A small team of people of all age groups makes its way cautiously through the rocky shores of Visakhapatnam beach. All eyes are on the ground as they get down on their knees to scrutinise the rockpools. Every now and then, they pause, bring out their mobile phones to click a picture, and jot down notes. They are a part of a citizen science project called Intertidal Biodiversity of Andhra Pradesh initiated by the Visakhapatnam-based East Coast Conservation Team (ECCT) to record flora and fauna of lesser-studied marine ecosystems from the region.
Over the past one year, the citizen science project has documented nearly 150 species along Visakhapatnam’s coast on iNaturalist, a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists to map and share observations of biodiversity across the globe. The project is being done in collaboration with Visakhapatnam-based startup Wilded by organising coastal walks and educating people about intertidal explorations by a team of marine biologists.
This is the first time intertidal species are being documented along the coast, throwing light on many interesting species that are important indicators of the health of the marine ecosystem of the region.
In the recent past, a unique species of nudibranch sea slugs were documented by citizen scientists and naturalists on the Visakhapatnam shore. “These do not have shells and their gills are exposed. These sea slugs are found in places with abundant prey base which may vary from sponges, hydroids and algae. The nudibranchs are usually found in coral reefs. So their presence here is a significant indicator of a strong coral ecosystem,” says Sri Chakra Pranav Tamarapalli, founder of ECCT.
The nudibranchs species were spotted by Pranav along with the co-founder of ECCT Vimal Raj, naturalist Samuel Prakash, birdwatcher Janardhan Uppada and other citizen scientists.
On one of the morning coastal walks in Bheemili 25 kilometres from Visakhapatnam, Janardhan spotted a peculiar brownish blob with black and white speckling amid the rockpools. This was one of the first records of the shaggy seahare from the coast. “The shaggy seahare mainly feeds on algae and is usually seen in large numbers when there is algal bloom,” notes Janardhan.
Samuel Prakash recorded two species of sap-eating sea slugs from genus Elysia. “These are the only photosynthetic animals in the world. These snails not only drink sap from algae but also can store chloroplast from the algae in their skin and do photosynthesis in absence of food,” says Samuel, a Chennai-based naturalist who has been recording the intertidal species of the coast before the citizen science project started.
While most of the nudibranchs are active through the day, there are some species that are nocturnal in nature. During one of his research walks at Rushikonda coast, Pranav stumbled upon the Poindimie’s Phyllodesmium, a slender, translucent species of seaslug that amazingly camouflages in snow flake corals. “It just looks like a flower amidst the corals. They feed on snowflake corals and retain their stingers in cerata or the hair-like structures in their back,” says Pranav.
Military phidiana, blue dragon, joruna, hypsilodoris, Gem doris are some other beautiful recorded from the Visakhapatnam coast. Some of these are sea slugs that feed on sponges and are very colorful in nature.
Visakhapatnam’s coastline is 135 kilometres long, with rocky, sandy and muddy shores with occasional estuaries and mangroves at some places. “A lot of it is under-studied. Through the citizen science project, we are conducting periodical walks to highlight these hidden ecosystems on the coast,” says Pranav.