly famous for the high number of tuskers. Many wildlife enthusiasts visit the area regularly.

Rajiv Welikala, a nature enthusiast and wildlife photographer who visits the area annually, says it is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka. “There could be 150-200 elephants at Kalawewa with dozens of tuskers, both young and mature. “The birdlife in the tank is also fascinating, with a very large openbill stork flock that consists of thousands of birds. When they take wing the sound can be heard from a distance,” he said.

Sadly, the number of elephants at Kalawewa appears to be decreasing. Conservationists fear the electric fences constructed to minimise human-elephant conflict are preventing seasonal movement of the elephant herds, blocking their use of other areas.

In recent months, three other national parks in the northern region were declared: Delft Island, Chundikulam and the Adam’s Bridge sand islands. The Kalawewa National Park became the country’s 26th national park. Although we have a considerable number of parks, most of them are experiencing problems from poaching, over-visiting, invasive species, herding of cattle etc.

In the case of Kalawewa, it is critical to ascertain the ranging patterns and habitat use of the elephants and design barriers based on that information. If the entire park is surrounded by boundary electric fences, that will spell the end for the elephants, for whose benefit it was created.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151018/news/the-tuskers-of-kalawewa-now-have-a-sanctuary-168095.html

Large flock of Open Bill Storks at Kalawewa (c) Rajiv Welikala

Large flock of Open Bill Storks at Kalawewa (c) Rajiv Welikala

Carpeted road stretch in Yala spells death to animals

October 27, 2015

MalakaMapSince the re-opening of Yala National Park on October 7, four Spotted Deer have been killed by speeding vehicles on the recently carpeted Kirinde – Yala road.

An adult male antler that died of head injuries was among the four that were killed.

The road from Kirinde up to the Park’s ticketing office was carpeted a few months ago. Earlier, motorists could not speed on this stretch due to the bad condition of the road.

The road borders the Nimalawa Sanctuary and animals cross it mainly at dusk, the time of day when a majority of the accidents occur.

Sampath Galappaththie –Yala Safari Jeep Association coordinator says not only deer, but many smaller animals have fallen victim to speeding vehicles.

Even Bee-eaters who hop onto the road to sun bathe have met their end on this stretch, Mr.Galappaththie said adding that the deadliest stretch was about three kilometres from the ticketing office.

Following the death of a leopard by a speeding vehicle inside the Yala National Park, speed humps were set up. Our question is whether officials are waiting for a leopard to be killed on this stretch too for remedial steps to be taken.

A couple of years ago a leopard was killed on the Buttala-Kataragama road and it is only a matter of time for such an accident to occur on this stretch too.

Meanwhile Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said the road is located outside the protected area and hence its maintenance was the responsibility of the Road Development Authority (RDA). However he said DWC would work with RDA to find a solution.

However, when the Sunday Times contacted RDA they were unaware of the problem. They said that if such a problem existed, solutions like building speed humps could be looked in to.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151018/news/carpeted-road-stretch-in-yala-spells-death-to-animals-168100.html

New holding ground for rogue elephants needs careful watch

October 27, 2015

The Horowpataha Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) was declared open by the Wildlife and Sustainable Development minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera on Friday.

The EHG aims at keeping in rogue elephants responsible for killing people, infiltrating villages and damaging property and those who try to come back after being translocated. The first such ground was constructed at Lunugamwehera but did not succeed. In Horowpothana, a strong steel cable fence with strong concrete posts studded with nails with electric wires on both sides of this physical fence was set up. It is believed that this

First elephant being transferred to Holding Ground

First elephant being transferred to Holding Ground

mechanism will prevent elephants breaking the fence.

The first elephant was released to the new holding ground on Friday morning. This elephant, caught for making trouble, had been kept chained at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage for nine years.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando welcomed the move to set up an EHG on an experimental level saying that it could be useful for keeping the rogue elephants that cannot be translocated elsewhere. Dr. Fernando’s study in collaboration with the Wildlife Department, using radio collars, proved that many problematic elephants that are translocated in different areas try to come back to their original home. Some of them get lost in this process, making trouble in other areas, sometimes getting killed in the process and killing people. Others settle in new areas close to the parks they were released and start new problems there.

“‘So an EHG could be a solution for such problem elephants,” he said, and it is also advocated in the National

The electric fence is stronger than normal electric fences

The electric fence is stronger than normal electric fences

Policy. “However,” he cautioned, “putting an elephant in an Elephant Holding Ground is ‘prison for life’ and we take those elephants out of the elephant gene pool. So it is not a good option from an elephant conservation or welfare point of view, but it is a necessary evil, as we currently do not have an effective way of managing problem elephants.

