-John Eickert

Our planet abounds with life, on the surface, in the air and beneath the waves. I like to snorkel and I like to scuba dive. It fascinates me to drift beneath the surface in warm water and let the current take me over coral reefs. I have tried cold-water dives, thick wet suits, headgear and gloves, but the cold creates a distraction for me and I do not enjoy it. So, I am very much a warm water, shallow water, coral reef diver.

One of my favorite places for this type of dive is off the coast of the Quintana Roo province of Mexico, a long strip of jungle front beach, covering ancient limestone creating some of western shore of the Caribbean then giving way to the sea and crystal clear waters. No rivers flow out of the jungle and with the strong current through the Yucatan channel, it is possible to lay on your back on the sea floor and watch those in a boat above, 150 feet away. Divers, as well as beach goers and sun worshippers from all over the globe flock to this part of Mexico. Cancun hosts so many high-rise beach resorts, but Cozumel is more humble and the center for scuba dive activities. 

In the morning, you board the dive boat and the dive master gives instruction and details of the day then asks each to choose a dive partner. Before long, the dive boat idles to a stop and everyone puts on his or her scuba equipment. One by one the divers fall back into the water, find their dive partner then descend to follow the dive master through the maze of reefs and underwater grottos. My favorite place to dive off Cozumel is Palancar reef, a marine national park. Here there are large lobster, skates, rays, eels, and vibrant tropical fishes all colors of the rainbow and spectacular.

On my last Palancar dive, my partner was a funny joke telling man from Singapore and he was an excellent dive partner. Near the end of our second morning dive, the group split apart in an area of large limestone sea stacks. Some began to ascend, the dive boat was above and waiting. My partner and I swam round a sea stack and came face to face with a seven-foot white tipped reef shark. The shark froze and hovered and so did we. Our dive master had explained that sharks were rare in these waters because the water was too warm. We waited. The shark waited then angled his fins, observed us again then with a flick of its tail, it was gone. During the next month, I woke from sleep many times after dreaming of those gray lifeless eyes staring at me as if I were a snack.

The Indian Ocean has many famous dive sights and I hope to dive a number of  them one day. I hope some of you will join me, until then take care, cheers.


Visit a Marine National Park in India!! Click here

Amazing Facts About Wildlife

Monster frog of Gondwana-By S. Ananthanarayanan

Monster frog of Gondwana


A fossil of a South American frog family has been found in Madagaskar, says S.Ananthanarayanan.


Scientists from Stony Brook University have found the remains of what may be the largest frog that ever lived. The fossil was found in strata relating to the late cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago. The interesting thing is that close relatives of the ancient discovery are currently found in distant South America.


Ceratophrys or horned frogs


Ceratophrys is a genus of frogs also known as the South American Horned Frogs or Pacman frogs, because of their very large mouths. These frogs are found in the rain forests of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. The Pacman is a voracious eater and tries to gobble up anything that moves near its enormous mouth, like insects, small birds, mammals, lizards or other frogs. In fact, the frog has been found dead in the wild, asphyxiated by its own meal!


The frogs grow to be 10-15 cms in size and their most prominent feature is the mouth, which is about half the animal’s size. It hunts by being motionless and waiting for prey  - which is anything that can fit in its mouth.


The Devil Toad


Stony Brook paleontologist David Krause first found large frog bones in Madagaskar in 1993. The stratum dated to the cretaceous, or 70 million years ago and the frog remains were among dinosaur and crocodile fossils. Krause’ team recently had enough frog bones to piece together, and then to propose what the creature looked like and may have weighed. The animal was 16 inches (40 cms) across and weighed 5 kg and had heavy armour and teeth. The teeth and powerful jaws suggest that the frog could kill and eat most small vertebrates and even new-born dinosaurs! The picture is so formidable that the scientists have dubbed the frog Beelzebufo, or devil toad.


But another feature of the frog’s bones is that they resemble those of the South American horned Pacman and it did not take long for frog fossil experts Susan Evans and Mark Jones to identify the ancient frogs of Madagaskar and the animals of South America as close relatives!




This is yet another instance of common or closely related plant and animal species being found off the African coast and in South America, to suggest that the two regions were once land-linked.




There is geological evidence that the land masses of Australasia, Antarctica, South Africa, Madagascar, India and South America were once part of a single continent that geologists call Gonwanaland or Gondwana.  While the great mass was afloat upon the molten mantle below, about 70 million years ago, Gondwana began to break up under the effects of the shifting base.  Perhaps mantle plumes, which are rising currents of moten rock, softened thinner parts of the crust and caused fissures, perhaps the heat and energy caused stress that cause fractures, but Gonwana began to separate into bits.


To conserve the energy spent, the bits began to drift and large portions formed the continents of Antarctica, Australia, South America, South Africa, the Indian sub-continent. The African continent separated first, and from it the South American mass. Antarctica remained almost stationary, while India-Madasgascar and Australia broke off later. India-Madagascar-Seychelles separated and the landmasses moved considerable distances, some earlier, some later.


Important supporting evidence is the flora and fauna, displaying common ancestry, which are common and unique to these present-day continents. For example, marsupials are found both in Australia and South America. A family of flowering plants, known as Proteaceae, are found in Australia, South and Central Africa, South and Central America, India, Eastern and South-eastern Asia. Proteaceous pollen is abundant in coal deposits more than 90 million years old, which indicates the period when the pollen spread to these then connected land masses.


