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Wildbuzz: Life in a burrow

Rock pythons can be found basking in jungles behind Sukhna Lake just outside burrows they share with Indian crested porcupines.

opinion Updated: Dec 10, 2017 12:45 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Wildbuzz,Sukhna Lake,Najafgarh jheel
Five Rock pythons coiled together inside a burrow at Bharatpur.(Dr HN Kumara/SACON )

FAREWELL, MY FRIENDS?

Migratory waterfowl do not prefer vast sheets of water at Sukhna Lake. The numbers and species diversity is on the lower side as is evidenced by a recent count conducted by the Chandigarh Bird Club.

However, the reasons attributed to the low numbers, ie smog and cold conditions in northern latitudes, do not stand ground scrutiny. As acknowledged by chief wildlife warden Santosh Kumar, lack of shallow water and exposed food sources (such as weed mats) is what has kept waterfowl away.

Lack of basking sites, such as mudflats and sandy isles created by receding waterlines, has added to migrants’ woes. The fact that smog is not a relevant factor is evidenced by large waterfowl congregations currently in Delhi and surrounding areas, including thousands of geese and flamingoes at Najafgarh jheel.

Birders and Sukhna lovers cannot demand a ‘permanently full’ lake to enjoy morning walks and at the same time yearn to host ‘huge parties of beloved feathered friends’. The UT engineering department is floating tenders to release treated tertiary water into the lake to tank it up permanently. Apart from its unknown long-term effects on aquatic biodiversity, migratory waterfowl are certainly not going to like it. Birds have, anyway, been driven off wetlands and check dams in the tricity’s hinterland due to commercial fisheries. “Migratory birds will be affected by a full Sukhna. We can plan for a special birding zone at the rowing canal and create islands but this will need approval from UT administrator VP Singh Badnore,” Kumar told this writer.

On December 30, 2016, while watching birds at Sukhna, Badnore, in the presence of this writer, had directed the forest and wildlife department to put up a proposal to maintain the rowing canal as a ‘core’ area for migratory birds and water regulated at a low level there.

Thus, hope springs eternal for the birds. Although, Shakespeare had wisely warned that hope is a ‘flatterer, a parasite, a keeper-back of death!’

LIFE IN A BURROW

In winter, Rock pythons can be found basking in jungles behind Sukhna Lake just outside burrows they share with Indian crested porcupines. What life dwells inside these burrow systems, which can extend to 20m in length? Do different species co-exist in inter-connected burrows? Do they indulge in skirmishes?

A remarkable research study conducted at the Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, deployed, for the first time, an innovative technology and research tool, namely the burrow video camera (BVC). Titled ‘Burrow characteristics and its importance in occupancy of burrow-dwelling vertebrates in semi-arid area of Keoladeo National Park’, the study was authored by Dr HN Kumara, Aditi Mukherjee, Rajan Pilakandy, Shirish Manchi and late Subramanian Bhupathy of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). The study provides photographic evidence of how creatures such as porcupines and pythons coexist in ‘apartment burrows’ similar to those found at the Sukhna.

The BVC was mounted on four-wheeled mobile platforms which traversed burrows to come up with authentic videos of the wondrous life of creatures dwelling deep underneath our feet. The study found that pythons would tend to coil together for body heat transmission and thermoregulation. A few big pythons would go outside, bask in the sun and then return to the burrow and transmit heat to other pythons by snuggling close!

MUTUAL COEXISTENCE

As many as five species were found dwelling in the same burrow system by the above quoted study. Nine different burrow systems were explored through the BVCs and each comprised a set of different-shaped underground chambers connected by tunnels. The species found in an interconnected burrow system included pythons, porcupines, common Indian monitor lizards, leaf-nosed bats and an unidentified gecko. Each species had a particular preference for chamber shapes, such as compact and small ones for pythons. Bats preferred chambers with lesser openings and number of branches as this possibly reduced disturbance and influx of external light.

Of the most fascinating aspects brought forth was the coexistence of prey and predator in a single burrow system. “It seems that the python, porcupine and bat are mutually tolerant towards each other... Inside burrows, there is, however, a clear segregation of these individuals in separate chambers,” the study noted.

As a departure from this coexistence, jackals did clash with porcupines and pythons in burrows during the breeding season of jackals leading to evictions or deaths. The study indicated that temperatures inside chambers were akin to ‘room temperatures’. For example, if the outside temperature was 10-12 degree Celsius, the chamber temperature underneath was stable at 16-17 degrees.

vjswild1@gmail.com

First Published: Dec 10, 2017 12:45 IST