A moonlit kiss with Satan
Human intrusion into the jungles of the Shivalik foothills is manifest in minefields of cattle dung. No matter where the nature trail may meander, the wanderer will have to side-step dung like commandos deftly picking their way through minefields on a surgical strike! On a recent night ramble in the jungles of Perch dam, situated 13 km from Chandigarh, I just about avoided stepping onto a dung puddle on the dam’s embankment. But disgust evaporated when I discerned moths devouring the fresh puddle. Most of us have observed or seen in photographs, the angelic butterflies pick nutrients from such “disgusting things” as carrion, dung, mud, rotting serpents etc but since moths are nocturnal creatures, this behaviour is less apparent.
In the moonlight, the delicate lavender hues of the moths and their folded, satin wings contrasted with the grotesque dung. A vivid comparison came to mind: the willing embrace of paradise’s most gorgeous Marilyn Monroe with a hairy-beary, long-tailed, horned Satan wielding onion-tinged, sandpaper lips! Anyways, wisecracks apart, I was intrigued by this phenomenon and consulted the Hong Kong-based Dr Roger Kendrick, who is regarded as an authority on Asian moths.
“The moths appear to be Petelia species, from the family Geometridae. I don’t know which Petelia species, as there are many in the genus and they look roughly similar.
The moths are extracting mineral salts and amino acids from the dung—it is debatable that this is feeding in the sense of utilising a resource for conversion to energy and assisting with own body metabolism. Male butterflies and moths of many species do this, as the chemicals are needed in reproduction and are passed to the female.
These moths will (also feed on nectar) and use nectar as food (in the more conventional sense of feeding on resources that get converted to energy or used in general body metabolism),” said Dr Kendrick.
Dr Kendrick cited studies by Cornell University’s Scott Smedley and Thomas Eisner to explain that the act of “puddling” by males allowed them to extract sodium and transfer it to females. “Analyses of male and female (moth) bodies indicate that such ‘puddling’ behaviour enables the male to provide his mate with a nuptial gift of sodium, presumably via the spermatophore. This gift, amounting to more than half of a puddler male’s total body sodium, is in large measure apportioned by the female to her eggs,” the study stated, adding that sodium may be acquired from such matter as dung/faeces by male moths when the plants the moths feed on lack sodium content.
“Best documented for insects are cases involving male donation of nutrients, which the female invests in egg production, and of defensive substances, such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids or cantharidin, which protect eggs against predation. The major conclusion to be derived from this growing body of evidence is that paternal contribution of chemicals to eggs may be more widespread than suspected, certainly in insects, but perhaps in other animals as well,” the study concluded.
Blooms on Shiva’s trail
Pilgrims snailing up the high passes and along verdant river valleys on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra to Tibet battle so many high-altitude hardships and standard distractions of scenery that the tiny blooms tucked away in stony outcrops warrant not even a cursory mention. However, a mechanical engineer from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, Narendra Joshi, indulged in his esoteric passion for flowers by capturing an estimated 80 species on a recent 26-day yatra to Mansarovar via the arduous Uttarakhand to Lipulekh Pass route. The other route via Nathula Pass (Sikkim) is driven more on bus travel and so Joshi opted for the former route because it lent better opportunities to capture the ignored floral biodiversity.
It may be recollected that Joshi had earlier captured a 100 different blooms (covered in the ‘wildbuzz’ columns) during his pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in 2013 by scrambling up slopes like a lithe Ibex and leaving his fellow pilgrims rather startled at his “crazy” pursuits!
“I bought a special Sony camera that eases the capture of tiny blooms because plants found at high altitudes on the Mansarovar Yatra may not be more than a few inches tall. Rains made photography difficult and the winds were so intense that the camera’s sharp focus was not possible in certain situations. We were a group of 40 Indian pilgrims and we touched 19,500 feet on the Kailash parikrama in Tibet. My fellow pilgrims were amazed at my flower photographs because they never noticed them. People love flowers but tend to notice only conspicuous and popular ones like Chrysanthemums and roses. Though I do not enjoy an academic accreditation in botany, clicking flowers, identifying them and documenting their diversity is my passion,” Joshi told this writer.