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Jetwing Eco Holidays

Jetwing House
46/26 Navam Mawatha
Colombo 2
Sri Lanka.

Phone :
94 11 238 1201 or 94-11-234 5700 (Ext) 559, 561 or 593
Fax :
94 11 462 7743

Our usual office hours are from Monday to Friday from 9am to 5 pm. We do access emails intermittently outside these hours. We are at GMT plus 5 hrs 30 mins.

 

Mountain Mouse-deer photographed in Horton Plains National Park - March 2008

One of Sri Lanka’s least known mammals, the mouse-deer found in the highlands of Sri Lanka has been photographed in the wild. This may well be the only occasion in which it has been photographed to a ‘publishable standard’ under truly wild conditions. 

  
One of Sri Lanka’s least known mammals, the mouse-deer found in the highlands of Sri Lanka has been photographed in the wild. This may well be the only occasion in which it has been photographed to a ‘publishable standard’ under truly wild conditions.

For many years it was believed that Sri Lanka had one species of Mouse-deer, which was shared with Southern India. Colin Groves a British Taxonomist in June 2005 published a paper in a special supplement (No 12) of The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology whereby he distinguished three species of Mouse-deer from Sri Lanka and India. The Indian Mouse-deer (Moschiola indica) was split as a new species and is now considered endemic to the Eastern Ghats of India. The mouse-deer found in Sri Lanka was split into two new species. The White-spotted Mouse-deer found (Moshiola meeminna) in the dry zone of Sri Lanka and the Yellow-striped Mouse-deer (Moschiola kathygre) found in the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Both species are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently this raises the number of endemic mammals found in Sri Lanka to eighteen species. 


 

Colin Groves in his paper on mouse-deer from India and Sri Lanka also stated that  ‘a single skull from Sri Lanka’s Hill Zone may prove to represent a fourth species’. The ‘Mountain Mouse-deer’ is evidently a very scarce animal. Many of the field staff of Horton Plains National Park had not seen one although they regularly encounter other nocturnal mammals including leopard.

 

A Mountain Mouse-deer was seen under quite dramatic circumstances on Monday 25th February 2008 by wildlife populariser Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Nadeera Weerasinghe the naturalist of St Andrews Hotel. They had agreed with the park warden Mr Y.G.P. Karunarathne to spend a few hours on an informal training session on butterflies and dragonflies for the staff manning the Pattipola Gate to the Horton Plains National Park. They were engaged in identifying some of the dragonflies at the pond besides the ticket office when an animal came running and jumped into the pond and swam towards them. It was the hardly ever seen Mountain Mouse-deer!

 

"I could not believe it" says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. "Just two days ago I had sat for dinner with Mr Karunarathna and Mr Indika Galpatha, the wardens of Horton Plains National Park and Galways Land National Park. We were at Nature Camp 2008, a nature photography workshop organised by the Institute of Professional Photographers of Sri Lanka in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The conversation turned to the Mountain Mouse-deer. Indika and I ruefully admitted we had never seen one. Mr Karunarathna had had a glimpse of one and we were terribly envious. I did not think I would ever in my life-time see a wild one. And here it was, swimming towards me. I was standing there holding a camera with a 100mm macro lens which is great for close ups of butterflies, but rather useless for photographing a small mammal at even a moderate distance. I ran back to the car as fast as I could in feverish haste swapped it with a more powerful 100-400mm lens. Much to our astonishment the Mouse-deer settled down in the water and 'cold stared' its hunter. Some silent and wild gesticulations on my part then ensued, with puzzled looks from  everyone else. All those years of playing charades paid off as Nadeera realised what was on my mind. He then raced up and down bringing my heavy tripod and 600m lens which was as probably as heavy as he was. I got the shots".

 

The mouse-deer was being pursued by a Brown Mongoose, about a third of its size in height. The mouse-deer swam back to the far shore and faced off with the Mongoose. The Mongoose did not enter the water but at times approached within five to six feet of the mouse-deer which responded by flaring its throat and showing the white on its throat. After fifteen minutes the mongoose seemed to tire of the chase and left. The Mouse-deer left but returned soon with the mongoose in pursuit and once again dived into the pond. The mouse-deer seemed at ease in the water and even seemed to be adapted for an occasional bout of underwater swimming.

