The Loten’s sunbird is found in the middle-elevations of the Palani Hills, and plays a crucial role in pollination. Photo: Noopuran Sivaguru

Photo Story: Little Wonders of the Wild

While walking through a forest, our eyes are usually drawn to the bigger shapes—boulders, tall, magnificent trees, large animals—and many of us miss the smaller creatures around us: the beetles, moss, butterflies and birds that are vital to the well-being of the forest.

Years ago, the mighty tree was but a small seed, that was probably dropped by a passing flycatcher bird. As it grew into a tree, so did moss and lichen on its wet bark, protecting it from the elements and feeding insect colonies in the vicinity. The insects, in turn, provide for the snakes, birds and lizards that now hide in the tree’s many crevices. By the tree’s roots, an orchid blooms, inviting bees, butterflies and moths… Under the ground, fungal networks send and receive signals across the forest through intricate mycelium—a wood wide web. And the story goes on.

In nature, every being, small and big, is a vital cog in the universe. The Palani Hills harbour a myriad of flora and fauna, each playing significant roles—far greater than their size—in their environment. Meet some of these lesser-known, hardworking critters from the forests around Kodaikanal.

The tiny Nilgiri flycatcher, Eumyias albicaudatus, one of the Old World flycatcher species, grows to barely about 13cm in adulthood. The one seen here is a juvenile, its plumage not yet the bright indigo blue that adults sport. But its diminutive size doesn’t stop it from savouring everything from small insects, ants and larger worms to almost all fruits and seeds! Like other omnivorous birds, it spreads seeds far and wide, ensuring the continuous growth of the forest. (Photo: Noopuran Sivaguru)
 
A bean pod borer, Maruca vitrata, on a lamp in a home in Prakashapuram, Kodai. This tiny moth-like insect may look unassuming and innocent, but its larvae are known to wreak havoc on crops. They devour legume crops, including beans and peas, and are considered quite a pest, by farmers. True moths, on the other hand, have a mostly liquid diet: tree sap, flower nectar, honeydew and even the juices that ooze from decaying fruits. As bean pod borers are nocturnal, they take on the night shift of pollinating flower species that open up in the late evenings. Photo: Manini Bansal
The gorgeous British soldier Lichen Cladonia cristatella, pictured here amidst a sea of Leucobryum moss, is one of the many lichen species that grow in the Kodaikanal region. A combination of fungus and algae or cyanobacteria, lichen are a keystone species, playing multiple vital roles across the ecosystem. They offer nesting materials for birds, are food for caterpillars and snails, and protect the trees and rocks they grow on from the elements. They are also known as a pioneer species, as they can grow on rocks without soil and are often the first form of life to grow there. They can also weather rocks and stones, breaking them down and recycling nutrients in the ecosystem. Photo: Manini Bansal
Mosses, like this Brachythecium species, are also considered pioneer species. They are so adaptable that they are often the first to grow in empty land patches. All they need is some shade, moisture and acidity to thrive. The tiny brown stalks with cylindrical tips seen here are the moss fruiting bodies. Mosses carpet rocks and tree bark, breaking them down to release nutrients back into the soil. They also absorb water and hold soil together, preventing erosion. Photo: Manini Bansal
First described from the Kodai hills, the Kodaikanal bush frog, Raorchestes dubois, is also found in nearby hills like Munnar. Often, members of this same species have different colourations and appearances in the same area. A grassland species, it is endemic to the Western Ghats and is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. These frogs feed on plenty of insects in their lifetime and are also food for snakes and birds. Photo: Biju P.B
They may be itsy-bitsy, but spiders occupy a key niche in nature. They are voracious predators of insects, keeping the population of species like ants, beetles and aphids in check. While some spiders weave intricate webs to catch prey, this jumping spider, Brettus cingulatus, enjoys ambush-hunting other web spiders. It lures them to the edge of their web by plucking the outer strings and grabs them when nearby. Photo: Ajith Padiyar
Like butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are also bioindicators, as they are found only along fresh, clean streams which are vital to their life cycle. In their larval stage they feed on tadpoles and tiny fish, and as adults they eat insects, keeping their numbers in check.
 
The Esme cyaneovittata, pictured here, is a damselfly belonging to the family Platycnemididae. It is endemic to the Western Ghats south of the Palghat Gap. Damselflies and dragonflies, collectively called odonates, are one of the oldest winged creatures, going back 250 million years. Photo: Surya Ramachandran
 
The Kodaikanal region is home to numerous snake species, from the venomous krait to the harmless rat snake. In comparison to these reptilian residents, the collared cat snake, Boiga nuchalis, is quite small and usually snacks on lizards but also on occasion frogs and geckos that live in their tropical evergreen and moist deciduous forests. As night descends, they wake from their day slumber to hunt, keeping the balance of the ecosystem.  Photo: Ajith Padiyar
 

Abinaya Kalyanasundaram

Abinaya Kalyanasundaram is a writer, editor, photographer and architect who loves weaving visual narratives about the natural world. She is currently Senior Editor at Sanctuary Asia, and has previously worked with The New Indian Express, She loves gardening, free-verse poetry, exploring wildernesses, and her two cats Cocoa and Caramel.

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