THE DRAGONS OF KOTTE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). The Dragons of Kotte. Living. July-August 2007. Pages 36-37. Volume 02, Issue 06. ISSN 1800-0746.
Exploring the lively wetlands in the vicinity of the parliament.
A large splash of blue came zig zagging through the darkness. It deftly wove its way around the gnarled trunks of trees weathered with constant exposure to water and sun. Creepers were draped like curtains around trees, shutting out the light to cerate a murky and dark underworld. Spiders had erected their own curtains. These were curtains of death to any small animal careless enough to fly into them. A tree frog croaked, hidden from view, probably from a crevice on a fallen trunk. One could imagine trolls and goblins in this strange little water world where light was un-welcome.
Barely within earshot, less than a kilometer away, a few cars motored down the straight road besides the Diywanna Oya leading to the parliament. I was across the road in a different world which was barely a hundred meters in width. But this ribbon of old marshland was a secret world which is seen by few. To explore it I had arrived with Karen Conniff who has been studying the dragonflies of Sri Lanka together with Matjaz Bedjanic who lives in Slovenia. The two of them had been collaborating with me to popularise a small brightly coloured group of hunters. These winged hunters evolved a design so efficient that their basic design has remained un-changed for millions of years.
The Kotte Marshes have been drained, filled in, polluted and tortured and punished in so many ways that it is amazing that the life has not been squeezed out of it entirely. On the contrary it remains an incredible rich area of wetland with a profusion of species. As long as one avoids the paths leading towards the parliament, one can easily access it from the Sri Lanka Nipppon Mawatha and park in the open areas popular with the cricket playing public next to the Football Training Center.
Our quest on this quiet April long week-end was to locate a Gynacantha. To the less technically minded, this is a nondescript dragonfly known as an Indian Duskhawker (Gynacantha dravida). As the names suggests, this hunter prefers to do its hunting when dusk has fallen. It can also be seen active during the day in shaded wetlands. Karen knew an area of open water under the shaded gloom where the Duskhawker would hunt. So shod with gumboots, we squelched through the mud and rotting leaf litter towards the pond.
The Blue Mormon is one of the two largest butterflies in Sri Lanka. The other is the Common Birdwing. It flew past us without pause, a colourful metaphor of life’s resilience to humankinds destruction and poisoning of the environment. The Foggy-winged Twister is another hunter fond of the gloom. They are often active at dusk. In this thin strip of gloomy water-world, they were active during the heat of the day. The males have a bluish mist coloured area on their hind-wing which contrasts with a black patch. It is this which has given it the name ‘Foggy-winged’. The Twisters zipped around, twisting and turning. One had not twisted and turned fast enough or perhaps it had been too pre-occupied with its hunt for prey. A large dark silhouette caught our eyes moving across the gaps in the canopy which opened to the sky. A Rapacious Flangetail settled on a perch with its victim, a female Foggy-winged Twister. It began to dismember the head of the victim which was still alive. The hunter had become hunted. The Flangetail used its multi-faceted eyes to keep track of any movement. If it was not careful, it too could become prey for another aerial hunter. The arithmetic of life is brutal and relentless. The web of life is a pyramid of hunters who are hunted.
A flash of blue en-livened the gloom again. This time the flash was smaller but much more brilliant. It came from a small blue butterfly, a Dark Cerulean. It settled down on a leaf and characteristically began to rub its wings. Occasionally a glimpse of the brilliant blue upper-parts could be seen. The colours of butterflies are a combination of pigment and iridescence. The shiny mettallic colours are usually the effects of iridescence, brought out by diffracting light using scales which are microscopic diffraction gratings. A good example of nano-technology in the natural world.
A dragonfly with a bright red abdomen shaped like a thin pencil rocketed past. This was a Pruinosed Bloodtail. The males often perch prominently in view whereas the nondescript females are shyer. Different Bloodtails guarded different sections along the path. Each maintaining a territory into which they would a hope a female would stray into. A Common Crow butterfly flew overhead using a more pro-active strategy. From the end of its abdomen it had everted what are described as hair pencils. It actually looks like the butterfly is dangling the ends of two circular floor mops. The Common Crow was not leaving its chances to fate for a female to happen to come by. It was actively advertising its presence and readiness to mate. Before mating, butterflies in the family Danaidae dip their hair pencils into a pocket on the hind-wing. This pocket has special cells called androconiae. Within the pockets, a special enzyme manufactures a pheromone called Danidone from the pyrrolizidine alkaloids the butterfly ingests from its food plants. The pyrrolizidine alkaloids passed on by a male helps protect both the female and its offspring from predatory animals. A crow or tiger butterfly well endowed with this pheromone signals its superiority as a mate.
A tinkling noise emanated from my pocket. It was my phone reminder to be on time for lunch at the auspicious time or face the wrath of my mother in law. I will have to come back another day for the Gynacantha.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a corporate personality who is also a writer and photographer who popularises wildlife. . E-mail him at email@example.com to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.