Updated: Mar 10, 2021
1. Research Officer, WRCS
2. Science Communicator, EcoRe
Pune, Maharashtra, India
Wilderness is normally imagined as an area with dense green vegetation or a completely deserted landscape far from human inhabitance. The tendency to only think in black and white completely excludes the grayscale, which might just be as exciting and crucial for our survival. That’s exactly what the article brings into limelight, where the attempt is to paint a picture of something unheard by most people, appears to be mundane, but is a hidden treasure in reality!
Lichen on rocky outcrop: A defining feature
It was during the ’90s when two botanists, Susan Wiser and Peter White, observed the ‘rocky outcrops’ in the Southern Appalachian mountains and recognized them as unique habitats. The main reason for distinguishing them from barren rock lands was that the bedrocks were adorned with the algal siblings–the lichens! A land completely lithified by rock deposition that might appear barren to some has nature’s most treasured possessions. Apart from the numerous endemic species of plants and animals found on the rocky outcrops, the habitat also offers several ecosystem services to humans. But unfortunately, even today these structures do not get the status they deserve.
Rocky outcrops are one of the least researched ecosystems, and the secret wonders that belong to this habitat are yet to be unraveled by researchers across the globe. In fact, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), India has declared rocky outcrops as wastelands! Categorizing them as wastelands have resulted in the acquisition and conversion of the lands into wind farms or mining and infrastructure projects. Today only the part of rocky outcrop land that exists in the inaccessible or protected areas, remains undisturbed or conserved.
Rocky plateau - Panchgani tableland.
Cliff - Yana, South India
Typically, rocky outcrops are of three types; the inselbergs (dome-shaped granite structures), the rocky plateaus (lateritic or basaltic tablelands), and the cliffs (steep exposed vertical rock surfaces). However, the principal focus of this article shall be on rocky plateaus and how their existence is of high value. In India rocky plateaus primarily belong to an already known biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats. The plateaus are further classified into two types, ‘ferricretes’ and ‘basalt mesa’ based on the rock type and appearance. Ferricretes also called tablelands, are formed from the lateritic rock (a brick-red colored porous rock), are wide and flat, and their edges are marked by sharp cliffs. They are popularly called ‘Sada’ in Marathi. The basalt mesa also called ‘Katal’ in Marathi is formed from the basalt rock, and exists where the upper layers of laterite erode. So, if one relates the mesas with the Kanhari caves of Mumbai, the association would be absolutely apt! Rocky plateaus are often confused with grasslands. But the biodiversity adapted to the environmental conditions of rocky plateaus is far different. Very recently, i.e. in 2016, a new species of lizard, Sarada superba was described from the rocky plateau of Chalkewadi, Satara. Well suited for its name, this superb looking lizard species are currently known to inhabit only this landscape, and is found during the peak summers when the male looks stunning with the vibrant coloured fan throat that he uses to attract females. There are various species of bats, reptiles, and amphibians as well as endemic plants like the Konkan dipcadi (Dipcadi concanense) or Peela Gangotra (Cythocline lutea) that have specially evolved to accustom to soils having very low phosphate content and seasonal extremes of water availability.
Rocky plateaus are in fact beneficial even for us humans. The water drainage of rocky plateaus is such that they form underground channels and eventually give rise to natural perennial water springs. The phenomenon of mass blooming that occurs during the monsoon and turns into a paradise for pollinators also adds value to the ecosystem services. But considering the plateaus, as wastelands have led to several critical issues due to which the unique habitats are under immense threat. To begin with, they are used as grazing lands, and trampling which has resulted in the decline of endemic floral populations like Ceropegia and Flemingia species along with faunal populations like Ghate’s shrub frog (Raorchestes ghatei) and Amboli toad (Xanthophryne tigerina). Many-a-times, the lands are converted to agricultural fields or mine quarries. Even in the declared eco-sensitive zones like Panchgani Tableland, tourism activities like horse-riding and vehicle driving has destroyed the natural biodiversity of the area. Creation of pits allows the establishment of invasive plant species like Vaytura (Aponogeton satarensis), Sonki (Senecio bombayensis), and Blumea oxyodonta which literally invade the land and overtake the already existing endemic and threatened varieties that may ecologically be very important. A similar threat poses in the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site-- Kas.
Mass blooming on Kas Plateau.
With the degradation happening at a rapid rate, it has become a priority to conserve these habitats. Firstly, the bedrocks need to be designated as areas of high conservation, and the lands need to be restored to a condition where endemic biodiversity will sustain on its own. Another approach that is used often is to conserve a specific species of a particular area. Here the species of a plant or animal which is of prime importance to the entire food chain is usually conserved actively. The hope is that Environmental Impact Assessments will take place for these habitats, biodiversity will be assessed, and eventually, the landscapes will be conserved.
1. Deepak, V., Giri, V.B., Asif, M., Dutta, S.K., Vyas, R., Zambre, A.M., Bhosale, H. & Karanth, P. (2016a) Systematics and phylogeny of Sitana ( Reptilia : Agamidae ) of Peninsular India , with the description of one new genus and five new species. Contributions to Zoology, 85, 67–111.
2. Thorpe, C.J., Lewis, T.R., Kulkarni S., Watve, A., Gaitonde. N., Pryce, D., et al. (2018) Micro-habitat distribution drives patch quality for sub-tropical rocky plateau amphibians in the northern Western Ghats, India. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0194810.
3. Watve, A. (2013). Status review of Rocky plateaus in the northern Western Ghats and Konkan region of Maharashtra, India with recommendations for conservation and management. Journal of Threatened Taxa 5(5): 3935–3962; doi:10.11609/JoTT.o3372.3935-62