The surprising ecological history of Chennai

Studies of the present ecology show that Chennai's past could have been dominated by palmyra trees and thickets.

According to legend, King Solomon had a brief encounter with a “valley of ants” and his admiration for them led him to value all life forms. The resilience of ants is seen in the way they quickly adapt to changing conditions of the environment and their ability to colonise new habitats. It is further evident in the fact that there is practically no habitat, including the most developed cities, where there are no ants.

Little is known about the diversity of ants in Chennai and there is a dearth of scientific studies on this. However, from what little is known, there appears to be a unique assemblage of ants in Chennai and its neighborhood.

Over two decades ago, a single individual of an ant species in the genus Amblypone was collected from a field near Sriperumbudur. Amblypone is a genus of primitive burrowing ants that was earlier known only from the Australian region and in India, locally from the Western Ghats. Although the collection of Amblypone from near Chennai is an important scientific discovery, owing to the lack of follow up research, the significance of the discovery was soon lost. Chances of finding the ant again are bleak as built-up spaces may have destroyed its fragile habitat. Similar to the Amblypone ant, there are many species of plants and animals precariously surviving in small habitat fragments within the rapidly growing city and its suburbs.

The ant species Myrmicaria brunnea. Photo courtesy the Care Earth Trust.

Studies by Care Earth Trust have identified nearly 40 species of grasses and sedges in a suburban wetland. These species of grasses may be found locally throughout Chennai. Ecologically, grasses are excellent soil binders, help in recharging groundwater and are fodder to grazing animals, including the Spotted Deer. Some of the genera of grasses found here such as Paspalum spp. (common), Panicum spp. and Echinochloa spp. are wild relatives of minor millets and can contribute to biotechnology research. Others like Aristida spp. belong to the common ‘broom grass’ species. Cynodon dactylon is the popular ‘Arugam pul’, which is a medicinal and considered sacred and also a very good substitute for exotic grasses used in making lawns.

The ecological history of Chennai

A proper understanding of the ecological history of an urban landscape is critical to limiting development to its carrying capacity. Attempts to trace the ecological history of Chennai begin with the question “what was Chennai’s landscape like in the past?” Answering this question enters the realm of speculation based on the biodiversity that has persisted in the city. The biodiversity of Chennai points to the fact that the city evolved from two cultural landscapes – Neithal and Paalai (ecosystems as classified in Sangam or classical Tamil literature)  representing the coast and associated coastal wetlands; and human-impacted degradation of one or more of the other cultural landscapes respectively.

Grass species Saccharum spontaneum, also known as wild sugarcane. Photo courtesy the Care Earth Trust.

Paalai is characterized by scattered secondary vegetation, often in the form of dense thickets, dominated by woody plants that bear latex, some of which are adorned with thorns. The cactus-like Euphorbia antiquorum also belongs to this vegetation type. A plant that dominated both the Neithal and Paalai cultural landscapes is the Palmyra palm, a keystone species and the State tree of Tamil Nadu.

As a result, the reconstructed historical landscape of Chennai will be one with a domination of Palmyra and Phoenix palms interspersed with thickets. The intervening spaces would have been covered with a mixture of grasses and short herbs; a condition that allowed surface water flows to move freely without flooding. Trees were sparse and local and most likely the Banyan, if present.

The loss of palmyra trees to drought and the ban on toddy tapping led to the men in Tharuvaikulam venturing into the sea to make a living.
The ecological history of Chennai points to an abundance of the Palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer. Photo by Kevin Samuel.

In fact, the present ‘green’ vegetation of Chennai, dominated by trees locally, is the result of enrichment in the recent past of approximately 50 years. Examples of such enriched vegetation include the campuses of Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M), the Guindy National Park, the Madras Christian College, the Theosophical Society and the Adyar Poonga.

The speculation that Chennai’s landscape was dominated by the Palmyra palm in the past is supported by the persistence of animals like the Blackbuck, fan-throated lizard, saw-scaled viper and a handful of birds including the laughing dove and the Indian stone curlew. These animals, best adapted to life in semi-desert-like habitats, are now surviving within small fragments of suitable habitats inside Chennai.

Spotted deer in Chennai. Photo courtesy The Care Earth Trust.

There are two possible exceptions to this. First, Chennai’s coast was locally dominated by mangrove and associated species of plants. It is generally accepted by plant ecologists that Mylapore and Nungambakkam sustained dense growth of mangroves till about a 100 years ago. Similarly, it is believed that the famous Luz Church, locally known as ‘Kaattu Kovil’ got its Tamil name after the dense mangroves that surrounded it.

Second, according to the Late Prof. T. N. Ananthakrishnan there were dracos (flying lizards) in the hills of Pallavaram till the late 1940s, making it likely that the hills sustained dense and tall vegetation in the past.

Tree planting as ‘green development’

One of the most commonly adapted, yet dangerous forms of green development is to plant trees as a step towards ‘green development’. Landscapes vary locally in the tree-biomass they support and some, such as Chennai, tend to be naturally low in tree-biomass. A cursory glance at some area names in Chennai – Purasawalkam, Pulianthoppu, Perambur, Mandaveli – all named after plants illustrates that these were localities that stood out due to their vegetation. In other words, the uniqueness of the vegetation served as a distinct landmark.

