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Introducing the Hanuman Plover: An ornithological treasure from Sri Lanka

22 December 2020 12:10 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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 Hanuman Plover1

 

  • With regard to this particular bird, we considered it as a sub-entity of the Kentish Plover. It is a widespread species in the Northern Hemisphere and is found in countries such as England, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan and Western China. In winter they fly to tropical countries and go back to countries of origin when the season ends
  • They live and breed on the ground and feed on small insects. Although people don’t catch them and eat, they have a threat from stray dogs in the area. They lay around 2-3 eggs and therefore have to guard their eggs until a chick comes out. Thereafter they stay with parents for about 3-4 weeks before they fly. Therefore they are vulnerable within this one and a half months period. The stray dogs prey on the eggs and chicks

 

The discovery of the ‘Hanuman Plover’ bird by a group of researchers in Sri Lanka comes as a ray of hope at a time when the country’s biodiversity is going through a rough patch. While introducing a new species to the world, the research also encourages the conservation of shorebirds and related island ecosystems across 
Rama’s Bridge.


“There are two ways of describing a new species,” opined Dr Sampath Seneviratne, Consultant Scientist – Molecular Biogeography, Evolution and Ornithology, Senior lecturer in Zoology at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo and principal investigator of the research.


“One is to go out into the wild and come across an animal that we haven’t seen before.


“The other is to study a known species with a substantial difference as a separate entity. With regard to this particular bird, we considered it as a sub-entity of the Kentish Plover. It is a widespread species in the Northern Hemisphere and is found in countries such as England, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan and Western China. In winter they fly to tropical countries and go back to countries of origin when the season ends.” 


Not a stranger 


But when it comes to this particular species, it is not a brand new species.


“What happened was all this while it was misunderstood as a subspecies of the Kentish Plover. However there are two populations of these species; one of them comes from Central Asia and spends the winter here, which we called the Kentish Plover. The other population stays in Sri Lanka all year round and they don’t migrate. This particular species is one that breeds in Sri Lanka.”


Taxonomy


Although the Latin name is yet to be finalized, the discovery was named ‘Hanuman Plover’. When asked why they chose this particular name, Dr Seneviratne said that it was named in honour of the cultural and historical significance in the area it was found. “According to Hindu mythology, Ravana captured Rama’s wife Sita and brought to Sri Lanka. Thereafter Rama launched a rescue mission and came to Sri Lanka. The Ramayana attributes the building of Rama’s bridge to the ape army of Hanuman, the loyal companion of Rama. It is also known as Ram Setu (Rama’s Bridge). The Rama’s Bridge, where we found the bird, has an abundance of biodiversity and a rich historical and ecological significance. Since the bird could be found in both sides of Rama’s bridge, we thought of naming it this way in honour of mythology between the two countries.”


In Sinhala, the bird is called ‘Hanuman Olaviya’ with Olaviya being a popular term used by people in coastal areas to identify small-sized shorebirds.

 

Female Hanuman Plover on nest


Identifying differences


Further explaining the characteristics and differences, he said that the Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) come from the family Charadidrae. C. a alexandrinus and a resident breeding subspecies to Sri Lanka and South-East India, C. a seebhomi are found in Sri Lanka. The research was therefore aimed at identifying the difference between C. a alexandrinus and C. a seebhomi including both morphological and genetic divergence. After detailed genomic research, it was revealed that seebhomi doesn’t maintain (or very limited) geneflow with alexandrinus and was therefore identified as a separate species according to the General Lineage Concept of Species (GLC). As such the researchers re-established the taxonomic position of C. a seebhomi to a complete
species stage.


Threats from predation and habitat destruction 


Dr Seneviratne further said that the bird is found between land and sea and that they are land birds.
“They live and breed on the ground and feed on small insects. Although people don’t catch them and eat, they have a threat from stray dogs in the area. They lay around 2-3 eggs and therefore have to guard their eggs until a chick comes out. Thereafter they stay with parents for about 3-4 weeks before they fly. Therefore they are vulnerable within this one and a half months period. The stray dogs prey on the eggs and chicks.” Habitat destruction is another challenge to the survival of not only this species but any wild animal. “They live in wetlands as well but once they are encroached, filled or fenced, houses will be put up and these houses will have dogs, cats and rats. So it works in a cycle and is, therefore, another threat to these birds,” he added. 


Although Sri Lanka has a rich biodiversity, there’s less space for animals and Dr Seneviratne says that as a result, animals struggle to eat, breed and live their lives.


“People encroach, either legally or illegally, put up houses and then move into hunting or chasing away the animals around them. Therefore animals get excluded from their habitats. Animals need specific conditions to live, for example, a specific size of trees, specific wetland conditions, specific fruits etc. When these conditions get altered, they can’t live there anymore.”


Dr Seneviratne was joined by Dr Yang Liu, Sun Yat-sen University, China as a scientist while supervising Jude Janitha Niroshan, a BSc. Zoology (Hons.) graduate. Dr Jagath Weerasena at Institute of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IBMBB) and Prof, Sarath Kotagama had contributed to this study as well. The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) of the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo is another main partner of this study. Dr Seneviratne extended gratitude to Palmyrah House, Mannar that provided the funding as well as field logistics for the research. The laboratory work and analysis is done at the Laboratory for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo.

 

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  Comments - 1

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  • Umar Perera Wednesday, 23 December 2020 03:46 PM

    Hooray. Now we have to make sure that it's allowed to thrive unlike our elephants, leopards, fishing cats, sparrows, migratory birds in Mannar, etc


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