Land-use changes put rocky addresses of animals under stress in Maharashtra’s Sahyadri plateau

In the first experiment of its kind, scientists upturned some 7,000 loose rocks to find how creatures from ants to snakes respond to land-use changes in rocky habitats.

July 28, 2023 12:26 pm | Updated July 29, 2023 12:40 am IST - GUWAHATI

A plateau with scattered rocks and herbaceous plants in flowering.

A plateau with scattered rocks and herbaceous plants in flowering. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The rapid shift from traditional local grain cultivation to monoculture plantations of mango and cashew in the Sahyadri plateaus of Maharashtra is impacting elusive amphibians, insects, and reptiles that live under a crop of loose rocks. 

A team of five scientists upturned more than 7,000 rocks over a considerable period of time to find out how animals ranging from ants to snakes are responding to land-use changes in rocky habitats. Their study has been published in the Global Ecology and Conservation, a peer-reviewed international journal. 

The study was carried out by Vijayan Jithin, Manali Rane, Aparna Watve, Varad Giri, and Rohit Naniwadekar representing Nature Conservation Foundation-India (NCF), Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), and the Ahmedabad-based Reliance Foundation. 

The endemic and threatened white-striper viper gecko under a rock.

The endemic and threatened white-striper viper gecko under a rock. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The animals the scientists focussed on included the white-striped viper gecko (Hemidactylus albofasciatus) reported only from small parts of the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra, the Seshachari’s caecilian (Gegeneophis seshachari), a unique legless amphibian that mostly lives under soil, the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), ants, spiders, and scorpions. 

The loose rocks shelter these animals – some endemic and threatened – from scorching heat during summer and heavy monsoon rains. They have evolved to survive on the rocky plateaus, but their adaptability to changing conditions may not be enough for the pace of shift in the land-use pattern. 

“The rapidly changing agricultural trends in the rock outcrops include abandoning traditional local grain cultivation, and establishing monoculture plantations of mango and cashew by destroying the natural plateaus,” Ms. Rane, the co-author of the study and a researcher at BEAG said. 

Baseline established 

“More intensive studies are needed to understand how the socio-ecological impacts traditional paddy abandonment benefits an amphibian, while orchards impact other animals negatively in rock outcrops,” she added. 

The rapid expansion of mango orchards has resulted in the conversion of more than 25,000 hectares of lateritic plateaus. 

“We found less than 30 animals under more than 7,000 rocks on multiple plateaus we surveyed, indicating their rarity. Given their rarity and vulnerability to change due to ever-increasing orchards, representative plateau habitats need to be preserved in partnership with local communities who are the owners of the land,” Dr. Naniwadekar of NCF said. 

A saw-scaled viper under an upturned rock.

A saw-scaled viper under an upturned rock. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Many of the animals we recorded under the rocks are very poorly known, and we do not know how their disappearance from the plateaus impacts the ecosystem services they provide to us. Since many of these animals are unique, and sensitive to the changes we make on the plateaus, even removing a rock can have cascading impacts on biodiversity,” Mr. Jithin of the Bengaluru-based NCF and the lead author of the study said. 

By comparing the lesser-known rock-dwelling animal communities in plateaus, abandoned paddy fields and orchards, the team established the baseline for their conservation. “The data generated from the study could help conserve the plateaus as biodiversity heritage sites,” Mr Jithin said. 

The study was supported by the United Kingdom-based On the Edge Conservation, the Habitat Trust (India) and the Maharashtra Forest Department apart from BEAG and NCF.

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