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Myristica swamps – the disappearing paradise of the Indian Western Ghats

Myristica swamps – the name itself gives a sense of mystery and foreboding as if it has been taken straight out of a crime fiction novel (like the moors from The Hound of Baskervilles). However, these swamps are very much real and are a hotbed of biodiversity. They are found, mainly, at two locations in India namely, the Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka and southern parts of Kerela. There are also small patches of these swamps in Goa. All these locations are in the Western Ghats which is known for being a biodiversity hotspot and is also the main source of water for the major rivers of south India such as Cauvery and Periyar.

I was fortunate to have had a chance to visit this rare ecosystem at Agumbe in Karnataka during the monsoon of 2016. The tropical rainforests of Agumbe are of great significance to conservationists as they are rich in biodiversity and sensitive to any sort of external disturbances.

Agumbe rainforest

Myristica swamps are evergreen freshwater swamp forests which are completely inundated during the monsoons and remain water-logged for most part of the year. They are mostly found within valleys that are below 300 metres elevation into which the water from the higher slopes drains. The name ‘Myristica’ comes from the genus name of a particular type of trees found here which are classified under the family Myristicaceae. The plants belonging to Myristicaceae family are considered to be the most primitive flowering plants on earth and form a major part of the vegetation of these swamps. The most abundant species of trees found here are Gymnacranthera farguhariana and Myristica fatua (Wild Nutmeg) and they are rarely found outside the swamps. Many of the tree species found here are endemic to Western Ghats. Although, the swamps are rich in biodiversity and form a unique ecosystem, they have been studied very less compared to other parts of Western Ghats.

The same way that human beings cannot breathe under water, most terrestrial plants cannot survive under water-logged conditions since the roots get clogged and are unable absorb Oxygen from the soil. However, the plant species found in these swamps have adapted to survive in such conditions. This adaptation is seen in the form of stilt roots or knee roots which emerge above the soil and take up Oxygen from the air rather than the soil. Similar kind of aerial roots called pneumatophores are given out by mangrove trees which grow in the saltwater estuaries found in coastal regions. These areas also remain inundated for almost the entire year. This is an interesting example of how species from two different ecosystems have evolved similar adaptations to combat the water-logging problem which is common to both these ecosystems.

Myristica swamps consist of a dense network of streams

Myristica species showing knee roots

Since I visited during the monsoon season, most parts of the forest were inundated as expected and the thick foliage blotted out any remaining sunlight which managed to escape through the dense rainclouds. As I waded through the dense network of streams surrounded by lofty trees forming a canopy of leaves overhead, I half-expected an anaconda to sweep down from behind as one sees in movies. But then, this was not the Amazon rainforest. It was more likely that a King Cobra was hiding in a hole nearby, away from the blundering human beings. The thought was both frightening and thrilling. The fruit of the wild nutmeg tree added a spicy and rich flavour to the air around and we felt our senses heightening and our appetites increasing. It was refreshing and rejuvenating.

Biodiversity of Myristica Swamps

 Agumbe, known as the cherrapunji of the south, is a small village located in the Shimoga district of Karnataka. It is known for its misty mornings due to the dense fog which forms here. It receives around 300 inches of mean annual rainfall. I experienced the full blast of monsoon and was drenched to the bone, the moment I got off the bus. During my visit, I was staying at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) which was set up by eminent Herpetologist, Romulus Whitaker in 2005. There were a few other visitors from all over the country who went on the forest walks along with me. We were, of course, accompanied by a naturalist, Mr. Dhiraj Bhaisare, who worked at the research station.

As a wildlife enthusiast, I have visited a modest number of ecosystems in India. I have seen the vast Shola grasslands of Kudremukh in Karnataka and the indomitable marshes of Kaziranga in Assam. I have climbed the Himalayan mountains in Kashmir and played with Himalayan Marmots. I have even seen the resilient wildlife in the desert ecosystem of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. But none of these experiences prepared me for the wonderland of Myristica swamps. Within minutes of arriving at ARRS, we were introduced to a heady number of geckos, frogs, birds and insects. The show stopper was a pair of Malabar gliding frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus) whom we found in amplexus (a mating position in which the male rides on the back of the female. Yes, that’s correct!) near a pond. The bright green frogs with their bright pink limbs were a sight to behold!

The male malabar tree frog rides on the back of the female during mating

The Myristica swamps are rich in biodiversity and house a large number of endemic species of plants and animals. There are many different species of amphibians and reptiles found here and they are completely dependent on the swamps for survival. At every corner of the forest there would be something interesting to see. Either it would be a Malabar Giant Squirrel or a Malabar Pied Hornbill or a bright green Vine Snake. We even spotted a shimmering bluish-black damselfly called Myristica Sapphire (Calocypha laidlawi) which is found only in these swamps. There is also an astonishing variety of snakes here, the chief among them being the King Cobra. However, we could not spot one during our visit. We saw several other snakes including the Malabar Pit Viper, Wayanad Shieldtail, common bronzeback tree snake and plenty of green Vine Snakes. The Wayanad Shieldtail caught my fancy as it had shiny dark blue scales all over its body which glittered beautifully in the sun. It is a harmless worm-like snake which dwells underground and feeds on earthworms! It broke all the scary stereotypes associated with snakes.

