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Indian desert jird

Ambika Kamath | Updated on January 24, 2018

BLink_Jird Jugal Tiwari.jpg   -  Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

The furry brown mouse and its deep connection with the Mughals

The first time I saw an Indian desert jird, it was nothing more than a brown blur of motion against brown sand. Indeed, almost everything in this arid, heavily grazed, Kutch-in-the-summer landscape was brown, and I didn’t give the jird a second thought. But jirds are nothing if not persistent in grabbing your attention — whenever I returned, I couldn’t help but notice the little rodents scurrying busily across the sand, darting in and out of their burrows. I’ve never been enthusiastic about mice and their ilk, but inspired by both my jird-adoring field assistant and the animals themselves, I decided that these frantic balls of fur were worth watching.

And it paid off. We saw jirds search for and collect small branches of shrubs, nibbling furiously to dislodge and eat the seeds. We saw young jirds chase after each other in jest, while adults took their own chases more seriously. But mostly we saw jirds interacting with their burrows — poking their heads out of them to survey the landscape, retreating into them at the sound of approaching cattle, and digging away in the sand that invariably collapsed and closed off the entrances. But at the hottest times of the day, the jirds disappeared altogether.

These burrows into which the jirds disappeared are climate-controlled oases in the wildly variable expanse of the desert, and are thus attractive shelters to just about any animal that will fit inside them. Simply digging deep into the sand buffers the jirds, toads, lizards and the occasional hedgehog, protects them from heat and cold. Often, the deepest parts of a jird’s network of burrows are located under ber bushes, likely deriving structural support from the plants’ roots and maybe cooling down from the dew that drips off the leaves. But the ber’s tart berries must also attract birds and insects, expanding an already curious aggregation of animals. And since this group comprises tasty prey, it likely compels snakes and raptors to stop by at the jirds’ burrows off and on.

When the Mughals first reached the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, Babur was not impressed by the climate. “We suffered from three things in Hindustan,” he said, “one was the heat, another, the biting wind, and the third, the dust.” Not too different from what the jirds deal with, and the Mughals discovered that the human inhabitants of Hindustan’s Northwest had found a solution remarkably similar to the jirds’ burrow — the stepwell. Like the burrows, stepwells dig deep into the ground; like the extensive network of shallower burrows that surround the jird’s deepest burrow, the centres of the stepwells are surrounded by underground alcoves and rooms to escape the heat. And like the burrows, the stepwells could be used by almost anyone — villagers to travelling merchants to wandering mystics, and even the occasional dacoit. That the harshest of climes inspires similar innovations in both rodent and human is fantastic; that these innovations foster diversity and coexistence makes Rajput the architect and jirds worthy of admiration.

(Ambika Kamath studies organismic evolutionary biology at Harvard University.)

Published on September 12, 2014

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