By Priya Ranganathan | Illustrations by Asmita Sapre Ranganathan
Decaying leaves crunched softly beneath my feet as I entered the dark swamp. The gentle hooting of a spotted owlet mingled with the whispering of the wind rustling the trees and the gurgling of the small stream. Chiiiirp…..chiiiiirp…..chiiiiiirp. I craned my neck to look for the source of that birdsong. Ah! A white-cheeked barbet sang blithely in the low branch of a nearby tree. And what a strange tree it was. I stepped over knee roots, taking care to place my foot exactly in the right place to not twist my ankle or harm the tree, and crouched by the raised root system of the swamp tree.
To the uninitiated, a Myristica tree could be mistaken for a mangrove due to its fascinating prop roots. This adaptation allows this tree to stay above the standing water that remains in a swamp all year, letting the tree breathe. Prop roots look a lot like a a very bushy broom, the kind my grandmother uses to sweep our family home. Myristica trees, just like their coastal cousins, the mangroves, have adapted to living in a flooded land.
The tree wasn’t very tall, but it was brimming with life. The barbet, of course, was still perched on it, its beady eyes observing me closely. I heard the creakity-croak of a frog – was it a dancing frog? These tiny frogs, placed by taxonomists under the genus Micrixalus, wave their hind legs to win mates during the monsoon. Standing in the swamp just before the advent of the rains, I wondered if a few excitable frogs would consider displaying this unique behaviour just for my satisfaction. But no, Mother Nature has a strict schedule, and the dancing frogs remained hidden from my sight.
I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of macaques. Lion-tailed macaques are often spotted in Myristica swamps. These shaggy, black monkeys are larger than our regular bonnet or rhesus macaques and sport a thick white mane around their wizened faces, just like the lion they are named for. The tail of this macaque is long and has a perky tuft at the end. Remember the tuft on the end of little Simba’s tail in The Lion King? Well, imagine a monkey with that same tail, and you’ll easily identify the lion-tailed macaque.
These macaques feed on the red fleshy seed covering of Myristica fatua seeds, as these coverings are highly nutritious. But isn’t that bad for the tree, you might ask? Well, when animals like the macaque eat the fleshy part of the Myristica seed, this triggers the seed to begin germinating, or sprouting, as we like to call it. The fleshy covering does not allow the seed to sprout, so once it is eaten, the seed is free to grow.
This is all part of the parent tree’s plan, you see. Macaques feed at many different Myristica swamps and leave behind seeds from different trees in new swamps through their poop. The poop acts as a fertilizer for the seed to sprout, and a new Myristica sapling will eventually grow, allowing the swamp to survive. Life finds a way, as they say!
A shadow blocks the already-weak light filtering through the towering trees. I gasp as the beating of strong wings stirs the leaves into a frenzy. A majestic bird swoops down to perch on a branch of the nearest Myristica tree, shaking out its colourful feathers before tucking them in carefully. A Great Hornbill! These black and yellow birds mostly feed on fruits and seeds and are the other important player in the dispersal of Myristica seeds. Just like the macaques, hornbills crack open the seeds and spit them out after eating the fleshy outer covering. The seed falls to the ground and germinates in the water, starting its new life.
Looking at the hornbill, I wonder if it knows that I, too, am here because of the Myristica trees. But now, when I return to the swamps, I will be going for another sight of the magnificent hornbill as well!
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’
About the Artist:
Asmita Sapre Ranganathan is a doctor, Sanskrit teacher, artist, poet, and writer from Mumbai currently based in the USA.