Have you ever thought about the animals living under boulders? How do they respond if you remove them, and alter their habitats?
We set out to answer this question with the threatened, and endemic rock-dwelling animals in the rock outcrops of northern Western Ghats in India. Rock outcrops, or lateritic plateaus known as ‘Sadas’ in the Konkan are unique in their ecological and cultural roles.
They are traditionally converted to paddy fields, which are mostly abandoned nowadays due to poor income and unpredictable weather. On the other hand, they are rapidly being converted to mango orchards, fetching higher prices in the market.
But what happens to the animals in these unique habitats, when the land-use changes? We focused on an endemic gecko, a caecilian and the widespread snake - Saw-scaled viper.
By studying 38 different animal groups that are living under the boulders (loose rocks) in these habitats, we found that removal of large rocks and microhabitat alteration has resulted in changing the animal communities in outcrops, abandoned paddy and orchards.
While the endemic caecilian has benefited from the paddy abandonment with the rock and soil addition on plateaus, multiple other taxa including the gecko and snake are negatively impacted by the land-use change to paddy and orchards.
We highlight the importance of understanding the context-specific responses of animals. Despite being adapted to persist in extremely variable climates, multiple species/ groups are vulnerable to land-use changes!
Since open ecosystems such as the rock outcrops, are classified as ‘wastelands’ in the policy documents, urgent attention is needed in their conservation, which provide critical livelihood resources and ecosystem services for people.
Future studies need to systematically document the impacts of agricultural land-use change on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in open ecosystems and identify thresholds that may facilitate the coexistence of humans and biodiversity.
We thank the On the Edge Conservation (UK) , The Bombay Environmental Action Group, The Habitat Trust (India), Nature Conservation Foundation, and Maharashtra Forest Department supporting our research work. We are grateful to many individuals who supported this study. Detailed acknowledgements are in the original paper. See: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2023.e02582
Jithin, V., Manali, R, Watve, A., Giri, V., & Naniwadekar, R. (2023). Between a rock and a hard place: Comparing rock-dwelling animal prevalence across abandoned paddy, orchards, and rock outcrops in a biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and Conservation 46, e02582.
A twitter thread here: https://twitter.com/Jithin_Vija/status/1682657357011234816