The climbing dayflower Commelina diffusa. Photo courtesy the Care Earth Trust.

Over-burdening the landscape of Chennai with trees has had adverse consequences. The Blackbuck in the IIT-M was almost exterminated by the tree-burden of the campus. Excessive shading and the micro-habitats created by trees could have been responsible for the rapid spread of the Aedes mosquito. The uncontrolled spread of the invasive alien Prosopis juliflora has further increased the tree-burden of Chennai. Their relatively poor transpiration combined with their dense growth and resultant solid waste accumulation causes water stagnation for months after the rains.

Urban planning buffered by biodiversity

The many environmental problems of the city from solid waste management to flooding are the results of unsustainable development. Chennai must plan to buffer its growth with biodiversity, ensuring the preservation of the few fragments of natural habitats found within the urban limits. As storehouses of information, these habitats and the associated biodiversity tell us where urban planning has gone wrong.

Waterbirds at the Pallikaranai marsh. Photo courtesy the Care Earth Trust.

Natural habitats within the city’s limits should be declared as ‘nature monuments’ and carefully managed. The concept of ‘wastelands’ does not exist in nature and the practice of designating open spaces as wastelands needs to be stopped. Instead, these areas should be designated as nature utility spaces (NUS). NUS are not only habitats for biodiversity but they also play a major role in flood-mitigation in urban landscapes.

Chennai’s NUS should be carefully mapped and preserved. Although Chennai has lost many of these valuable habitats due to ill-planned development, there are still a few left within its urban limits. The Pallikarnai Marsh, a designated reserve forest, is probably the most important NUS. Close to the marsh is another important NUS – the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest. It is a refuge to many species of plants and animals that have been exterminated from other parts of the city.

The proposed system of setting aside NUS should include wetlands. Chennai’s wetlands have played a major role in sustaining aquatic biodiversity and in flood mitigation. Unfortunately, the last 30 years have witnessed the most drastic transformation of Chennai’s wetlands where many have suffered degradation due to solid waste disposal and others completely lost to infrastructure development.

A paradigm shift in the urban development of Chennai is needed where the voices of the city’s biodiversity are heard. With the Palmyra palm as the designated ‘flagship’, the future urban planning of the city should make space for the ants and the antelopes alike.

[This article was first published on Mongabay and has been republished with permission. The original can be found here.]


  1. T D Babu says:

    I am surprised to read this article which is highly distorted. Have the authors looked at the ecology of a few campuses ( the Guindy National Park, the Madras Christian College, the Theosophical Society and the Adyar Poonga) as Chennai’s Ecology? It is acceptable to say overplanting and natural invasion of certain exotic species (P.juliflora) in the grass lands of certain areas which had localised change in the biodiversity profile. This cannot be generalized for whole Chennai. Moreover Chennai has all the 5 landscapes referred in sangam literature ( Neithel – coast, Palai, Marutham- agricultral- plains/valleys, Mulai- forests and Kurinji- mountains and hills). Though authors have referred to Nanmangalam forests, Guindy National Park, which is a scrub forest with TDEF tree and shrub species, Pallavaram hills, they claim that city has evolved from two landscapes, Neithel and Palai! Palai is not a naturally occurring ecology, It just emerges during summer when other landscapes wither especially Mullai, Marutham and Kurnji. The Black buck (deer) referred in this article belongs to the landscape of Mullai and it is identified as the animal of that particular landscape by the sangam literature and not of palai. It is really shocking to know that the authors have referred to tree planting as a dangerous form of Green development and the city is overburdened with trees and also quoted that Excessive shading and micro habitat provided by the trees are responsible for the rapid spread of a particular species of mosquitoes, Aedes genus. Ultimately picturizing trees are the root cause for the spread of Aedes mosquitoes and indirectly the disease outbreak due to these mosquitoes.!!!!I really would like to know if there is any scientific back up for these statements. It would have been good if the authors had quantified the over overburden trees of chennai city. Hope GCC doesn’t consider these statements as licence to cut existing trees, as they have already cutting down a lot in the name of smart city programmes and widening of pavements and roads. Hope the health Department doesn’t recommend cutting trees as preventive and control measures for the diseases Aedes mosquitoes cause. The authors say that so called waste lands be named as NUS and go on saying Pallikaranai marsh is an important NUS. Do they mean Pallikaranai marsh has been currently declared as waste land? It is one of the wetland ecosystems that has been identified under National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme (NWCMP).
    The author also suggests to declare natural habitats as “natural Monuments”. I really doubt if the authors are aware of Biodeverstiy Act 2002 which includes declaring such habitats as Biodiversity Heritage Sites (BHS). They could have said there is a lapse in identifying such fragile and sensitive ecosystems and declare it as BHS to conserve. As Care Earth is a responsible partner of Greater Chennai Corporation in urban greening and planning, I feel the authors should be more careful of the statements made in their publications. The dwindling numbers of indigenous trees ( including shrubs and herbs) in general and Palmyra trees in particular is understandable, but this paper has failed overall to elaborate the major factor that had destroyed many precious ecosystems of Chennai.

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