Kaas: More Than A Flower Haven
It was a close friend, Varun Vaze, a management student by training and a keen wildlife enthusiast from Pune, who initiated our hunt when he called to ask me, “How do you search for a trapdoor spider?” He was in the Satara district at the time, hoping to explore the Kaas valley region for spiders.
Photograph by Dr. Anish Andheria.
I gave him a brief description of the methods Rajesh Sanap and I usually use to locate trapdoor spider burrows. Imagine my surprise a day later, when he called and claimed to have found seven trapdoor spiders of the genus Idiops. He e-mailed several images and I confirmed his identification, however, we were unable to identify the exact species despite close examination and comparison with all known species. Only three species of the genus were known from Maharashtra, none of which matched the female spiders spotted by Varun. We knew that finding mature male specimens was vital for an accurate identification.
Leaving no stone unturned
Since male trapdoor spiders reach maturity in time for the breeding season, which is usually prior to the monsoon in this part of the country, we decided to visit the Kaas plateau in July 2012. I was accompanied by my friends Nilesh Mane and Ashish Jadhav, as well as Vishal Deshpande from Satara, who has been studying spiders of the Kaas plateau. The monsoon had set in and had transformed the barren plateau into a lush green haven, in which we began our search. Lifting boulders and then carefully replacing them, to search for the spiders that had taken refuge from the continuous biting wind and rain, we came across several other occupants, including colourful crabs, scorpions of the genus Heterometrus and wolf spiders. Descending from the plateau into a shallow valley clothed by dense evergreen forest, we focussed our search along streams with mud embankments, where trapdoor spiders usually construct their burrows. Walking along the stream in companionable silence, peeking under rocks, leaf litter and other likely micro-habitats for the spider, we saw several bush frogs and even a tarantula of the genus Heterophrictus, but had no luck with the spider we were searching.
Then we turned our attention to the adjacent plateau across the stream. Almost instantly, I heard Nilesh call out to say he had spotted an unusual spider under one of the boulders at the very edge of the forest. It looked different right away and was surely a mygalomorph, but a closer examination revealed that it was a male trapdoor spider of the genus Idiops. But was it the male of the species Varun had found? The only way to confirm this was to find females from the same habitat. After some effort, we found another three males. This was interesting as these trapdoor spiders usually leave their burrow only when they are ready to mate – a clear indicator that this was indeed the breeding season. But two hours later, we still could not find any females.
We moved on to the Thoseghar area, to try our luck there. On the way, we stopped to take a few images of the landscape and the mud embankment along the road looked promising for trapdoor spiders. Digging with a spade, I managed to locate one burrow, but it was empty.
Photograph by Zeeshan Mirza.
At last, Ashish unearthed two burrows, one of which was occupied by a female. Much to our delight, she belonged to the same species as the one found by Varun! Not only this, we were able to compare the female with the males we had found, and confirmed that they all belonged to the same species.
Back in Mumbai, our job was to compare our findings with all known species – a daunting task at the end of which we concluded that the species was a new discovery altogether! Varun, Rajesh and I submitted a paper describing the new species and it was published in December 2012 in the Spanish journal Revista Ibérica de Aracnología. The species has been named Idiops kaasensis after the Kaas plateau and we hope it will help highlight the importance of this unique habitat.
The importance of Kaas
I first visited the Kaas plateau in 2007 to photograph the exquisite diversity of flowering plants for which the place is well-known. Little did I know that the faunal diversity of this region and the uniqueness of this ecosystem were equally awe-inspiring. The plateau experiences extreme climatic conditions, from harsh scorching summers with no vegetation cover, to heavy rainfall during the monsoons and chilly winters. The plateau is waterlogged during the monsoons, but there are very few traces of freshwater on the plateau's surface, except for a couple of perennial streams in the valleys between adjoining plateaux. Since then, I have visited Kaas at least once a year, especially during the rains, which is an ideal time to study herpetofauna.
At Thoseghar, where we found the female trapdoor spider, we also found the recently-described ground dwelling gecko Hemidactylus sataraensis. In spite of being described almost four years ago, the male of this species remained unknown and very little information was available on the distribution and natural history of this species. In an hour we found about five individuals and of these, two were males – exciting news indeed! We have now submitted a thorough description of the males along with details of their natural history to a herpetology journal. A review of existing records of the distribution of this species reveals that it occurs in less than eight square kilometres on these plateaux. The gecko is only active from early summer to late monsoon, taking refuge under large boulders during the day and foraging during the night. Their numbers begin to dwindle as the monsoon draws to a close, and they disappear entirely during winter. Unfortunately, boulders from the plateau are being used to make check dams on streams, which takes away the only shelter for this species of gecko. This will undoubtedly lead to greater competition within the species and increased predation, adversely affecting a population that is already limited in distribution.
Photograph by Zeeshan Mirza.
In addition to this, other poorly-studied species like the caecilian Indotyphlus maharashtraensis, snakes like the olive forest snake as well as the lesser stripe-necked snake Liopeltis calamaria (also called the Calamaria reed snake), are also found here along with many others that probably still await discovery. These plateaux are like islands for such species, which have adapted to life in such harsh conditions.
The declaration of the Kaas plateau as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO was a step in the right direction but, unfortunately, with the designation came a dramatic rise in tourism. For most visitors, the plateau is nothing more than a picnic-spot and many floral species have been destroyed or trampled by ignorant tourists. In order to regulate this, the Forest Department has fenced the plateau – an action which not only keeps tourists away, but unfortunately limits the movement of larger mammals in the region. Additionally, hotels and houses have sprung up in the vicinity of the plateau. The tableland in Mahabaleshwar was once a wild flower land, not unlike Kaas, and the impacts of tourism on such a landscape are clearly evident there. Kaas and other surrounding plateaux need immediate attention and proper management in order to conserve the wealth of biodiversity it supports, which we have only just begun to document, as in the case of our newest trapdoor spider.
Photograph by Zeeshan Mirza.
Author: Zeeshan Mirza, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013.