RARE SPECIES

An AMU scientist discovers a rare cave-dwelling crab species in Meghalaya

Meghalaya boasts some of the world’s longest natural caves, which are treasure troves of information on climate and wildlife.

A young scientist has just discovered a new species of cave-dwelling crabs in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. It is the first ever species of a cave-dwelling crab to be discovered in India.

Nestled in the Himalayas, Meghalaya is known for the magical beauty of its rich forests and water bodies. It is one of India’s four biodiversity hotspots – in the whole world, there are 34 biodiversity hotspots.

Less known is the fact that Meghalaya also boasts some of the world’s longest natural caves and it is in once such cave that these tiny creatures were discovered by 29-year-old Parveen Farzana Absar. Absar is pursuing a Masters in wildlife sciences from Aligarh Muslim University, and was researching cave biology in the east-Jaintia hills at the time of the discovery.

The crab she found is albino, almost blind and lives in dark crevices of the caves with the adults reaching a tiny size of just 2 centimetres.

“These species have adapted to the dark environment of cave… So this crab is almost blind and without colour,” Absar said. She also noted that unlike other crabs, the thin and slender legs of the albino crab have hair on them.

An underside view of a female crab, note the hair on the legs. Photo credit: Parveen F Absar.
An underside view of a female crab, note the hair on the legs. Photo credit: Parveen F Absar.

Recounting the moment when Absar found the new species just 200 meters from the mouth of one of the longest caves in the country (the name and location of the cave are being kept confidential at the request of the scientist), she told thethirdpole.net, “After my routine exploration, when I was on my way out, I saw these small shiny things and I picked them up and saw that they were crabs. I found a male, a female and a baby crab. I think finding a male crab was really a big thing and I was very fortunate because chances of finding a male specimen are very low. In my 11 years of experience, I have never seen such crabs.”

The young scientist instantly knew that there was something special and different about the crabs and submitted the specimen to the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata, where scientists confirmed within days that it was indeed a new species that is now believed to be from the genus Teretamon. This is only the third species discovered so far under this genus – the first one was found in Myanmar and the second one was found in the Indian state of Mizoram but both previous species were either forest or freshwater species unlike this one that dwells in caves. The discovery is listed to be published in Zootaxa, the ultimate peer-reviewed science journal for taxonomy.

Absar, who has been asked to name the species, has thought of calling it Teretamon absarum based on her family name as a tribute to her parents.

The male of the species is slightly smaller, and this one has one claw missing. Photo credit: Parveen F Absar.
The male of the species is slightly smaller, and this one has one claw missing. Photo credit: Parveen F Absar.

Orus Ilyas, an assistant professor at Aligarh Muslim University in the wildlife sciences department, under who Absar is doing her dissertation, told thethirdpole.net that Absar was amongst the youngest discoverers of a new species, which is an honour for the state as well as the country. He added, “She didn’t have funding to carry out her research, yet out of her sheer interest in the cave ecosystem, she did it on her own.”

Hidden world of Meghalaya’s caves

Talking about the secretive, magical world of cave biodiversity, Absar said, “Fauna in caves is very small, peculiar and tough to explore.” These caves are just not about crabs. “There are fish, shrimp, spiders and millipedes as well but they are microscopic and transparent. Often they [millipedes] look like veins moving on rocks to the naked eye.”

Meghalaya has a dense network of over 1,600 caves. Many of them hold secrets of earth’s past, and may give us vital clues of the evolution of particular species, and may also hold other surprises in yet-undiscovered species.

Shardul Bajikar, the former director of Sanctuary Asia magazine who now runs his own magazine Adventure Sports and Beyond, told thethirdpole.net, “We explore different things like land ecosystems, marine ecosystems, high-altitude ecosystems and have reasonable information [about them], but this [the cave ecosystem] is one dimension of the earth which we have not explored especially in India.”

These caves can also be a storehouse of well-preserved records of climate change. Its limestone features can throw up a mine of information of past climatic events in chronological order.

Meghalaya’s network of caves sprawls over Jaintia, Khasi and Garo Hills districts and has nine of the 10 longest caves in the country, running up to 30 km in length. Exploring them is not an easy task. Given the tough terrain, labyrinths, streams and rivers, speleology is a physically demanding activity.

Bajikar, who is also organising a caving initiation expedition this year in Meghalaya, said, “Over the last decade, a few Indians [mostly from the Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association, and a few from Allied Petzl and the Indian Navy] and other foreign cavers have been organising expeditions to explore and document these hidden treasures of the vast and intricate cave systems of Meghalaya. As on date just over one thousand caves have been explored and mapped, yielding a total mapped cave passage of over 455 km. This initiation expedition is probably the first attempt to introduce caving as a technical discipline to a small select group of adventure lovers to increase our numbers.”

But threats loom large on these geological wonders and biodiversity-rich caves. Unrestricted development, limestone mining, rat-hole coal mining, exploitation by visitors, and the dumping of garbage are taking a toll of these caves. Continuing neglect of these caves can ruin these natural treasures, and the knowledge they hold, long before they are revealed to the world.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.