“The decision to put an elephant in an EHG should be made responsibly and only taken after proper evaluation of the situation and the elephant,” Dr. Fernando said.

“What happens to the elephants put in the EHGs should be closely monitored as the concept is new. We should do it on a trial and error basis and if a problem arises, then we need to find it quickly, correct it and give it another try,” suggests Dr. Fernando. He emphasised the need to monitor the elephants kept in the EHG, suggesting they be fitted with radio collars to monitor their movements and behaviour.

“The current EHG is only 10 sq km whereas the home range of an adult male can extend from about 50-600 sq km. “An elephant kept in the EHG would not have many activities to engage in, so he will constantly be in search of a weak point of the fence.

The perimeter of the Horowpothana EHG is about 15km and it is not be easy to construct and maintain a fence for such a long distance without there being a weak spot – so a radio collar can help to track the elephant and put it back in case it escapes.

“We also do not know how these elephants will interact with each other when permanently limited to such a small area. For example we do not know what would happen if we have a number of adult males in the EHG and one of them comes into musth.

We also do not know how the elephants will utilize the habitat and landscape, so this too should be monitored closely. “Once we put an elephant in a holding ground we are responsible for them for the rest of their lives. So problems should to be identified based on elephant behaviour and needs, and remedial actions such as separation of particular elephants, supplementary feeding, habitat enrichment and so on should be implemented as required,” he added.

Dr. Fernando pointed out that elephants become rogues due to what we do to them. Most of our human-elephant conflict mitigation measures such as making noise, chasing elephants, elephant drives, use of elephant thunder crackers, shooting at them with shot gun pellets etc. are confrontational and elephants respond to them in the long term by becoming aggressive towards humans. Confrontation raises fear in the elephant’s mind, establishing man as an enemy and they react to it by aggression.

Declare open the Holding Ground with a religious ceremony

Declare open the Holding Ground with religious ceremonies

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151018/news/new-holding-ground-for-rogue-elephants-needs-careful-watch-168092.html

Tour of Trees in Colombo

May 17, 2015

Today morning (17th.May) the National Trust Sri Lanka (NTSL) conducted a Tour of Trees in Colombo making the participants aware of the varied selection of large trees that are hardly noticed within the city environment.

Though urbanized, Colombo still has lots of large trees where some of them are over 100 years. Vihara Maha Devi Park (formerly Victoria Park) and its suburban environs are home for many such large trees and participants of this Tour of Trees got the chance to have a guided tour to study the trees in this area. The tour was conducted by Architect Ismeth Raheem who is also a naturalist. It had drizzled briefly, but the rain gods were tolerant on the participants today morning.

Here are some of the moments from the Tour of Trees..!!

DSCN8940 Tour of Trees - Ismath decscribing a Kalumediriya tree Tour of Trees - A majestic Nuga Tree - good Tour of Trees - Section of trees of Vihara Maha Devi Park 2 DSCN9015 Tour of Trees - Feeling a Nelli tree Tour of Trees - Ismath at final wrap up 2 Tour of Trees - Vihara Maha devi park

 

..beneath the Vesak Full Moon…!!

May 3, 2015

Today is Vesak. I was up until late last night trying to complete the Vesak Lanterns. Then I spot Vesak Full Moon-  The sky was clear and the whole area was glowing with the light spreading by the moon relatively undisturbed by the lights of the vehicles, houses etc.. There are vesak lanterns, pandols and various other forms we use to celebrate vesak, but as usual nature has best setup to lighten the special day. (These photos were taken around 2 am early morning of Vesak Day 3rd of May.)

Vesak Full Moon 4 - with cloud Vesak Full Moon 1 Vesak Full Moon 1 - the closeup Vesak Full Moon 1 - the closeup2

‘Weli katussa’ species unique to Sri Lanka

March 21, 2015

Three young researchers have determined that Sri Lanka has its own species of fan-throated lizards – creatures that puff out an extraordinary frill around their throats to warn off intruders – and that in fact the island has two distinct varieties.

Until now it had been assumed that the fan-throated lizards found in Sri Lanka were the same as in India.

Researchers Thasun Amarasinghe, Sameera Karunarathna and Madhava Botejue studied lizard specimens in the Calcutta and Chennai museums and realised the Sri Lankan lizards were different.

They widened their research to fan-throated lizard specimens at other foreign museums and confirmed their theory, also finding that Sri Lanka has two species of this lizard: one found in the south-eastern coastal belt from Bundala to Kumana and another in the north-west, north of Puttalam.

