Monday, February 14, 2011

Tracking insects

Many people view insects as a pest that must be destroyed. As one of the earth’s oldest species, having existed for around 400million years, they are however a vital part of the food chain and play a variety of key roles upon which we all depend. When you consider that 90% of the world’s mammals are insects you can begin to understand how life as we know it could not exist without them.

One area where insects often earn themselves a bad name is in agriculture. Some species of insect are known to damage and destroy crops. Beneficial insects however prey on those who do the damage and so protect the crop by controlling pest numbers.

Decomposition is an extremely important ecological function. Insects play a key role in breaking down dead plant and animal matter, keeping the earth clean and helping to return essential nutrients to the soil.

Insects play a vital role in pollinating our plants. Travelling from flower to flower feeding on nectar they carry the plant’s pollen with them. Without insects many plants would have no way of transferring their pollen and so would be unable to reproduce.

Part of the food web:
Insects are an essential part of the food chain. The diet of many of our best known animal, bird and amphibian species includes insects. Without large insect numbers rich levels of biodiversity could not be supported.
Why not try tracking and recording insect species in your home garden and local area.

•Get a long piece of string and map out a big loop in your garden, quietly examine how many different varieties of insect you can see within your loop to get an understanding of the insect biodiversity present.

•A great place to find insects is under rocks and logs. Why not take a look beneath them and see what insect species you can find. Be very careful not to squash your new found friends when putting the log or rock back in place as they are very fragile!

Things you can do to help insects in your home garden:

•Don’t squash them!

•Don’t use chemical pesticides

•Do leave leaf litter and rotten logs etc about for them to clear up and live amongst.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tracking Mammals

It’s very easy to live life completely unaware of the wildlife that surrounds you. We know a lot about our cats and dogs and of course each other, but very little about other mammals that live silently and often unnoticed among us. A great way to find out more and have some fun out of doors is to track mammals. Tracking mammals takes you off the beaten track and gives you a great insight into their world.
Just like humans animals leave signs of wherever they’ve been;

Each species of mammal has a unique footprint, try thinking about the best places to find them. A great place to start is near water, all animals need to drink and usually the ground surrounding lakes and rivers is soft enough to leave really clear prints. Mud, soil and wet sand also hold animal prints well. Check to see how fresh the tracks are, if any plants or leaves stepped on by the animal are dead you know they haven’t walked through the area recently.

Studying mammal droppings is a great way to identify the species. You can tell how big the animal is by the size of its dropping and often what it eats. For example a vegetarian species will leave waste that looks a lot like straw. Be careful not to handle any droppings as they can contain harmful levels of bacteria.

Food remnants:
A good way to establish what species of mammals are around is to look out for signs of feeding. Animals feeding on nuts and berries often drop them or leave shells behind, the bark of trees can be ripped or gnawed and occasionally you may see fur, feather or bone remains; evidence a carnivore has killed in the area.

Top tips:
• Never go alone- if off in search of mammals always take a friend or adult with you and let someone know where you’re going.

• Dress appropriately: Don’t wear bright colours, try your best to camouflage yourself with the surrounding environment to ensure you don’t frighten any animals away.

• Stay quiet: Keep talking to a minimum, tread softly and switch your mobile phone to silent.

• Take care of the environment: Tracking can be hungry work, if you’re having a picnic be sure to take any rubbish home with you.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Amphibian tracking

Did you know that different frog species can be found in a variety of habitats – from the depths of the rainforest to home garden’s in the city. The common shrub frog is an endemic species (existing only in Sri Lanka) spread across a variety of habitats in the wet zone, southwest of the island. Why not try tracking and recording this and other frog species in your area? Here are some key indicators to help you identify different frog species...

Calls: Frogs communicate with one another through calling. No two frogs have the same call or use the same sound frequency. The common shrub frog makes a rapid “krike krike krike” sounding call that can be heard in the evenings after 6pm.

Habitats: Different frogs thrive best in different habitats. Some frogs are exclusive to only one type of habitat whereas others can be found in many. The common shrub frog can be identified in many habitat types including tea plantations, marshland, course grasses, bamboo, secondary forest and even your home garden.

Different types of frog can be found in the same habitat but at different heights. Often the frog’s appearance can give some indication as to where it lives as they camouflage themselves to their environment to avoid predators. Frogs that live on tree bark for example are usually brown coloured, often with rough looking skin that imitates the texture of the bark! Look out for the brown/grey coloured common shrub frog in habitats 0.5m – 2m above floor level.

Did you know?
There are 5,264 species of frogs and toads worldwide. Sri Lanka is home to 2% of the world population with 103 species existing here, 87 of which are endemic meaning they exist only in Sri Lanka.

Let’s think...
• You may not realise how important a healthy frog population is but look at it like this...As a feeder mostly on insects frogs play an important role in controlling insect numbers. They are essential in tackling insect spread diseases for example dengue fever! If we fail to protect out native frog species we are, if nothing else, doing ourselves no favours.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tracking butterflies

Butterflies are remarkable insects. Throughout their lifespan (which can range from anything from a week to a year depending on the species) they undergo huge transformations. Butterflies live across a wide variety of habitats from rainforest to home gardens. Why not try tracking them to see how many species you can find. A great one to look out for is the Blue Mormon; this native species is the second largest butterfly on the island and can be identified by its bright blue and black wings.

The life cycle of a butterfly consists of four stages;

1. Firstly butterflies will lay their eggs on the leaves of plants specially selected as being good for caterpillars to eat.

