Stunted Palm, Hefty Fern? No, it’s a CYCAD!

November 23, 2006 at 5:35 pm | Posted in Araucaria, bioinversity, circinate vernation, Cyathea, Cycad, Cycas, Cycas circinalis, Cycas revoluta, fern allies, Gingko, horsetails, Jerry A. Snider, lycopsid, Permian, Seed Fern, Tree Fern | Leave a comment

We were so excitedly lucky to see a stand of native Indian cycads – Cycas circinalis – in the Anamalais Hills recently (top).

My second year at college and I was in a quandary. The unlikely result was a course in plant morphology! I thought I knew a lot about plants and thought them much less interesting than animals but soon discovered the depths of my ignorance.
One of the fascinating groups of plants that Dr. Jerry A. Snider introduced to us was the Cycadales. Cycads, as they are commonly known, seem to have been around for at least 300 million years! They were an important part of the flora of the Carboniferous and Permian periods and formed a portion of the vast forests that we now mine as coal. The dominant plants back then included the Lycopsids (club ferns – some small relatives still survive), and other ‘fern allies’ including the Seed Ferns (now extinct, illustrated here, left and right) along with early relatives of the Gymnosperms (Pines and connifers).
Cycads are considered to be “living fosssils” along with Gingko, Araucaria and fern allies like the club ferns, horsetails, Sellaginella and so on…
Cycads seem somewhat in-between the ferns and the connifers / flowering types, which we often think of as ‘higher’ plants.
Most wild Cycads are rare, even in tropical lands but especially so in temperate areas, so it was a great pleasure to see healthy Cycas circinalis in these forests.
The commonest Cycad is a gardener’s favourite, Cycas revoluta.

Odd looking creatures that resemble stunted palm trees, the cycads are often mistaken for palms. They have male plants and female plants that produce the most fascinatingly unusual male and female ‘cones’ for reproduction.

Another strange feature is that the fronds (leaves) unfurl very much like a fern’s fronds do – what botanists call circinate vernation. It is beautiful to see little shoots like stumpy fiddleheads slowly unrolling into magnificant full-scale fronds. Supposedly a sign of ‘primitivity’, such unfurling is also shared by some connifers like Araucaria (Newfoundland Island Pine) and the ferns allies.
Along with other rare and beautiful species (like tree ferns – see Cyathea, below) that occupy the understory of ‘old’ forests, the cycads are dying out due to deforestation.
Bioinversity marches on!
The cycads are even more endangered as they are very, very slow growing. Something a meter high may be 100 or more years old! Once a few are destroyed they will take literally centuries to regrow!
Wonders of God’s creation and signposts of biodiversity, these are creatures to be treasured!

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The Little Black Boy

November 9, 2006 at 7:32 am | Posted in "Tate Gallery", "The Little Black Boy", Blake, facsimile, Israel, modern warfare, Palestine, women and children | 1 Comment

It’s the women and children being targeted again, this time in Palestine and by the Israeli army!
Action – reaction – over reaction is a common sequence in human history, but this is getting to be ridiculous. The easy target, the easy way out, no risks involved, no rubber bullets, just kill!

Click on the image, which is a facsimile of one of Blake’s original publications, to read the poem – on display at the Tate (London).
The title links you to the Tate’s electronic page of Blake’s work, showing his original plates too!
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Treetops and Topslip

November 3, 2006 at 6:07 pm | Posted in Batrachostomus moniliger, bioinversity, Bos gaurus, Gaur, Langur, Muntiacus muntjak, Nilgiritragus hylocrius, Ratufa indica, Tahr, Topslip, Trachypithecus johnii, Treehouse, Western Ghats | 2 Comments

Getting into the forest is the most rejuvenating experience possible!

Topslip is the main outpost of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, A national park administered by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in the Western Ghats Catchment area of the state, bordered on the West by the Parambikulam sanctuary in Kerala and on the East by the Anamalai hills.

The entire complex is a very precious reservoir of biodivarsity for an ecosystem that includes one of the only remaining regions of tropical rainforest, truly unique shola forests and medium montane grasslands. The last real populations of the Nilgiri Tahr (a type of mountain sheep/goat – Nilgiritragus hylocrius) are to be found in the upper reaches of these very habitats in isolated pockets of the Western Ghats biosphere.

Arriving on Wednesday, we spent one night at the Chital Forest Lodge and the next morning were given a rare oportunity to experience the newly built Treetops Suites. These are real treehouses placed, seemingly precariously, on stilts of living teak trees, the suites are comfortable and include functioning bathrooms and even hot water!
The evenings were misty and with the onset of the monsoons, we had periods of heavy rain followed by intervals of light drizzle. The spotted deer and wild boar were out in force and the population of the Nilgiri Langurs (Trachypithecus johnii) seems to be very healthy in this forest but they are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching as it is rumoured that their flesh has aphrodisiac properties.
We were surprised by a herd of the endangered Kaattu Erumai (Gaur, Indian ‘Bison’ – Bos gaurus) who wandered through the camp on the second day. These are massive beasts with the bulls weighing in at over a ton, beautifully marked, generally shy and found only in deep forests, it was a treat to watch them calmly walking through.
The nights were very special. A serenade of insect, tree frog and barking deer calls, with lowering mists and very faint moonlight filtering through. The barking deerMuntiacus muntjak) were obviously tracking larger predators, either leopards or tigers.

Oh, the smells! Delightful wafts of wildflowers, honey, ripe fruits and spices; clean healthy air to relish breathing.

All of our attempts to enter the Karian Shola were dashed by the spells of pelting rain. This patch of Shola is very special as it is one of the last resorts in India for the Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) a fascinating bird that mimics dead leaves so perfectly that it is hard to spot even from a few feet away!

Just as we were getting ready to leave, Sellamuthu, the Treetops’ Forest Guide, pulled us out to watch a pair of giant malabar squirrels (Ratufa indica) gambolling in the tops of the nearby teak trees. They were having fun chasing each other around and making incredible leaps from branch to trunk completely oblivious to the fact that they were a good 100 ft up.

Even in these aparently rich forests man’s ravages are very evident. Large plantations of teak tree monocultures have replaced a highly diverse forest ecosystem. Attempts to propagate the forest species of trees have been failures and it is becoming obvious that climate change is inimical to the original habitats. The planted seedlings simply don’t survive.

In oder to try to promote diversity, species of bamboo have been introduced but introduced species usually create their own imbalances.

We are witnessing bioinversity in action.

So, we take our children to these forests, knowing that our grandchildren will not see anything resembling them at all.

Thanks to Pandiyan for the nilgiri langur pic.

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