Monday, 20 October 2008

Sticky matters.


I led a 17-day "Christmas Bird watching Tour" in December, 2004, for a reputed British nature tour operator. Its ground handing was done by a local travel agency to which I freelanced at that time. This tour stays in my mind for a number reasons.

First, the unfortunate reasons:

1. Briefed and given in writing as a "mostly bird watching oriented tour," this tour had five English people that included:

i. A nature photographer with a keen interest in wild flowers.
ii. A walking enthusiast who just liked to keep on walking.
iii. A natural history enthusiast with a passion for photography and a passing interest in birds.
iv. A hardcore birder who was heavily into listing.
v. A person who didn’t fall into either of the above categories.

It was like a challenge that Donald Trump would have chosen for the final episode of the Apprentice. I did my best to juggle all the balls without dropping any. What can I say,  it was a good learning curve!

2. The Boxing Day Tsunami, which caused havoc killing over 40,000 people in Sri Lanka alone, happened during this tour. We were mopping up the montane endemics at the cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park—the tallest plateau in Sri Lanka some 2,100 m above sea level—when the killer tidal waves devastated the coastal lowlands. And we were to visit this area in two days’ time!

I had the tour rerouted thereafter to stay away from the affected lowlands. I also decided to spend more time in the unaffected endemic rich wet lowlands.

And now, the fortunate reasons:

1. More time in the wet lowlands didn’t harm our burgeoning bird list one bit. This was the first tour in which I showed the avian jewel Serendib Scops Owl Otus thilohoffmanni to an overseas bird watching audience, after its discovery in Jan, 2001. Needless to say, it was a momentous day for mankind!

2. I made a clean sweep all 33 endemic birds on this trip—for the first time having started my guiding career in January in the same year. As a budding bird guide, it was an important rite of passage.

3. An observation that I made at Sinharaja "world heritage" rain forest became the subject of my maiden paper to a peer-reviewed ornithological journal. It is—

Salgado, A. (2006). Some observations on the diet of Red-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus in Sri Lanka. Sandy (UK): Forktail Journal of Oriental Bird Club. 22: 122-123.

Click here to download a PDF of it.

Anyway, what I am trying to get at like Sir. Humphrey Appleby is to correct an error that had slipped in the above article by me.

In it, I had a ‘giant stick insect’ preyed upon by a Red-faced Malkoha identified as Palophus sp (Order Phasmatodea) after comparing it with what I thought at that time to be a reliable source of reference.

On 14 October, 2008 its identity was corrected by a world authority on stick insects: Dr. Frank H. Hennemann from Germany, thanks to intervention by Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe who is a Sri Lankan Entomologist/Systematic Biologist based in the USA.

Accordingly, it is an adult female of Phobaeticus hypharpax (Westwood, 1859).

The classification being:
Order: Phasmatodea. Suborder: Anareolatae. Family: Phasmatidae Subfamily: Phasmatinae Tribe: Pharnaciini.

A better view of the Giant stick insect. Note the rear left limb is a result of an optical illusion created by a limb like branch behind. The actual left rear limb was broken off by the time I took this shot as this was photographed after the above
Dr. Hennemann disclosed that the locality data for all but one of the specimens lodged in the world museums including the type specimen from which Westwood named this species bear nothing beyond "Ceylon."

Therefore, he, was quite happy to receive the locality data of my Phobaeticus hypharpax that eventually ended up in the gut of the above Red-faced Malkoha.

Very interestingly, on 15 October, a day after this e-mail communication, Dr. Hennemann had a revision of the very Tribe: Pharnaciini published in Zootaxa in the form of a 316 paged paper, which included, the above species.

The reference is:
Frank H. Hennemann & Oskar V. Conle (2008). Revision of Oriental Phasmatodea: The tribe Pharnaciini Günther, 1953, including the description of the world's longest insect, and a survey of the family Phasmatidae Gray, 1835 with keys to the subfamilies and tribes (Phasmatodea: "Anareolatae": Phasmatidae. Zootaxa 1906: 1-316 pp. Auckland, New Zealand: Magnolia Press.

According to the above, and as per a personal communication by Dr. Hennemann, in addition to the above species, Sri Lanka has one more species belonging to the tribe: Pharnaciini, which is Phobaeticus lobulatus (Carl, 1915). Its body length is 162.0 mm and is a very similar species to P. hypharpax, which has a body length of 185.0–236.0 mm. The former is only known from the female holotype with the locality data reading again as "Ceylon" only. So far, it has never been recorded since its original discovery in 1915 according to him.

By the way, the world’s longest insect, referred in the title of the aforementioned stick insect revision paper is (drumroll, please) Phobaeticus chani—Chan's megastick from Borneo—with a body length of 333.5–357.0 mm. Its overall length with the limbs stretched out is a whopping 567mm!

This is a completely new species described based on a specimen in the collection of a Malaysian naturalist and insect collector from Sabah Borneo, Chan Chew Lun, who had received it from a local collector. Dr. Philip Bragg named it in honour of Chan who had donated his world record holding megastick to the British Museum of Natural History.

If you are really into sizing up your megasticks, the former record holder for the world’s longest insect title based on body length was Phobaeticus kirbyi with 317.0mm., which is also found in Sabah, Borneo. So the newly described Chan's megastick is 40mm longer!

The former record holder for the overall length with the limbs stretched out was Phobaeticus serratipes distributed in Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia of which one has been measured at 555mm.

