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Think you’ve seen a mermaid? This Sri Lankan scientist sets the record straight

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  • Sri Lankan herpetologist Ruchira Somaweera has launched a YouTube series where he aims to debunk myths about nature and wildlife that continue to hold sway in the Indian Ocean island.
  • From his home in Australia, Somaweera hosts virtual discussions with fellow scientists in Sri Lanka, each an expert in their respective field, to tackle the myths in easy-to-understand language.
  • He tells Mongabay he has long wanted to do something like this but was too busy for it, until the COVID-19 lockdown gave him the time and opportunity to finally get the project off the ground.
  • Among the most misunderstood groups of animals in Sri Lanka are snakes, many of which are falsely believed to be venomous or aggressive, and as a result are often killed on sight.

COLOMBO — Legend has it that a group of pygmy hominids known as Nittaewo — meaning “long clawed” in the local language — lived in Sri Lanka up until the 18th century. The last of them were cornered in a cave by the indigenous Veddah community, who blocked the entrance with logs and branches and set them on fire, killing all those trapped inside, so the story goes.

No bones or other artifacts have ever been found to prove the myth that the Nittaewo ever existed, and certainly not the cave of their last stand, which would hold a wealth of remains. But reports of Nittaewo sightings have persisted over the centuries, even today.

“Besides these legendary claims, there is no physical evidence to prove the existence of such humanoids in Sri Lanka at any given time,” Ruchira Somaweera says in the first episode of his YouTube video series Fiction to Facts, designed to discuss common myths and beliefs linked to nature and wildlife.

“All the recent claims of Nittaewo sightings are either misidentifications or figments of imagination. However, the discovery of the remains of Hobbit (Homo floresiensis) from a cave in the remote Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 make us keep an open mind on the matter.”

Somaweera is a Sri Lankan research scientist working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government agency.

Known as le mapilas, these cat snakes (Boiga forsteni) are said to hang from the roof of a house in a long chain and suck the blood out of the people sleeping inside. May rural Sri Lankans believe the snakes can pass the blood down the chain all the way to the seventh snake. Image courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera.

“Since childhood, the animal mysteries fascinated me and I always wanted to explore such myths and beliefs from a scientific angle,” he tells Mongabay. “Educating the society by busting myths through scientific reasoning is key to ensure public understanding of these issues. It helps fight unfounded fears, a key reason for harming animals, sometimes even killing harmless creatures such as non-venomous snakes.”

The YouTube series sees Somaweera host chats with leading Sri Lankan experts in their fields. Because he’s based in Perth, in Western Australia, he connects via a video-conferencing app on his mobile phone. The video production isn’t very sophisticated and has to be touched a bit, he says. He also plans to add English subtitles to the discussions, which are in the Sinhala language. But the goal remains the same: myth busting.

Ahatullas, or long-nosed whip snakes (Ahaetulla nasuta), are mildly venomous tree-dwellers. They’re said to hang from branches waiting to ambush people, striking at the face and gouging out the eyes. Image courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera.

Somaweera says doing this series was on his wish list for a long time, but kept being pushed back by field research and extensive travel.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and with it, lockdown. Like many other field researchers around the world whose work was interrupted, Somaweera was forced to stay at home. This finally gave him the opportunity to kick off his educational YouTube series.

“Besides helping me better connect with colleagues in Sri Lanka, the break gave all of us a chance to do meaningful work and spend more time to research, enriching the content of the programs,” Somaweera says.

During lockdown, Ruchira Somaweera connected with fellow scientists online to debunk popular myths, including the persistent claims of an ancient species of pygmy hominids still living in Sri Lanka’s forests. Image courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera.

The series starts off with a discussion of the Nittaewo, one of the most popular myths in Sri Lanka, featuring paleontologist Supun Jayaweera as the guest. Somaweera next interviewed Sampath Senevirathne, an ornithologist and senior lecturer at the University of Colombo, on myths and common beliefs about the birds in Sri Lanka. They discussed how the forest eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis) gained a reputation as the “devil bird” (or ulama in Sinhala), due to its uncannily human-like cry.

With marine biologist Nishan Perera, Somaweera discussed the popular myth of mermaids. Most of the reported sightings in Sri Lanka come from the island’s northwest. “This perfectly matches with the region where dugongs are commonly found,” Perera says during the discussion.

Anjana Silva, a herpetologist at Rajarata University, joined an episode to discuss the irrational fear of snakes, by far the most misunderstood group of animals in Sri Lanka. “The fear of snakes is universal, but some Sri Lankans have exaggerated beliefs,” Somaweera says.

For example, the trinket snake (Coelognathus helena), or katakaluwa, is widely considered highly venomous. Many people believe its venom can cause a dark discoloration of the entire body, including the saliva and urine. But the species is distinctly non-venomous: it’s a constrictor that feeds on rodents and other small mammals.

That hasn’t stopped fanciful myths from developing around the species, Somaweera says. “After biting a person, this snake is believed to climb a tree and watch to confirm the death of the victim,” he says, citing a prevalent myth.

The non-venomous trinket snake (Coelognathus helenus) is called katakaluwa or “dark mouthed,” and is widely considered highly venomous. Among the myths attached to it is that a person bitten by it experiences discoloration of the entire body, including saliva and urine. Image courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera.

Communicating science  

In addition to busting myths, Somaweera’s series serves as a platform to introduce young scientists to the wider public — and through them, to more effectively communicate science and facts.  “Being jargon-free is important,” Somaweera says, adding he takes extra precautions to simplify the science.

In the video about the Nittaewo and other hominids, for instance, he interrupted the discussion to explain the terms “type specimen” and “inbreeding,” which he felt might be too technical for a general audience. “As scientists, we use lot of jargon and do not take time to explain them to general public. We can still use them but also expand people’s understanding of popular science,” he says.

Ruchira Somaweera and his two children started a YouTube video series called Backyard Creatures to encourage children to explore their own home gardens for their biodiversity during the COVID-19 lockdown. Image courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera.

Somaweera also recruited his two children for another YouTube series during the COVID-19 lockdown, called Backyard Creatures, to show other cooped-up parents the exciting world of nature in their own home. “I received lot of positive remarks for this, specially from parents whose children stepped into the backyard in search of their creatures at the garden. My kids too are happy about it,” Somaweera says.

With lockdowns now easing in many places, Somaweera has begun resuming his work. But he’s still committed to doing what he started — spreading science and busting myths — so now he wakes up at around 4:30 a.m. to record his talks before going off to work.

“My colleagues in Sri Lanka have similar commitment and we do this for the love of science and our shared goal: taking science to the people through a well-received myth-busting series,” he says.

 

 

Banner image of a skink, known locally as hikanala, courtesy of Ruchira Somaweera. This lizard is falsely believed to be highly venomous; so much so that the prescribed treatment calls for mud from the ocean floor and stars from the sky — impossible to get, thus emphasizing that there’s no cure.