EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

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Mirza Shahzad
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EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by Mirza Shahzad »

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It's been a while since I last logged in and posted something. We don't see those nice trip reports here as regularly as we once used to, with social media making it much easier to share your finds with a wider audience and fewer people willing to put in the hard work it takes to make a long-winded, photo-rich field report. But it's hard to understand how anything can ever substitute a classic forum post. I believe the best you can do with trip images is to put them together with a nice storyline, rather than drop them in the bottomless pit of social media. And as still many of the talented old-timers continue to visit the forum, the effort to put together a decent post seems worthwhile.

I hate insta for a number of reasons, but since everybody seems to be active on it, it can be a great place to connect. You can follow me on https://www.instagram.com/mirzherpetology as I do post recent finds and travels on my story from time to time.

Earlier in July, I joined a group of researchers on a trip to one of the Northernmost parts of the Eastern Ghats. The target of the trip was to document the extremely rare and recently rediscovered Barkudia insularis, a limbless skink. In 1916, Fredrick Gravely of the Indian Museum managed to dig up the first specimen of what turned out to be a new Genus of limbless skink. Another specimen was found by him in 1917 on the same island, in the middle of a brackish water lake. Some dubious records from the 1970s were probably another rare limbless skink, Sepsophis. The last positively identified specimen was found in 2003, until 2021 when a couple more were found in the Eastern Ghats.

Joining us were researchers from a national institute, led by the living, breathing skink man of India - Avrajjal Ghosh.

Around noon, we reached the guest house located some 30km from the spot that we will be surveying. The cottage was surrounded by low hills and covered with forest plantations. A quick walk around yielded a few cool inverts, which will post later ahead.

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Indian Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor)
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After a lunch consisting of 5 different but equally tasteless dishes, we headed towards the mountains.
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On the way, we stopped whenever a roadkill was spotted. First was this heartbreaking chameleon. A few members of the group were on the verge of turning into roadkills as they got busy taking potentially award-winning shots of a crow scavenging on it.

Indian Chameleon (Chameleo zeylanicus)
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A short distance ahead was an equally sad DOR vine snake.

Scalation on a Long-nosed Vine Snake (Ahaetulla cf. nasuta)
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Finally, we managed to negotiate a number of hairpin bends leading to the top of the hills. We took a narrow trail, and a short walk later found ourselves surrounded by dense primary forest.

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We started exploring the impenetrable forests on either side of the trail. The most noticeable thing was the sudden rise in humidity. A myriad of fungi of all colors, shapes, and sizes adorned every niche in the forest.

Marasmius haematocephalus, the velvety texture and bright color on this one make it an umbrella fit for the fairies.
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Avrajjal was quite serious at work with his best friend in the field, an orange spade. Digging around can be quite frustrating over here, with nothing but earthworms turning up in an hour of toiling. Adding to the challenge is the fact that how sensitive fossorial species are to any vibrations and their excellent burrowing capability at the slightest threat. One strike of the shovel should cause any Barkudia that may be around a few meters of the spot to retreat into deep underground tunnels.

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Nevertheless, we found some cool herps.

Clouded Geckoella (Cyrtodactylus nebulosus) comes in an outstanding array of dorsal patterns.
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Mosaic pattern on the ventral side of the tail.
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We found this unidentified blind snake. Close to Indotyphlops porrectus, it was quite pale and translucent, and the head somewhat resembled I. albiceps from Southeast Asia. Too bad we didn’t collect it for comparison.

Slender Blind Snake (Indotyphlops cf. porrectus)
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Head comparison of the snake we found (Indotyphlops cf. porrectus, left) and a Brahminy Blind Snake (Indotyphlops braminus, right)
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But the rarest find of all was something not any less exciting than finding a Barkudia. Known from a few specimens and seen alive by a handful of researchers; when it was rediscovered in 2007 after a gap of 137 years since its original description, it made it to international headlines. It is the limbless skink, Sepsophis punctatus. (Well, almost limbless. It does have tiny, barely visible spur-like limbs which are vestigial and hardly aids in locomotion.) A monotypic genus and the only other limbless skink genus in India, it is restricted to the Eastern Ghats. Hardly anything is known of its ecology due to its rarity and secretive fossorial lifestyle on undisturbed forest floors. I could hardly believe it when Avrajjal said he had found a juvenile.

Spotted Eastern Ghats Skink (Sepsophis punctatus) Juvenile
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Still hyped, we continued looking around. Soon enough, Avrajjal turned a huge boulder with a display of superhuman strength and shrieked. There was something under it that instantly disappeared into the loose earth. And it was big this time. Frantically digging around with his bare hands, he was soon joined by the rest of the folks. After it seemed we have lost it, Avrajjal triumphed again by pulling out the large writhing thing. It was an adult Sepsophis! Everyone was ecstatic at having found two specimens of one of India’s rarest lizards within an hour of searching.

