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Wildbuzz: Danger in a moon and aliens have landed

Fables and cultural beliefs aside, nightjars.... are proven as very active under a full moon as insect prey is easy to spot. But another die-hard nocturnal species, the Indian Crested porcupine, abhors full moons.

punjab Updated: Dec 24, 2017 12:56 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Wildbuzz,wildlife,Indian Crested porcupine
A camera trap photo of porcupines entering their burrow with a young one.(PHOTO: DR HN KUMARA/SACON)

When the world sleeps, the creatures of the night stir and slither to keep their tryst with a cosmic destiny. Humanity’s romance with a full moon needs no further verse or rapture. The Chukor is regarded as the ‘Moon bird’ in Indian folk belief. Though it is not true, beliefs have it that “deep into the full moon night, the Chukor sheds its tears in longing, releasing the song of unrequited passion, for its alluring beloved i.e. the moon, unattainable high in the skies.” Fables and cultural beliefs aside, nightjars.... are proven as very active under a full moon as insect prey is easy to spot. But another die-hard nocturnal species, the Indian Crested porcupine, abhors full moons.

Bushmen and tribal poachers would share anecdotal observations of porcupines just not exiting burrows on nights lit by a moon brimming over with vanity. The reluctance would appear strange because more light would lend better visibility for porcupines to forage. The answer has been dug out during the course of comprehensive field research ‘Environmental determinants of activity variation of an overlooked burrowing rodent: The porcupine’, conducted at Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). The research spanned three-year, 37 porcupine burrow systems and drew deep from 3,254 days of above-ground, camera-trap effort.

“Porcupines showed a trend of moonlight avoidance as their temporal activity significantly reduced in full moon nights and peaked between the first and third quarter of the lunar cycle...The avoidance of moonlight can be an anti-predator behaviour presuming that more moonlight increases the visibility and subsequently favours detection by predators such as big cats, jackals, hyenas, feral dogs, pythons etc,” according to the study authored by Dr HN Kumara, Aditi Mukherjee and late Subramanian Bhupathy. The study was accepted this month for future publication by the prestigious international journal, ‘Mammalia: De Gruyter’.


A burrow video camera unit outside a porcupine burrow. ( PHOTO: DR HN KUMARA/SACON )

What must the porcupine have felt in his/her burrow chamber when an outlandish contraption came slyly and silently down the underground alleys? The reaction to that ‘nosey parker’ would be on lines similar to Martians landing surreal spacecrafts in human backyards! The contraption was a burrow video camera (BVC) attached to a cable, transmitting images live to SACON researchers and mounted on a four-wheeled platform with powerful traction. Naturally, the irked porcupine bristled at the ‘alien invasion’ and pushed the BVC back till it was nearly at the burrow entrance. As a parting gift, the porcupine chewed up half the cable, sending a stern message to the ‘alien craft’: never dare again!

The novelty of the BVC live-stream was a perfect complement to the traditional camera traps placed around burrows. The latter revealed the day and night life of subterranean species emerging from the safety of underground chambers. It was for the first time ever that the BVC — an innovative technology — had been deployed in wildlife studies to explore the vibrant underground life of porcupines, pythons, monitor lizards, jackals, bats, geckos etc. Prior to SACON’s use of BVCs, researchers would simply dig up burrow systems to learn more about species but that was a disruptive and harmful way of exploration. The BVC was, in contrast, virtually non-invasive and did not physically harm the creatures whose inner lives were revealed so fluidly to the outsider eye.


A burrow video camera photo of two rock pythons inside a burrow. ( PHOTO: DR HN KUMARA/SACON )

When I asked SACON’s intrepid field researcher Aditi Mukherjee to share her experiences, she sounded more like a Lewis Caroll reading out excerpts from the 1865 fantasy novel, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Caroll had spun the odyssey of a girl who falls into a rabbit burrow and slides into a life of creatures stranger than she could imagine. “On one occasion, we inserted the BCV into a burrow system and found it would not move further. We managed to turn the camera around after an hour of juggling the BVC controls from outside and saw that a mighty python was sitting on the cable. After that, it took us hours to manoeuvre the BVC out of the burrow. On another occasion, we inserted a robot data logger with a thermometer probe inside a burrow. We planned to keep it there for a year to determine what temperatures prevailed within. However, the resident porcupine chewed up the thermometer on the first day itself as it must have appeared an unknown object. The thermometer had cost us a cool ₹25,000!” Mukherjee told this writer.

The BCV was customised for SACON’s burrow explorations by a Bengalaru-based firm ‘Renewable Energy Applications and Products’ at a cost of ₹5 lakh. The salient revelation of the filmed research was that while porcupines were regarded as pests by humans, they played a key role as primary ecological engineers. Porcupines dug burrows for themselves and these were adopted by other species, which could not dig such as pythons and bats. Birds such as Bluethroats, peacocks, bee-eaters took advantage of the burrow’s micro-habitat by coming in pairs to gobble insects and worms living in burrow walls as also a multitude of ticks attendant to burrow-dwelling animals. One bird would stand guard outside the burrow while the mate went inside to feed, and they would take turns at it. Smart kingfishers and bee-eaters built nests in wall cavities of burrow entrances!

First Published: Dec 24, 2017 12:12 IST