 

"I have never come across in the literature a reference to our mouse-deer being adapted for an aquatic existence" says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. "I suspect they probably are. For example mouse-deer is reported regularly by people who have houses around Bolgoda Lake. Is this a co-incidence or are mouse-deer mammals comfortable in an aquatic environment? The Water Chevrotain (Hyemoschus aquaticus) found in Africa is in the same family Tragulidae as our mouse-deer species. It is known to be comfortable in the water and to swim underwater for short periods. I remember reading about this when I was researching for Sri Lankan Wildlife published by Bradt Travel Guides. The Mountain Mouse-deer I was photographing was to my astonishment clearly, deliberately swimming underwater! This may be a family trait of the Tragulids, which are in a different family from the other species of deer found in Sri Lanka (in the family Cervidae). In Sri Lanka we could have ten thousand researchers studying our wildlife and they will not even scratch the surface of what is there to be discovered in our wet zone which is biologically little explored. I have been very fortunate to have benefited from the company of foreign researchers who have studied our wildlife and became more attuned to some of our smaller, scarce nocturnal mammals as a result of that. I am great believer that sometimes it takes an outside pair of eyes to make us see the wealth we have. Photographers in particular must embrace the work of local and foreign researchers and that of other photographers, to explore our wet zone with fresh eyes".

 

Forty five minutes later the hunter and the hunted left and Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Nadeera Weerasinghe informed the park warden Mr Y.G.P. Karunarathne. Around 5 pm the mouse-deer was seen again by the park warden and his staff. Around 6pm, offering no resistance, it was taken in for safe custody. It had a small gash near the ear and was in an exhausted state.

 

Given the significance of the live specimen, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne after consultation with the park warden informed several scientists of the mouse-deer being temporarily held captive. On Wednesday 27th February 2008, two scientists traveled up with Nadeera Weerasinghe to take measurements and to take a blood sample for analysis.  Dr Tharaka Prasad the Deputy Director (Veterinary) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando who has worked on conservation genetics of elephants and other mammals (www.ccrsl.org), examined the mouse-deer which was released back into the wild later that day. The mouse-deer was found to be a pregnant female and measured 56 cm in length. This places it at the upper end of all specimens of mouse-deer which have been measured.

 

The newly split wet zone species is bigger than the species in the dry zone.  It is too early to establish whether the Mountain Mouse-deer is a separate species or a sub-species of the wet zone Yellow-striped Mouse-deer. It may even transpire that it has no distinct differences from the form found in the wet lowlands. More work may need to be done to resolve the taxonomic questions by examining DNA from other specimens from the wet and dry zones. Ideally more measurements should also be taken in the field through a small mammal trapping survey in the field. A series of images of the Mountain Mouse-deer are on www.jetwingeco.com. Free downloads are also available on this website of publications on dragonflies and butterflies.

 

The total number of mammals endemic to Sri Lanka now stands at eighteen species. In December 2007, a new, endemic species of shrew Crocidura hikmiya, was described by a group of researchers from University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka and Boston University, USA. The new shrew is presently only known from mid montane and lowland rainforests of Sinharaja. This shrew had previously been identified as Ceylon Long-tailed Shrew (Crocidura miya). The researchers Suyama Meegaskumbura, Madhava Meegaskumbura, Rohan Pethiyagoda, Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi and Christopher J. Schneider published their findings in Zootaxa on 19th December 2007. The paper was titled ‘Crocidura hikmiya, a new shrew (Mammalia: Soricomorpha: Soricidae) from Sri Lanka.

 
It is likely that as more time is spent on bio-diversity exploration and sophisticated techniques are employed more cryptic species of mammals may be discovered.  Local researchers and wildlife enthusiasts are also benefiting from further insights into species which are familiar but about whom little have been published. A case in point are Sri Lankan primates about whose ecology more awareness has been raised thanks to the interest of overseas nationals. Observational studies, even if conducted on public land by visitors, can lead to many insights. It can also stimulate local researchers into undertaking and publishing their own studies. It also opens possibilities for collaboration so that know how and funds can be shared for studies on mammals.  Especially with taxonomic work, collaboration with foreign researchers plays an important part in meeting the requirement to examine type specimens lodged in overseas collections.