Spotted Eastern Ghats Skink (Sepsophis punctatus) Adult
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With all the hard work in the humid forest, we were drenched in sweat and dehydrated. We decided to return to a nearby town for some quick refreshments. Soon it was sunset, and we were ready for some herping in the dark.

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We decided to cruise the same road leading up the hills. I was already drowsy, having slept just for an hour the previous night due to all the excitement and preparation for the trip. So I kept falling asleep, waking up with a start whenever the car stopped. Suddenly, while just turning around a bend, Hemant pointed out at something crossing the road. Soon he was after it, and then yelled “It bit me really hard”. Still confused, I walked up to him and saw in his hands a huge Leopard Gecko, Eublepharis hardwickii (I have since been led to believe it’s E. pictus). There was this slightly perplexed Hemant sporting a nervous smile, wary not to be mauled yet again. After releasing it, we proceeded towards the hilltop (in all the confusion and excitement, we hardly got any decent shots). On the way, we encountered a cat snake.

Indian Gamma/Common Cat Snake (Boiga trigonata)
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We reached the top and started walking around the dark, desolate hill road. And Hemant spotted yet another leopard gecko! This time it was a much vibrantly colored adult.

Painted Leopard Gecko (Eublepharis pictus) Adult
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As the team got busy photographing it, Hemant was not done with his leopard gecko spotting yet. So he just walked a few yards up the road and came back with a juvenile with the most beautiful neon yellow bands and legs glowing with a soft, peach tone.

Painted Leopard Gecko (Eublepharis pictus) Juvenile
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After spending a considerable time sitting on the road photographing and admiring the geckos, we decided to return. We stopped at the spot where we had found the first one, and spent some time looking around. We spotted another huge adult leisurely foraging in the undergrowth. This was the largest of all, and watching it wander unperturbed in its natural habitat was one of the biggest highlights of the trip.

Now we were on our way back to the guest house. I was quite nauseated and tired by this point, and felt like throwing up as we stopped at a restaurant for dinner.
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But sleeping through the half an hour trip was enough to make me feel like herping again. So upon reaching camp, I joined Hemant to explore the surroundings. We found a large Chersonesometrus scorpion, an Indian Burrowing Frog (Sphaerotheca breviceps), and a Clouded Gecko (Cyrtodactylus nebulosus).

The rarely seen Indian Burrowing Frog (Sphaerotheca breviceps), can be confused at first with the more common Duttaphrynus toads.
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An in-situ, unstaged shot of the eminent skinkologist, displaying rare fossorial behaviour early in the morning:
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The next morning we had a couple of hours to try our luck again in the hills before returning home. It was a hot day, and despite a lot of looking and digging around, nothing much was observed. The only herps seen were a couple of rock agamas (Psammophilus dorsalis) high up in the canopy.

Peninsular Rock Agama (Psammophilus dorsalis)
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On our way back, we encountered yet another one near human habitation. This time a vibrantly coloured male.

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A month later, I traveled back to the hills. This time it was quite an adventure and didn't go as smoothly as the previous one. Three men on a bike (more like three and a half men - Ayush was with us), raging boars, not-so-friendly villagers, and incessant downpours. It was surprising how much a slight change in the weather impacts lizard activity. We saw no leopard geckos as opposed to four in the previous time. More snakes and amphibians were seen though. We spotted a Forstein's cat snake (Boiga forsteini) high up a tree, a banded krait disappearing into a crack, and a huge Indian rat snake inside a drainage pipe.

(No, I am not a midget. It's Ayush who is the giant)
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Juvenile Common Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus).
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Mandatory bite, if you are handling this species.
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Unidentified Hemidactylus
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The marbled balloon frog (Uperodon systoma) emerges out of its lair in loose, humid soil with the onset of monsoon rains, feeds, breeds, and again disappears into the underworld. A microhylid frog that completely lacks dentition, it feeds mainly on termites. The last image is an in-situ shot, with just its head sticking out of the soil at the base of a tree .
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Indian Tree Frog (Polypedates maculatus)
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We got a ton of inweirdibrates in both the trips :

