Hidden in plain sight
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On 10 December, about a month after the film Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them released in India, a group of three scientists found in India their own “fantastic beast”. Twitter user @curiocritters posted a news clipping tagging J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series; the Fantastic Beasts movie is based on a spin-off of the series. This was 30-year-old arachno-naturalist Javed Ahmed, lead researcher of the team that made the discovery. “We named a spider, after the sorting hat, from the films…Meet Eriovixia gryffindori,” he wrote.
The spider, muddy brown with a long, tapered top with a slight dip, exactly like the Sorting Hat, was found in the central Western Ghats in Karnataka. A day later, Rowling responded: “I’m truly honoured! Congratulations on discovering another #FantasticBeast!”
As the 7mm-long Sorting Hat Spider hung attractively in the mesh of popular culture and academia, two more recent discoveries from Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) turned the spotlight on creatures we have long mistaken for species they are not.
Hiding in plain sight was the Sikkim pika (O Sikimaria), a small mammal earlier thought to be a subset of the Moupin pika (O Tibethana); and birds we’ve been referring to as laughing thrushes and shortwings in the Western Ghats are actually distant cousins of birds that could be found in the Himalayas about 11 million years ago. While PhD scholar Nishma Dahal rediscovered a pika in her hometown of Sikkim, it was a group of researchers led by V.V. Robin (also affiliated to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Tirupati) that found the new songbirds Sholakili (Sholicola) and Chillapan (Montecincla) in the “sky islands”—cold, high-altitude forestlands—of the Western Ghats.
Dahal was led to the pika while studying global warming in and around India for more than five years. Despite rising global temperatures which put the pika’s natural habitats at risk, Asia remains a hot spot for the tiny, rat-like tailless mammal. “But our knowledge of Asian pikas is very poor,” says Dahal “There are many of them, and most are morphologically similar, which makes it hard to distinguish between them,” she adds.
While Dahal’s discovery has introduced a taxonomical variation in the Asian pika species, research by Robin and his team has recorded two new genera of birds. To understand the import of this: The last instance of a new bird genus being recorded in India goes back to the 1800s. “What’s fascinating about our discovery is the evolutionary process (of the birds). After reaching here from the Himalayas, (the birds) got isolated and started forming different species,” says Robin. “Much like what Darwin found in the finches of the Galagapos.”
The Western Ghats are a biodiversity hot spot. Having studied spiders here for close to two years now, Ahmed says that his team has discovered three new spider species in just the past year.
When Ahmed talks of these regions, he builds them up layer after leafy layer, as if describing a wondrous CGI film. “These forestlands have evergreen and semi-evergreen vegetation, and are surrounded by deciduous forests. (The combination) results in a unique micro-climatic condition which makes it extremely rich in biodiversity,” he says.
Researchers are still coming to terms with the extent of this region’s biodiversity. Robin says many new species are discovered here regularly and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. “Newer tools and technology, though, are enabling us to discover and describe (these findings) better,” he says.
He even writes that their “study highlights the benefits of long-term research”. For instance, among other things, it was Robin’s co-researcher and veteran birder C.K. Vishnudas’ year-long expedition in the southern tip of the Western Ghats in 2009 that culminated in the findings of this study. He had followed legendary birder Salim Ali’s 1933 trail with the aim of observing and understanding the evolution of the region’s avifauna over the years.
Dahal, too, lays emphasis on field observations. Spending close to a month in the Himalayas, lugging tents, trapping gear, study equipment and other supplies, she would trek to sampling sites that were three-day hikes away from the base. Often, it would prove to be a dead end—she would return with nothing. “I need to set up traps to catch the pika as I also need samples of a small bit of their tissue for genetic study…but they’re just so trap-shy,” Dahal says. “But I did come back having learnt much more about the habitat these tiny creatures live in.”
Despite the hardships of the field, the wonder and magic of these research trips is unmatchable. “Yes, sure, it can be a tad tiring sometimes,” says Ahmed. “But at the end of the day it’s like being on a treasure hunt. You never know what marvels of evolution you’ll come across.”