THE DRAGONS OF HUNAS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). The Dragons of Hunas. LMD. September 2002. Page 150. Volume 9, Issue 2. ISSN 1391-135x.
Time for Sri Lanka to think big and promote itself as a leading adventure destination in Asia.
Birder & Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes in search of ancient winged hunters.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, during the carboniferous era, a particularly potent predator began to take shape. It hunted underwater and in the air. But not in both states of matter at the same time. The hunter was born underwater and was endowed with a relatively enormous pair of ‘palps’ or appendages on its face, using which it would seize its prey. It would capture prey, many times its own body size. It was one of the most fearsome predators on the stream bed. As it grew into adulthood, it literally took wing. Nature endowed it with not one, but two pairs of wings. It could swoop, veer and maneuver like an advanced fighter plane. It could even hover like a helicopter. It had an enormous pair of eyes, actually thousands of eyes on two optical hemispheres. A moving target registered in each of these cells allowing it to track and hunt down its prey with precision. The mechanisms of this optical system is the subject of study for modern military designers.
The aerial design was so good, that nature has kept it unchanged for millions of years. The perfect predators’s design is etched on fossil limestones dating to the Carboniferous era. On a cool and clear morning, on the periphery of the Knuckles Range, I set out in search of these aerial hunters. My route took me up an estate road of the Hunnasgiriya State Plantation, above the Hunas Falls Hotel. I paused beside a stream that murmured and bubbled as it flowed over a bed of rock. The stream flowed along what I suspected was a fault line. A scar of the earth’s turbulent and violent geological history. From the distance, the granite like rocky stream bed, looked like a giant children’s play area slide, snaking down the mountain. Up close, the patana grass and herbage softened the edges and covered the scars of geological trauma.
I peered into the stream, through the surface which rippled, glistened and shimmered. A Banded Mountain Loach, a fish, furtively slipped though a cluster of rocks. An unidentified frog looked curiously at me from the edge of another rock. I wondered whether this species has yet been described by science. A soft plop and it dived into the water, fear had overcome its curiosity.
Suddenly a Chaser, one of the ancient aerial hunters I was pursuing, arrived. Its legs dangled, forming a basket with which it would seize its prey. This time it was looking for more than prey. A female hovered into view. She was coloured differently from the male, a phenomenon known as sexual dimorphism. A trait common in dragonflies and seen in many other species of animals. The males buzzed around the female in an extremely short courtship and then seized the female in what is known as the ‘wheel’ position. The mating pair flew briefly, and then settled on a leaf. They took to the wing again, still joined in a reproductive embrace. The male’s genes were passed on. The race to seed a new generation of Chasers had just begun. It had to carry this particular dominant male’s genes, he would see to it. Dragonflies are often overlooked, by many people, especially us Sri Lankans, who know little about the ecology of these fascinating animals. 117 species have been recorded in Sri Lanka with 52 endemic. This is quite a staggering number of species, all the more exciting with nearly half of them endemic. Plans for a National Dragonfly project are on the cards with the University of Colombo and the Jetwing Research Initiative. Perhaps a few more species, will be discovered.
The female Chaser was now ready to ‘oviposit’ or lay her eggs. Her eggs had been fertilized by the male and she literally cast them to their fate. She flew over the water and repeatedly jerked her abdomen, sometimes rapidly dipping below the surface. The eggs were cast adrift to hatch larvae, which would in time terrorise the underwater world. So fearsome are they, they will even eat each other up, in a cannibalistic race to take wing.
The male Chaser hovered a few body lengths away from the egg laying female. He was engaged in ‘mate guarding’ to ensure no other male would mate with her. His concern is short lived, only until the eggs are laid. There is no long term bond of passion. But during this short interval, it is critical that he fends off any rival males. Dragonflies have evolved an ability for a subsequent, competing male to render the sperm from a previous mating void. Having seen his genes safely passed on, the male Chaser veered away. The female banked and turned and sped in another direction. The circle of life had been completed and another turn of the wheel will be borne by a new generation.
A team of tea pluckers came by and paused and wondered what had arrested the attention of this stranger. They smiled and moved on, wondering why city folks would spend so much time peering at rocks in a mountainside stream. Everyday, complex natural dramas are enacted in our countryside. Dramas which have been played out over millions of years. We have a responsibility to educate our children and to protect what remains of a precious natural heritage. Ahead of me Amila Salgado and Dithya Angamana were on the nature trail, together with Ann Brooks, searching for the extremely shy Sri Lanka Spurfowl. I left my ancient hunters to join the search.
The writer manages a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.