A vine snake

Most parts of the trek involved wading through streams. This was the most convenient way to observe the wildlife as you need not disturb the plant and animal life on land and can escape from leech bites. It would be appropriate to say that the network of streams are the roads here. During one such walk, the forest opened up to reveal a gushing stream. Mr Bhaisare informed us that he had a surprise to show us here. We waited eagerly as he went searching for something among the rocks surrounding the stream. Finally, he stopped near a large rock and beckoned us. We went slowly towards him and bent down to see what he was pointing at. It was a frog. But it was not just any frog. It is called as the dancing frog (Micrixalus sp.), endemic to this region. The males of this frog species show a unique foot-flagging behaviour to attract females during mating. It accompanies its characteristic croaking along with a waving motion using one of its hind legs. Hence, the name dancing frog is used commonly for it. Since, these frogs are mainly found on the rocks surrounding gushing streams, naturalists believe that the waving motion is performed so that the females can spot the frogs easily through the water mist created by the stream. However, this is just a hypothesis and the dancing frogs still remain a mystery to us. To watch a video of this frog click here.

During the night treks we saw some shy nocturnal mammals such as the slender loris which is a slow moving animal like the sloth and spiders like tarantulas who would disappear at the slightest sound or movement. For me, the most vivid experience during the night trek happened when we reached a really dark location in the forest. As our eyes got used the darkness, the tree trunks around us seemed to glow with an eerie greenish light. That is when Mr. Bhaisare informed us that it was due to bioluminescent fungi. The sight was magical and will remain etched in my memory forever.

During monsoons, many different kinds of mushrooms spring up from the ground

A bright red Lichen

Conservation of the swamps

During the walks through the forests we came across many locations were the trees seemed to have been cleared. These were large clearings which now looked like grasslands. Mr. Bhaisare informed us that long before these areas were declared as protected, patches of these forests would be cleared for paddy cultivation. This has proven disastrous for the swamps. The problem is that once these swamps are cleared it is almost impossible to rejuvenate them. The cleared area usually becomes a grassland and remains so for decades. Already, a large portion of these swamps has been lost due to conversion of large acres of the forest land into paddy fields or into Arecanut, coffee and rubber plantations. Some of them were submerged to give way to hydel and irrigation projects or have been burnt down due to shifting cultivation. There is also the additional threat of diversion of streams to feed agricultural lands. There is a need to involve local farmers and forest dwellers in the conservation of these swamps and create awareness among them about the valuable biodiversity found here.

Studies have shown that the populations of many of the endemic species of plants and animals in these swamps have dwindled drastically and are almost on the verge of extinction. Myristica swamps are a treasure trove of primeval and endemic life and are of great significance for studies related to evolutionary biology. A study conducted by scientists from Agarkar Research Institute, Pune discovered plant fossils which were nearly 44,000 years old along the coast of konkan from which it has been deduced that in the past these swamps would have covered large portions of the western ghats forming a glorious network of watersheds feeding the life-giving rivers of the south.

However, today this diverse yet fragile ecosystem is restricted to less than 200 hectares in the entire country and is almost on the verge of extinction.

Learnings

To conserve an ecosystem, it is important to first study it thoroughly. Unfortunately, in the case of Myristica swamps, there is still need for more scientific information, especially regarding the flora and fauna. The behaviour of species belonging to genus Micrixalus and countless such amphibians is yet to be studied thoroughly. On top of that there are new genera of frogs being discovered within these swamps. A few years back a team of researchers from Wildlife Disease Research Lab, Wayanad and George Washington University, U.S. discovered two new genera of frogs namely, Beddomixalus and Mercurana. The number of undiscovered species hidden in these swamps maybe astonishing.

An alarming thought is that these species maybe lost even before they can be discovered due to the danger of habitat loss and destruction of these swamps. Climate change is also another factor which may lead to the extinction of many species especially of amphibians and reptiles as they are more sensitive to changes in their environment.

Another lesson I drew from this experience is that, many of us get so caught up in the hunt to see large and popular animals such as tigers, lions, elephants etc. that we tend to ignore smaller and less attention grabbing animals such as frogs and insects. However, these animals, although small, are an equally important backbone of any ecosystem. At Agumbe, I got to see the wide variety and extreme beauty of these tiny beings and they awed me as much as the sighting of a tiger would have. We must learn to appreciate each and every animal that is part of the wild and give equal importance to their conservation.

Conclusion

Although I have visited several areas in the Western Ghats, none of them have left such a lasting impression as the Myristica swamps of Agumbe. The variety of endemic flora and fauna observed here is really impressive. The diversity in the amphibian, avian, reptilian and insect population, is remarkable.

But what really astonished me was the amount of freshwater that is accumulated by these forests. The entire trip we were wading through a dense network of streams meandering through the swamps. Without these forests most of this water would simply flow away as runoff, stripping the land of the top layer of fertile soil. The flora of these forests hold the soil together and collect the water seeping underground to form these slow-moving streams which feed the major rivers of South India.

I realised that without these forests in the Western ghats it wouldn’t be possible for rivers such as Cauvery to exist and most of south India would, probably, have been a dry and unyielding desert. The slow extinction of this diverse and vital ecosystem is alarming and needs to be arrested.

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