In this context, the discovery of the Devil Toad in Madagaskar is a convincing piece of evidence – a genus that once lived and went extinct in the East thrived and is abundant in South America! The discovery has been reported in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on 26th Feb 2008. The study was also funded by the National Geographic Society.

[the writer can be contacted at]

Burning Issues

Forest Fires in Nilgiri Biosphere

Forest Fires in Nilgiri Biosphere


-Susan Sharma


Friends, who visited Thekkady recently, reported good sightings of wild elephant herds.  Parts of Mudumalai bordering Kerala too witnessed moving herds.  The herds were fleeing the forest fires raging in Wayanad and parts of Nagarhole National Park.  Forest Fires in over 6,000 sq km of the precious Nilgiris forests, a heritage ecosystem, has become an annual feature in the months of February/March.




What do forest fires do?


Hundreds of species birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and other micro organisms are wiped out in the fires.  Young ones and eggs of ground nesting birds like nightjars, larks, lapwings, peahens and so on are destroyed.  The young ones of mammals, reptiles and other slow moving fauna are also consumed since they  have no escape route. Ground fires also burn down useful wild herbivore forage and replace edible species with inedible exotic invader species like Chromolaena weed. This can upset the natural composition of the whole forest itself.


According to Dr Ullas Karanth, “repeated forest fires will encourage fire hardy species and eliminate floral species that are highly susceptible to human induced fires. And over a period of time ‘fire climax vegetation’ will dominate the area”. Fire hardy species like Anogeisus latifolia (Dhaura), Cassia fistula (Indian Leburnum) will take over, affecting the diversity and floral composition of the area as seen in some parts of Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Some weeds like Euputorium and Lantana have the capacity to regenerate better and flourish using the burnt plant material as fertilizing compost.





The most effective prevention method of fighting fires is the elaborate network of fire lines and continuous vigil by the protection staff during the crucial fire season. Watchtowers at crucial points which give good overview of large parts of the area, effective communication network, and mobility to reach affected areas swiftly are all important factors for effective fire protection. More funds, men and material have to be allocated to the forest department to check forest fires.


Proficient vigil and effective prevention measures could prevent fires even in areas with high density of flowered bamboo-a case in point is Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.   Forest department has reported very minimal fires in the whole of the reserve in the last three years.  Educating  local communities, students, and teachers residing around protected areas prevents negligent fires or man-made fires with criminal intentions. 


( Photograph of burnt forests in Wayanad range by Susan Sharma)


Common Birds of India

Purple Sunbird.(Nectarina asiatica )

 Purple Sunbird.(Nectarina asiatica )



It is summer down here in the south and most of the flowering trees are in full bloom. This is when one can see a good flock of Purple sunbirds swarming to savour the nectar.


  A small bird typical of the size of all sunbirds with a slender long curved beak flitting from flowering tree to tree with a glistening purple plumage, almost iridescent, with a few rust brown and yellow patch on the chest is the male Purple sunbird in breeding plumage. The females are a paler olive brown above and pale yellow under parts. The male in non-breeding season looses much of his glistening colors and looks almost like the female except for a black stripe running down the chest.


Distribution is throughout the country. The best time to observe these birds in the best of their radiant colors is when most of the forest trees bloom in summer months. Come summer and the trees burst with nectar filled flowers and the purple sunbird is a sure guest to feed on these nectar filled blooms. They literally arrive in flocks of 20 to 30 birds, the males claiming territory and nectar rights on trees, chasing away the other male contenders. The females quietly hover around the birds, typical of all sunbirds, and go about their feeding spree.


Its is really a sight to see these birds hovering very close to the underside of the bell shaped flowers and sending their long curved slender beaks into the flowers to draw nectar. Their wing beats are so rapid, the bird almost looks suspended in mid-air drawing nectar. These birds habit gardens with flowering trees, and shrubs. They are more easy in the deciduous forests surrounding villages. They somehow avoid thickly populated urban areas unlike the Purple-rumped sunbird.


The breeding male is a very proud bird, who keeps uttering the typical sunbird.cheewit....cheeevit...cheevit..raising and lowering his wings constantly displaying brilliant yellow and scarlet tufts under his armpits.

Apart from nectar these birds also relish a lot of spiders and other small insects they find under the leaves. The brood of chicks is brought up on insects and spider diet. March to may is the breeding season.


The nest is again typical of all sunbirds, a long pendulous pouch of soft dried grasses and held together by cob-webs. Only the female builds the nest while the male is just being a scout looking for any intrusions and alerting her. They usually select a long slender bough, which will be swaying in the winds to build a nest. Perhaps this keeps egg stealers from venturing close to the nest. Two or three greyish or greenish white eggs with blotches of various brown hues are laid. Only the female incubates. Once the chicks are hatched the male also steps in like a dutiful father and feeds the chicks along with the female. The female keeps the nest tidy by removing all the droppings of the chicks from the nests. Perhaps this helps in preventing any fungus formation inside the nests.

A marvelous creation of nature, these birds are the main agents for fertilization of some trees. Their activity keeps our forests going with new seeds forming to get dispersed and keep the ecology going.



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