The two species were named Sitana devakai and Sitana bahiri to honour leading biologists Professor Devaka Weerakoon and Professor Mohammed Bahir.

“Prof. Weerakoon was one of the first scientists to initiate research on the biodiversity of the north of Sri Lanka after the restrictions of the war ended so we named the lizard found in the north, Sitana devakai,” Sameera Karunarathna said.

The team also wanted to honour Mohammed Bahir for his extensive research that established freshwater crabs as the biggest endemic group in the country. Since he came from the southern part of the island the fan-throated lizard found in the south was named Sitana bahiri.
The fan-throated lizard, just 5cm long, mostly inhabits coastal areas including sand dunes, hence its Sinhala name weli katussa (sand lizard). Its hind legs have four toes unlike other lizards that have five toes. The researchers say this adaptation helps them to live in arid areas where temperatures are high and to move about efficiently on sand.

The most interesting feature of the species is the pouch on the throat of male lizards. When a territory guarding lizard spots an intruder, it quickly advances on the trespasser and oscillates this large, coloured pouch in a display of threat. The frill found on Si. devakai is pink and blue while S. bahiri is less colourful.

The findings, by Mr. Karunaratna, Mr. Amarasinghe, Ms Botejue and two colleagues, Ivan Ineich and Patrick Campbell were published in the prestigious journal Zootaxa earlier this month.

Last year, Mr. Karunaratna and Mr. Amarasinghe took the lead in finding two other endemic lizards, Calotes pethiyagodai and Calotes manamendrai (both from the Knuckles forest) named after Rohan Pethiyagoda and Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi who contributed towards the country’s biodiversity.

Sri Lanka is home to 21 species of lizards, 19 of them endemic to the country.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150222/news/weli-katussa-species-unique-to-sri-lanka-137115.html 

Two froggy sisters make news

March 21, 2015

The Kandyan Dwarf Toad, dubbed the world’s rarest toad, has become a more select amphibian with the discovery that it shares its genus with only one other species, not two as previously thought. The toad, a member of the Adenomus genus, was discovered and last seen in the 1870s and had been thought to be extinct until it was found again in 2009.

Naturalists believed there were three species in the genus but now say DNA analysis reveals that one of them, Dasi’s Dwarf Toad (Adenomus dasi) is, in fact, the Kandyan Dwarf Toad “in disguise”. The other species is Adenomus kelaartii (Kelaart’s toad).

One factor that led to the error in identification is that Adenomus kandianus has fully webbed toes while Adenomus dasi has partially webbed feet.
“When amphibian specialists Kelum Manamendra-Arachchie and Rohan Pethiyagoda were describing Adenomus dasi in 1998 they were actually describing a slightly different mutate of A. kandianus as they had access to only a few specimens,” said lead researcher Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura of the Faculty of Science at the University of Peradeniya.

“In a paper published last week, we put it right in the spirit of science, testing the species using many different criteria.”

Mr. Pethiyagoda and Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi are co-authors of the new research paper, published in the prestigious international journal Zootaxa.
“They contributed with their previous data and knowledge, did additional measurements and contributed to the writing, making this a collective effort and a better story,” Dr. Meegaskumbura said.

“My graduate students, Gayani Seneviratne, Nayana Wijayatilleke, Beneeta Jayawardene and Champika Bandara also contributed greatly, enabling us to use many different criteria such as DNA, morphology, tadpoles, ecology, vocalisations and bone comparison to ascertain the species boundaries of these toads.”

Dr. Meegaskumbura said the research team had been glad to find a large population of hundreds of these toads at one location; the toads, endemic to Sri Lanka, are on the critically-endangered wildlife list.

Sri Lanka is home to 119 amphibians with as many as 102 of them being endemic, making this country one of the hottest hotspots for amphibian diversity in the world.
There are eight species of toads in Sri Lanka, belonging to two genera called Adenomus and Duttaphrynus, and six of them are endemic to the country.

World Water Day – Day03 (Kumamoto City)

March 28, 2014

On the 3rd day, the Kumamoto City invited some of us to participate the Water Forum they organized to mark the World Water Day. Kumamoto City has won  last year’s ‘Water for Life’ award for sustainable use of its ground water – first time, a city has bagged this prestigious water award. The city is totally depend on ground water sources and the Japanese speakers including the mayor explained how they utilize their ground water resources. The day ended with a reception including traditional Japanese cultural dances.

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zDay 3 - Komo Water forum - Forum with UN officials 4
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