2. When the eggs hatch caterpillars emerge and eat the surrounding leaves they were born on. At this stage a caterpillar’s main priority is to eat!

3. As soon as the caterpillar is done growing they form themselves into a chrysalis, inside this chrysalis is where all the action takes place with the caterpillar rapidly changing into a.....

4. Butterfly!! The newly formed butterflies emerge weak and vulnerable, after a few hours they pump blood into their wings and fly off in search of a mate.


Often people try and catch butterflies in nets to get a better look at them. However you really need to know what you’re doing as butterflies are extremely fragile. Touching their wings for example can break important veins and leave them flightless. The best way to track butterflies is to take a wander out into your garden or local area near lots of flowering plants and just have a look to see how many different species you can find. Why not try spraying your hands with sugary water or leave some fruit in a dish in your garden to see how many turn up for dinner. Another great way to increase your butterfly population is to plant host plants, these are plants that are perfect for butterflies to feed from or lay their eggs upon. The Blue Mormon butterfly likes to lay its eggs upon curry plants, why not try planting one to encourage these beautiful butterflies to visit.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sri Lankan frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger)

Don’t be mistaken in thinking the frogmouth is, as its name suggests, an amphibian. This animal is actually a bird found in the dense tropical forests of Sri Lanka and parts of India. The name frogmouth describes the bird’s wide head and gaping mouth which it uses to catch insects. The females are often a red colour with white freckles, and the males are greyer with even more white freckles. They are nocturnal, meaning they only come out at night. During the day they sleep perfectly camouflaged upon forest branches, as a result they are notoriously difficult to spot.

Sri Lankan frogmouths build their nests in the forked branches of trees anywhere between 2 and 12 m off the ground. A very unusual characteristic of this bird is that it only lays one egg! The single white egg is incubated by both parents, with the male sitting on the egg during the day and the female at night. Once hatched the chick is looked after by the parents for three weeks before flying the nest.
The main threat to these birds is habitat loss. The forests they live in are being destroyed to make way for tea and crop plantations.

Things you can do?

1. Why not ask your parents to buy only sustainably managed tea and help protect the habitat of these birds and other forest dwelling wildlife.

2. Try making a home garden and growing some of your own vegetables. This is fun and easy to do and will help to reduce your demand for crops that damage the frogmouth’s vulnerable habitat.

3. Try listening out for these birds after dark, if you here a descending series of “klurck klurck klurck” calls you’ve heard yourself a frogmouth!

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Toque Macaque (Macaca sinica)

Ever seen a monkey with a haircut? If not, try looking out for the toque macaque. This stocky little monkey is an endemic species widely spread throughout Sri Lanka and undoubtedly boasts the best hair-do on the island!
These monkeys nimbly climb trees foraging for a wide variety of food including fruits, seeds, berries, crickets, spiders and birds eggs – which they often keep in their cheek pouches for later.
Toque macaque’s live in groups called “troupes” that usually consist of about 20 individuals of all ages and sizes, led by a single dominant male who protects and leads the group. These troupes are commonly seen hanging around ancient temples, as a result they are often nicknamed “temple monkeys”.

What are their main threats?

Habitat loss: Toque macaques are becoming increasingly threatened by habitat loss. Their numbers have declined by more than half in the last 40years. Despite this they are the only endemic species of the island not protected by law.

Persecution: Extensive deforestation has left the toque macaque with less and less space to live, as a result they have been driven closer to human populations in search of food and can often be seen in cultivated lands and near houses. Many people persecute them as they see them as a pest and a threat to their crops.

Capture: Although shy in the wild toque macaques can become tame in captivity, many are therefore caught and kept as pets.

What you can do

Why not try and change some minds? Speak to friends and family about the importance of these monkeys and the threats they face, try to help people to view them not as pests or pets but as an important part of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage that must be protected.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Green turtle (chelonia mydas)

Did you know, that out of the seven species of sea turtle found worldwide, five can be found right here in Sri Lanka? The green turtle is one of them and is the most widespread of the turtle species. As one of the largest sea turtles these monsters often grow up to 1.5m in length and weigh up to 200kg – that about the same weight as 3.5 adults!

A female green turtle will journey back to the same beach every 2-5 years to lay her eggs, often thousands of kilometres. She can lay up to 9 clutches each containing around 100-150 eggs. Using her back flippers to dig a deep hole in the sand, she buries them for protection. After 45 – 70 days the babies hatch and make a dash for the sea. Many don’t make it, getting eaten by birds and crabs on the way, or becoming disorientated by bright lights from nearby beach bars. Unlike other turtles, all adults are herbivores, feeding mostly on marine grasses and algae. Their young however are omnivores – meaning they eat both plants and other sea life, including jellyfish and molluscs.

Green turtles are an endangered species. They are relentlessly hunted for their meat and eggs and often die when caught up in fishing nets. The destruction and pollution of their habitats and nest sites also reduces their numbers.

Did you know?

• Nest temperature determines whether the young are male or female; studies show lower temperatures tend to produce males and higher temperatures produce females!

• Streamlined shells and powerful flippers make these turtles fantastic swimmers able to swim at speeds of up to 30mph.

• Green turtles can cry! Glands behind the eyes produce big salty tears to help get rid of excess salt in the turtle’s body.

» Find out how else you can help to protect Sri Lanka's endangered species

Illustration by Asia Hewapathirana