The new megastick on the block has beaten that record too by 12mm. However, this recorded would have been greater by 7–10 mm if the specimen of Phobaeticus chani donated by Chan Chew Lun had not been damaged according to Hennemann and Conle, 2008.

So no matter how you size up, the Malaysians get to retain the coveted world record title for the world’s longest insect by a long margin. I am sure Tabib, who is a regular visitor to my blog from Malaysia, will be proud about this.

I’d like to conclude this post by saying a big thank you to Dr. Hennemann for taking his valuable time to help with the identification of my megastick. Last but not least my profound gratitude is due to Dr. Priyantha Wijesinghe, for sending my images to Dr. Hennemann to seek his expert opinion and communicating to me the same and putting me in touch with such a world authority.

21 comments:

Patrick Belardo said...

You are forgiven by me! I had been holding a grudge against you for this mistake for years. :) Seriously, is that the insect in the picture shown or is that an actual stick?

Tabib said...

Hi Amila!

Yes, I fell proud of fellow Malaysian achievement. I story was features in The Star Newspaper on 18/10/08.
Look like my country have a lot of this Stick Insects - time for me to find one! :)

Gallicissa said...

Thanks, Patrick!
I am glad you've forgiven me!
It is the actual megastick.

Since you have inquired, I have added a second photograph to the above post showing better details of the actual Giant stick insect.

Note: the rear left limb seen in it is a result of an optical illusion created by a limb like branch behind. The actual left rear limb was broken off by the time I took this shot as this was photographed after the above. Click here to see an image taken towards the end of this forging observation.

p.s. In the image shown right at the top, a branch that sticked in front of the face of the bird (seen in the original image) was edited off by friend of mine, who is good at things like that!

Gallicissa said...

Hi Tabib,
Glad you felt proud of your counry's world records. Thanks for the link.

Yes, you seemed to have a pretty impressive membership in the Tribe: Pharnaciini with
Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore having 7 and Borneo 8 according to Hennemann and Conle, 2008.

oldcrow61 said...

You must forgive me if I'm laughing here but what a predicament you must have been in with all those people with such different interests. Sounds like you got through it all. A beautiful picture of that bird.

spookydragonfly said...

What a beautiful bird, this Malkoha! I enjoy viewing some of your rewards from your tours. Hard to believe that is an insect the Malkoha has.

Preveen said...

Ha, how strange. I was birding myself when the tsunami hit. But I was a lot closer to the action, namely Bundala. I dunno who was watching over us, but we didn't even realize the extent of the event until we got back to Colombo. When we got out of Bundala the guys at the gate were telling us Hambanthota was flooded and underwater, so we came back via Ratnapura just to be safe. Damn close call tho.

And that is a damn good pic, specially if the EXIF data on your flickr is correct. 4x optical P&S? Damn.

Gallicissa said...

Hi Oldcrow!
I learnt that hardcore birders + natural history enthusiasts + photographers + walkers + others...can be highly flammable mixture when brewed over 17 days! I am glad I survived to tell this story.

Thanks, spookydragonfly
That Red-faced Malkoha first appeared like as if it was holding some nesting material in its beak. This is a bird of the cuckoo family but unlike most cuckoos, which are brood parasitic, this rain forest cuckulid makes its own nest. Therefore, my initial suspicions were not complexly unfounded.

Hi Preveen,
You are very lucky! I know a few people who perished at Hambantota/Yala area.

That Exif data is correct. That shot was taken by digiscoping - combining my Nikon Coolpix 4500 with my Kowa telescope.

S.C.E. said...

I'd never given stick insects a moment's thought until I read this..............

Interesting mixture of people on that tour. Did they come to blows?

Gallicissa said...

Glad to hear that, Stu.

'Did they come to blows?'

Luckily no. I was a convenient scapegoat for some of them - having booked the wrong tour!

david said...

Wow, those pictures are amazing! What an awesome insect (and bird, too).

Gallicissa said...

Thanks David.
Good to hear from you. I will drop by to explore your interesting site soon.

Java Jones said...

Brilliant shots, Amila - as usual!

Gallicissa said...

Thanks Java. The shot on the top is the best of a series - glad I was able to freeze it.

Leedra said...

You have beautiful photographs on your blog.

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Very interesting information, even if far, far beyond my knowledge to truly appreciate.

I cannot imagine encountering one of the megastick creatures. I'll just concentrate on the beautiful bird, and not its prey.

Gallicissa said...

Thank you, Leedra.
Pleased to hear from you.

Hi Pat,
I had a sighting of a probable Phobaeticus hypharpax (considering the size) not too long ago, but for some reason, I didn't feel like photographing it!

And I am quite annoyed with myself now!

Mel said...

Hola Amila,
Great post as usual. I'm glad to know that you got new information on previous writings, it's always exciting to learn!
Amazing pictures!!
Cheers from Peru,
Mel

Gallicissa said...

Hola Mel!
Thank you.
Pleased to hear from Peru.
I will drop by in yours soon.

The Right Blue said...

Amila, every time I visit your blog, I wish I lived closer to Sri Lanka! I would love to go on a birding/nature photography tour with you, but alas you are almost literally on the other side of the planet from Hawaii.

Gallicissa said...

Thanks Bobbie.

It would fantastic to spend some time with you in the field. I hope our paths will cross one of these days.

You'll like Sri Lanka!

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