Perhaps the most stunning weevil I have seen is this glittering one, close to Phyllobius. The lime body and pink legs give it a spectacular look.
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Another cool weevil was this Ergania with a long proboscis.
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This is perhaps the first record of a stalk eyed fly (Family Diopsidae) from E. India. Note the eyes at the end of each stalk.
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The Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis angolensis) lays its eggs inside the nests of other insects. In this case, that of a Mud-dauber Wasp.
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Therea nuptialis. Even the cockroaches grow interesting here.
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Caterpillar of something similar to an Antithemerastis moth.
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Scopelodes (Family Limacodidae)
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Wild Eri Silk Moth (Samia canningii), closely related to Atlas moths and quite large.
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Pseudomicronia advocataria
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Yamfly (Loxura atymnus)
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Common Nawab (Polyura athamas)
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An army of Proutista moesta (Family Derbidae) in formation.
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Gigantometrus swammerdami, India's largest scorpion and the biggest specimen I have ever seen. But I am no scorpion expert, so all Ids are tentative and suggested by experts based on just the images.
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Chersonesometrus fulvipes
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Gravid female Deccanometrus
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Whip Scorpion (Thelyphonus sepiaris). Completely harmless and quite docile in my experience, though still may spray a jet of acetic acid from their tail if threatened.
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Chrysso urbasae with hatchlings.
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Olios cf. lamarcki
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A Wandering Spider (Family Ctenidae) on the forest floor.
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Wandering spiders have 2 eyes in the bottom row (ie. the anteriors). This differentiates them from wolf spiders (which have 4, see next image).
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Wolf Spider (Lycosa sp.)
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This Fishing Spider (Dolomedes sp.) was found actively hunting in a rapid stream.
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Poltys spiders are an excellent broken twig mimic.
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Ant-mimic Crab Spider (Amyciaea sp.). Note the false eyes on the abdomen.
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Purple Boxer Mantis (Ephestiasula rogenhoferi)
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Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra morsitans)
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The Eastern Ghats of Odisha remains a virtually unexplored realm, hidden from much of the outside world with a lot still waiting to be discovered and documented. But the question is, can we do it before it all disappears? Mining, wildlife trafficking, and deforestation are some of the major threats the biome is facing. Unlike the Western Ghats, there are no research centers and very few researchers working in the region. It is only recently that young and motivated researchers have started taking an active interest in documenting its lesser fauna. One can only hope that this enthusiasm reaches colleges in the more remote districts of the state, leading to local capacity building. Harnessing the power of citizen science and instilling a passion for biodiversity in these young talents will go a long way in unraveling the secrets of the far-flung hills of Odisha.

Cheers!
Mirza

Insta: https://www.instagram.com/mirzherpetology
fb: https://www.facebook.com/mirzashahzad.alambaig


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sjfriend
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by sjfriend »

Thank you for this great report! As you stated I too love seeing these kind of reports here. Much prefer this to FB or other social sites.

Love the photography you did. Really shows the specimens well. And loved all the inweirdabrates you included. I too enjoy finding and photographing them on my herp trips.

And as you stated in the end, I hope you get your wish of more study and conservation of the area.
marcox
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by marcox »

Great report thanks.
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Paul Freed
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by Paul Freed »

Fantastic post, Mirza! Well documented and very well written. Your enthusiasm for all things herpetological (and invertebrates) comes through loud and clear. I look forward to more of your posts.
-Paul
Kfen
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by Kfen »

I greatly appreciate the time you took to put this together. I too miss these big posts here. Excellent photos and finds. I had no idea there were chameleons in India!
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Mirza Shahzad
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by Mirza Shahzad »

Thanks all! Glad you found it interesting.
Paul Freed wrote: October 20th, 2022, 12:02 pm Fantastic post, Mirza! Well documented and very well written. Your enthusiasm for all things herpetological (and invertebrates) comes through loud and clear. I look forward to more of your posts.
-Paul
Thanks a ton, Paul! Nothing like a note of appreciation from the maestro himself. I thoroughly enjoyed 'Of Golden Toads & Serpent's Roads' and can only wish you take the time and effort to put together a few more books. Sure each of the observations on iNaturalist has an amazing story behind it that the world needs to hear!
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Jeff
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by Jeff »

Mirza
This is a very nice post of a place that we should know much more about considering the colonial nature of natural history explorations dating from pre-Linnean times.
Your first photo tells me a lot about the countryside of the eastern Ghats, opposite the usual photos that we in the USA get of India - mud, dust, masses.
There was recently an Indian group 'South Asian Reptile Network' that produced a series of herpetofaunal papers in "Reptile Rap" but that seems to be history as of a few years ago.
It seems we are now left with the 'battlefront' reports of Mirza.
Thanks,
Jeff
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TravisK
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Re: EASTERN GHATS 2022 Monsoon Report (several FHF firsts, big post)

Post by TravisK »

Great report! I have been away from FHF for far too long and really miss this format for information sharing. I really enjoyed the invertebrates as well. Thank you so much for sharing this part of the world with us.
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